Zwilich understands the bassoon. Or rather, she understands the bassoonist’s way of life. “I not only don’t know how you play the bassoon, I don’t know why. You get up in the morning, you have to put this thing together. It’s got wood, which is very temperamental. It’s got cork, which is maybe even more temperamental. You’ve got to make the reed. It’s got all kinds of issues.” [New Music Box]. Hard same, friend, hard same. Still, for all that, Ellen Taaffe Zwilich (b 1939) has, in fact, written a bassoon concerto, a fact that I only discovered while researching the piece of hers that we’re actually featuring today*. (The bassoon concerto is a great piece — I listened to it for the first time while putting this post together — but I don’t feel that I know it well enough to write about today.)
While this quote is positively delightful, it’s by no means the end of delightful anecdotes about the composer’s life. She wasn’t born to a particularly musical family, but there was a piano in the house, and one day she clambered up onto the bench so she could see what happened when she pressed the keys. Her initial piano lessons did not go particularly well — her first teacher stopped giving her lessons after Zwilich complained that the things she made up herself were so much more interesting than the things the teacher assigned — but she took to music anyway, ultimately taking up the trumpet and violin as well. (She had quite a career on violin, spending several years in the American Symphony Orchestra starting very near its inception, but my understanding is that she has since tapered off her performing to focus exclusively on composition.) She earned a BA from Florida State University in 1960, and eventually, after several twists and turns, gained admittance to Juilliard in the early 70s.
It was there, under the guidance of Roger Sessions, that she feels she truly developed her own compositional voice, one that was influenced by the heady mix of styles she was exposed to, from all-day Sunday jam sessions on jazz trumpet to conservative chamber music studies on violin and much else beyond. While many composers in New York City were dividing themselves between “uptown” and “downtown” cliques, Zwilich payed little attention to such things, preferring to focus on writing music that people wanted to play, regardless of stylistic markers. When she graduated in 1975, she was the first woman to receive a DMA in composition, and would later (in 1983) become the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize in Music. (In the interview linked above, she describes having the Prize as “very nice”, but ultimately less significant to her than having impassioned performances of her works.) She would go on to found the “Making Music” series at Carnegie Hall, before moving back to Florida where she currently teaches at Florida State University.
Like many concerti, Zwilich's violin concerto (written in 1998 for Pamela Frank on a Commission from Carnegie Hall) opens with an orchestral introduction that paves the way for the solo instrument’s first entry. In this case, it’s a vaunt upwards into a discordant jumble that quickly gives way to a limber theme, the violin entering with a similarly searching line. The orchestral strings sneak back in under its rhapsodic singing with a mechanical, pizzicato figure, that seems to grow in menace as it progresses. An interlude for woodwinds over a slippery, sliding string background ensues, quickly building to the piece’s first climax, which serves to launch the music into a much faster tempo, the solo violin leading the orchestra in a virtuosic dance. Eventually, the music runs aground on several monolithic orchestral chords, but it soon comes unstuck and whirls ahead again. A cadenza ensues (or a cadenza-like passage. Some of the program notes I’ve read indicate that Zwilich describes this piece as without a cadenza, but I’m not sure how this passage doesn’t qualify.), which leads to a re-introduction of the limber theme from the opening. As the violin weaves shimmering arpeggios over the orchestral tapestry, the music climbs ever upwards in register, increasing in tension as it does so until blanching on a shimmering, stratospheric chord. A ruminative coda follows, one that ultimately settles into quiet tranquility.
In the second movement, Zwilich takes the celebrated D minor chaconne from Johann Sebastian Bach’s second partita for solo violin** as the basis for an ominous fantasia. Frigid, brittle chords open the movement, with the violin floating far above them, its continuous lyrical outpourings contrasting with their halting stutterings. A bassoon enters to provide a countermelody, leading to the lower strings joining the fray shortly thereafter. This spills, organically but noticeably, into considerably jazzier territory, the insistently repeated chords hammering away behind increasingly florid solos from all members of the orchestra. A warm, inviting vista opens up towards the movement’s midpoint, the darkness temporarily forgotten as the entire ensemble joins in the radiance, but clouds soon return and the break from the insistent rhythm feels less like a release and more like a train wreck. Some flagging violin passagework later, and the halting chords return, albeit sounding somewhat more bedraggled than before. There seems, briefly, to be some hope of escape or reconciliation, but the Bach quote proves too powerful to ignore, and the movement draws to a close with icy inevitability.
Cellos and basses kick off the finale by plunging into their lowest register, but the movement seems resistant to really get under way. Finally, about a minute in, the woodwinds dart in with a mercurial line and things begin to move, tho the dance here seems somewhat more cautious and unsteady than the one that filled out the bulk of the first movement. There are constant nervous interjections, and an aura of suspicion dominates the mood. The writing is pointillistic, fragmented — no one instrument or group of instruments has much continuous music for long. Even the soloist darts in and out of the texture with little predictability. A hint at a return to the second movement is disrupted by the bassoon, and the dance resumes with redoubled intensity. At several points, the soloist seems to be attempting to cut it short, but there is nothing to be done; it must be allowed to run its course. At long last it does so, landing on a tremendous percussive thump over which the violin unfolds a dazzling display of virtuosity. A fiery, luxuriously expansive interjection from the orchestra follows, and the remainder of the movement seems to play out as echoing reverberations of that blazing musical statement. The violin trades singing lines with woodwinds over a luscious background of strings, the music gradually ebbing lower in pitch and softer in volume. A few final spasms disturb the peace before the work comes to rest in a rich, sonorous bed of sound.
*I feel . . . vaguely hurt that I could go this long without knowing about a bassoon concerto from a major American composer. Bassoon squad: You gotta let me know about these things!
**I don’t have the space to do this piece justice. It is a monumental achievement, and vast amounts of ink have been spilled elsewhere rhapsodizing its praises. Ask your violinist friends about it — I guarantee you they have feelings about it. Suffice to say that it is very famous, and very justifiably so.