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THE RED VIOLIN – John Corigliano


Original Review by Craig Lysy

Director Francois Girard had long desired to make a film, which centered on music, and became inspired by the story of one of Antonio Stradivari’s most famous creations – the 1721 Red Mendelssohn, a violin which featured a unique red coloring on its top right side. He hired Don McKellar to write the screenplay and was very happy with the final script. However, he soon had the sober realization of the magnitude and extent of challenges posed by the project; the story stretches over three centuries, from 1681 to 1997, and is set in five different countries, with five different set of actors, each with a different language. He was unable to broker financing from American studios as they would not agree to a film with sub-titles of five different languages. Undeterred, he eventually secured backing from the Canadian firm Rhombus Media. Casting was a challenge as five ensembles needed to be hired one for each of the film’s vignettes. For Cremona 1681 he cast Carlo Cecchi as Nicolò Bussotti and Irene Grazioli as Anna Rudolfi Bussotti. For Vienna 1793 he cast Jean-Luc Bideau as Georges Poussin. For Oxford in the late 1890s he cast Jason Flemyng as Frederick Pope. For Shanghai in the late 1960s he cast Sylvia Chang as Xiang Pei. For Montreal 1997 he cast Samuel L. Jackson as Charles Morritz, Colm Feore as the Auctioneer, and Don McKellar as Evan Williams. This unique story traces the creation of a legendary violin, its lore portended by a fateful tarot card reading, which dooms all that possess it to tragedy. Five vignettes trace its travels and ownership through time, with death, and misfortune coming to all who possess it. The Red Violin was not a commercial success, earning only $10 million, which was insufficient to cover its $14 million production costs. Critical reception was mixed, and the film received one Academy Award nomination, which secured the win – Best Film Score.

Girard understood that integral to the success of “The Red Violin” would be the score. As such, selection of the right composer and virtuoso violinist was crucial. He relates:

“Music plays a very important narrative role in our story; many characters are scripted with musical notes as much as with words; the soul of Anna Bussotti could not survive without her theme; the journey through three centuries and three continents could not possibly exist without music.”

As such he chose John Corigliano, whose compositional skills he respected for composer, and phenom Joshua Bell to be the voice of the Red Violin. Corigliano was delighted to take on the assignment and relates:

“I’d assumed that, as usual in film, I wouldn’t be required to write the score until the film was completed, except for a number of on camera cues,” or occasions in which the film’s characters themselves perform. So, I then composed a singable theme, hummed by the violin master’s wife Anna, which mutates into a solo violin melody. Underpinning the theme is an inexorable seven-chord chaconne, evoking the Tarot and the fate it signals; and several solo etudes, drawn from Anna’s theme, for the two virtuosi of the Vienna and Oxford sequences.”

Since this would be an intimate tale, Corigliano chose a small ensemble, which lacked a horn section to provide his soundscape. The completed concert piece “Chaconne For Violin And Orchestra” would serve as the substrate from which the score evolved. He believed that using a Chaconne would unify and weave together the five vignettes of the story. A Chaconne is a Baroque compositional style that features a short repetitive bass-line, which serves as a foundation for melodic variation, decoration, and figuration. The Chaconne he fashioned is minor modal and its shifting chords impart the score with auras of sadness. It unfolds as a series of ominous stepped chordal ascents by strings, each one of greater intensity and higher in register than its predecessor, serving as the prime, essential musical thread that holds the score’s tapestry together. He also understood that Anna was Nicolò’s muse, and that her soul and the Red Violin were intrinsically linked. As such Anna’s/Red Violin Theme offers the score’s main theme, a master stroke of conception, which embodies her soul, but also serves as the identity of the Red Violin itself. As foretold by the fateful tarot card reading, the violin is a harbinger of misfortune and death and we hear this in the notes, which speak of sadness, disquiet and tragedy. Over the course of the film we see the theme metamorphose from its opening soprano voice to the violin, as though Anna’s soul had passed into the instrument. Over the intervening centuries we observe how malleable the theme is as it is rendered in a multiplicity of virtuoso iterations ranging from Baroque, a child-like lullaby, festive gypsy-like cadenzas, 19th century Romanticism, to 20th century Chinese music. The theme has a classical ABA construct with the A Phrase bathing us in a bleeding pathos of despair, while the B Phrase hungers yet is unassuaged. The score’s third primary theme is Moritz’s Theme, which serves as his identity and speaks of his longing for that which is unobtainable. His theme is kindred to the Red Violin Theme with strains of it woven into its longing expression. Lastly, we have the Coitus Musicalis Theme, which graces us with exquisite romanticism, and draws heart and inspiration from Anna’s Theme. The theme is not ardent but instead minor modal, full of longing and sadness, which speaks of the passions of a love, which cannot be sustained.

