Home > Reviews > THE RED VIOLIN – John Corigliano

THE RED VIOLIN – John Corigliano

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

It is very rare for a soundtrack to be embraced wholeheartedly and celebrated loudly by aficionados of both classical music and film music, but this is what has happened to John Corigliano’s The Red Violin. Despite being arguably one of the most brilliant and talented American composers of his generation, this is only John Corigliano’s third film score – his others being the wildly impressionistic, abstract, Oscar-nominated Altered States (1980) and the largely unknown Revolution (1985). Instead, Corigliano became an established member of the New York musical circle, writing original pieces, ballets, operas and suchlike, and it has taken fourteen years to tempt Corigliano back to the podium. It has been worth the wait for, as well as his own musical genius, he has brought with him some of the best and brightest talents of the classical world, including the brilliant Finnish conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen and the incredibly talented virtuoso violinist Joshua Bell.

In a way, this film is the perfect story for a traditional composer to be involved in, as it tells the life story of the titular instrument, and that of its five owners as it is passed on over the course of 300 years. The film is directed by François Giraud, who previously made 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould, and stars (amongst others) Greta Scacchi, Jason Flemyng and Samuel L. Jackson. Corigliano’s score is structured in five parts, each one devoted to one of the five locations in which the violin finds itself: Cremona, where it is made; Vienna, where it is owned and played by a child prodigy; Oxford, where it is given to an English lord by some travelling gypsies; Shanghai, where its fourth owner keeps it hidden away in case it is discovered by the Communists; and modern-day Montreal, where it is auctioned as a priceless antique.

Each segment has its own unique flavour and texture pertaining to the differing geographical settings, but each also maintains a close association with the beautiful seven-note main melody, performed initially by a distracted voice and then by Bell’s solo violin in the opening ‘Anna’s Theme’. Cremona is steeped in history and tradition, with the plaintive ‘Main Title’ and the impressive ‘The Red Violin’ further expanding on the film’s core musical motives.

The Vienna and Oxford sections effectively act as a showcase for the superb performing talents of the incredible Joshua Bell who, in tracks such ‘Kaspar’s Audition’, ‘Etudes’, ‘Pope’s Gypsy Cadenza’ and ‘Pope’s Betrayal, virtually makes his instrument sing. These pieces have much more in common with the classical world than they do the film music world, and stretch the boundaries of what can be achieved by the instrument in musical terms. Although the occasionally jarring and agitated sounds may not be to everyone’s liking, you cannot help being in awe of Bell’s masterful performances, many of which would sound equally at home in the cinema or the concert hall.

In the Shanghai section, the music adopts a slight Eastern flavour, and even includes a performance by a Chinese Children’s Choir in ‘People’s Revolution’, while the conclusive Montreal section is slightly more downbeat and sombre, although it does introduce a new motif for Sam Jackson’s character in ‘Morritz’s Theme’. Other cues of note include the unusual, exotic ‘The Gypsies’ and the forlornly romantic ‘Coitus Musicalis’, while ‘Anna’s Death’ and ‘Theft’ feature layer upon layer of bubbling dissonance, a technique rather reminiscent of the work of Elliot Goldenthal – which is not entirely surprising, as Goldenthal was a student of Corigliano’s in New York during the early 1980s, and obviously picked up some tricks of the trade.

The other thing which surprised me while listening to The Red Violin was the conspicuous absence of any brass or woodwind performances in the film score itself, and the phenomenal musical range the string section is forced to cover as a result. The dense, multi-layered stringwork and varied performance techniques – which include everything from pizzicato to ponticello and beyond – create a somewhat unusual, but utterly fascinating soundscape. The seventeen-minute concert piece which rounds off the CD, “Chaconne for Violin and Orchestra”, is Corigliano’s reworking of his three central themes, expanded and adapted to be performed by a full orchestra which this time includes brasses, woodwinds, and some very loud percussion. This piece is, in my opinion, Corigliano’s triumph. Freed from the stifling confines of scene length and dramatic portent, Corigliano has opened up his themes and given them a majesty and vibrancy which, when combined with Bell’s striking solos and the performance of the orchestra, becomes the stuff that standing ovations and encores are made of.

I pray that it is not another 14 years before John Corigliano writes another film score, for this is a man with undisputed talent and intelligence, and who has created some of the most elegant and exquisite music I have heard for a while. If this was a pure classical piece, I feel sure that this would be one of the most critically lauded compositions of the year. As it is, it’s one of the best film scores of the year too.

Buy the Red Violin soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Anna’s Theme (2:50)
  • Main Title (2:42)
  • Death of Anna (1:44)
  • Birth of the Red Violin (3:05)
  • The Red Violin (1:34)
  • The Monastery (1:06)
  • Kaspar’s Audition/Journey to Vienna (2:38)
  • Etudes/Death of Kaspar (2:48)
  • The Gypsies/Journey Across Europe (2:07)
  • Pope’s Gypsy Cadenza (1:37)
  • Coitus Musicalis/Victoria’s Departure (4:40)
  • Pope’s Concert (1:22)
  • Pope’s Betrayal (3:00)
  • Journey to China (4:10)
  • People’s Revolution/Death of Chou Yuan (3:15)
  • Morritz Discovers the Red Violin (3:38)
  • Morritz’s Theme (1:54)
  • Theft (2:10)
  • End Titles (1:46)
  • Chaconne for Violin and Orchestra – The Red Violin (17:37)

Running Time: 66 minutes 09 seconds

Sony Classical SK-63010 (1999)

Music composed by John Corigliano. Conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen. Performed by Philharmonia Orchestra. Orchestrations by John Corigliano. Solo violin performed by Joshua Bell. Featured musical soloists Greg Knowles, Eddie Hession, Nick Bucknall, Gavyn Wright, Chris Laurence and Frank Ricotti. Special vocal performances by Alexys Schwartz and The Children’s Chorus of Shanghai. Recorded and mixed by Joel Iwataki. Edited by Todd Kasow and Matthias Gohl. Album produced by Matthias Gohl.

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