“Anna’s Theme” is not attached to the film proper, yet it offers a sublime album highlight, which graces us with a full rendering of the Anna’s Theme. At 0:36 her soprano voice dissipates into nothingness with the transfer of the melodic line to Bell’s violin, as though her soul passed into the instrument. The performance is exquisite with the closing A Phrase achieving a breath-taking climax at 2:20, only to dissipate into nothingness. The score’s opening cue offers a gorgeous highlight, in which Corigliano masterfully set the tone of the film, capturing its emotional core. There is a film-album discontinuity with the “Main Title” as there is a prelude of shifting, formless violins, which ascend in a dissonant storm unable to coalesce into a melody. They support the roll of the opening credits as the camera slowly weaves its way through Nicolò’s shop, past dozens of unfinished violins, violas and celli. Film and album do not synch until 1:03 when melody ushers in the Chaconne, whose ominous stepped chordal ascents, each one of greater intensity and higher in register than its predecessor, fill us with disquiet. At 1:08 we demur darkly as Nicolò examines the work of two of his apprentices, one which he commends, and one who he cruelly smashes his violin as unworthy of his name. A writhing dissonant violin storm carries the apprentice’s devastation and we launch into the film title at 1:48 atop a passionate full rendering of the Anna’s Theme. The theme carries Moritz’s progress in Montreal 1997 as he attends an auction. As the auction for the Red Violin commences, we hear Anna humming her theme’s melody, which transports us into the past.

Vignette #1 is set in Cremona in 1681, and is performed in Italian. Nicolò Bussotti is a violin-maker artisan whose wife, Anna Rudolfi, is pregnant. Anna is superstitious and asks her servant Cesca, a reader of Tarot cards, to foretell the future of her unborn child. Cesca relates that she cannot read the future of the unborn, and instead reads Anna’s future. Anna draws five cards for the reading, with the first being the Moon card. The Moon card signifies that Anna will live a long life. We see that Nicolò has fashioned a new violin, which he believes is his greatest creation, a gift for his son. Corigliano supports the scene with nascent strains of Anna’s Theme, yet the tone plaintive, and portentous. This music did not make the album. Yet before he can varnish it, he is informed that both Anna and his son have died, leaving him devastated, and inconsolable.

“Death of Anna” opens with a dissonant torrent of screeching violins, which carries a young boy’s run through the village. He delivers to Nicolò news that his wife is delivering and not well. As Nicolò races home the violins erupt into a dissonant tempest when joined by kindred strings. The ominous chordal phrases of the Chaconne portend doom. At 0:59 a diminuendo of pain carries his anguish, ending in a lamentation as he contemplates his fate. “Birth of the Red Violin” was excised from the film and intended to support Nicolò’s conflict, and fateful decision to create the Red Violin. It opens darkly atop the Chaconne attended by a plaintive solo violin so full of sorrow. At 0:53 a torrent of dissonant violins ascends, ending in a sustain of pain, followed by a tortured descent, where the solo violin writhes in pain. At 2:20 an anguished Anna’s Theme informs us of his decision to stain the violin with blood, ending in an eerie diminuendo of pain. “The Red Violin” offers a score highlight. Nicolò has resolved to stain his beloved violin with Anna’s blood, passing her soul, her very essence into the instrument, thus fulfilling Cesca’s prediction that Anna will live a long life. Corigliano supports the fateful decision with an impassioned exposition of Anna’s Theme, achieving a heart-wrenching climax born of a crescendo of pain, as Nicolò hangs the violin to dry and departs. We shift back to Montreal 1997 as the auction for the Red Violin commences again, this time from a different buyer’s perspective.

Vignette #1 is set in Vignette #2 is set in Vienna in 1793 and is performed in German and French. Cesca turns over the second card of the reading, The Hanged Man, which signifies disease and suffering for those around Anna. It comes to pass the Red Violin passes into possession of monks at a Vienna orphanage, who gift it to Kaspar Weiss, a brilliant violin prodigy. The monks solicit famed instructor, Poussin, to adopt the boy so as to further his gift. Poussin brings Weiss and the violin to Vienna. He learns that Prince Mannsfeld is visiting Vienna and promising a generous reward if a prodigy can be found to accompany him back to Prussia. Well, Poussin puts Weiss through a strict and rigorous practice regimen, which exact a terrible toll on Weiss who suffers from a heart defect. On the day of the recital, Weiss’s heart gives out from the stress as he prepares to play and he collapses, dead. The monks come for his body and bury him and the Red Violin at the orphanage. Fate intervenes, and it comes to pass that Gypsy grave robbers steal the Red Violin and take it with them to England.

“The Monastery” reveals different boys playing in a Red Violin in a violin orchestra. The Monks decide to gift the Red Violin to Kasper Weiss. Corigliano supports the scene using a melody kindred to the Red Violin Theme, but one which emotes with the ornate, note rich, face paced rhythmic homogeneity, sensibilities that characterized the late Baroque period. “Kaspar’s Audition” offers a score highlight of virtuoso beauty. It reveals the young Kasper auditioning for Poussin and Corigliano dazzles us with a triplet rhythm arpeggiation and exquisite shifts in tempo and harmonies leaving Poussin impressed and us begging for more. At 1:15 we segue into “Journey to Vienna” where Corigliano sustains the sensibilities and innate beauty of the previous cue, though with a more gentile and languorous expression as the carriage rolls through the beautiful winter landscapes. We culminate under the beautiful spires of Vienna. “Etudes” supports Poussin’s rigorous training using the metronome at faster and faster tempi to cultivate and perfect Kaspar’s virtuoso technique. We bear witness to ornate, note rich virtuoso violin playing at ever increasing tempi. Yet we see it is exacting a toll on Klaus’ weak heart, and as he falls to sleep with his beloved violin a portentous Anna’s Theme plays, which is omitted from the album. At 1:18 the album segues into the “Death of Kaspar”, but music supporting “Walking To The Palace” is omitted from the album. It supports their walking progress with a pompous grandiose regality. Kasper is overcome by the moment and the Red Violin exacts more death as his heart gives out and he falls dead. Corigliano reprises the grieving lamentation of Anna’s death with violins and strings affanato, which speak to Poussin’s grief and desolation.

Vignette #3 is set in Oxford in the late 1890s and is performed in English and Romani. Cesca’s turns over the third card to reveal The Devil, which she explains to Anna that she will meet a handsome and intelligent man that will seduce her. In “The Gypsies; Journey Across Europe” gypsies have defiled Klaus’ grave and stolen the Red Violin. Corigliano supports the theft and their travels across Europe diegetically showing several of them playing the instrument. He bathes us in the rich and festive ethnic auras and rhythms of Gypsy culture. It comes to pass that the Gypsies migrate to England and unknowingly set-up camp on the estate of Frederick Pope. He barters hospitality to stay on his estate for the Red Violin. Pope gains fame in a series of public concerts, demonstrating his virtuoso gift. In “Pope’s Gypsy Cadenza” his muse Victoria Byrd comes to his dressing room and is seduced. We hear behind closed doors an energetic, sensual erotic piece, full of passion, which joins with moans of carnal lust. He then impromptu, dazzles us in “Pope’s Concert” with a new work inspired by his and Victoria’s love-making. The work is impassioned, utilizes amazing erotic runs up and down, which fully speak of his arousal and sexual appetites as he repeatedly grunts with primal pleasure.

“Coitus Musicalis” offers a wondrous score highlight where we are graced with a piece of exquisite romanticism, which draws heart and inspiration from Anna’s Theme. Pope comes to Victoria for carnal inspiration and as she caresses and kisses his body his love finds voice in his playing. The piece is not ardent but instead minor modal, full of longing and sadness, and speaks of an yearning love, which cannot be sustained. It proves portentous as Victoria informs him afterwards that she must depart for Russia to research the novel she is writing. At 2:42 we segue into “Victoria’s Departure” atop violins affanato for a piece of exquisite sadness. The departure of his muse causes his creative gift to whither, and his spirit to diminish. As voice overs relate their longing letters to each other, we see his dissipation unfolding to the plaintive, longing pathos of Anna’s Theme. The confluence of film and music is sublime. Yet he finds solace in the arms of the Gypsy woman from which he obtained the Red Violin. When he stops answering her letters Victoria despairs and returns to his estate in “Pope’s Betrayal”. An aching violin doloroso bearing strains of Anna’s Theme carries her progress as she journeys back to him by carriage. At 1:13 she enters the house, yet is taken aback by the erotic ardency of his play, which informs her that he is with another woman. She searches full of rage for his gun, finds it, and ascends to his bed chamber with his impassioned playing channeling her fury. She bursts in finding them in coitus, he tries to explain, but she will have none of it. She aims at both the gypsy and Pope, yet resolves instead to shoot the Red Violin. We build on strings agitato to a frightful climax at 2:17 where she shoots the violin damaging its bridge. We conclude on a diminuendo of sadness and regret as Pope writes her informing her of his plans for suicide and to leave her his estate.

Vignette #4 is set in Shanghai, from the late 1850s to the 1960s, and is performed in Mandarin. Cesca reveals the fourth card, Justice, which she interprets as tough times ahead, featuring a trial and persecution, where Anna shall be found guilty. In “Journey to China” Pope’s butler takes the Red Violin to China. As it journeys to a new home, we see scenes of vast churning ocean waves, and Corigliano weaves a bleak textural soundscape using the Asian Pentatonic scale, which speaks to location as the Red Violin seems to be crying out for a new owner. At 1:38 melody returns in a variation of the Red Violin Theme as the butler walks the streets of Shanghai and sells the violin to a Merchant who repairs the damage. At 2:28 an impassioned and extended statement of the Red Violin Theme rises tormented, and full of longing as we see it left ownerless for many, many years before a wealthy woman buys it for her daughter Xiang Pei. In “People’s Revolution; Death of Chou Yuan” it is many years later and the upheaval of the cultural revolution is destroying all things deemed “bourgeois”. Corigliano supports the revolutionary fervor with a chorale of accordions, which support children dancing and singing. In the next scene, which is unscored Xiang Pei, now a local party official, defends her teacher Chou Yuan and convinces them to save his life. She then races home to retrieve the Red Violin stored under the baseboards of her home. On the album the Revolutionary anthem begins to fade at 0:56, transitioning its melody, to western sensibilities born by lyrical strings doloroso. At 1:49 the ominous Chaconne repeatedly sounds portending doom as Pei reveals the Red Violin to her son and plays it for him. There is a film-album discontinuity. In the film the scene ends with Pei playing the Red Violin’s tragic theme, but on the album, we conclude with subtle painful allusions of the Red Violin Theme, which never coalesces into a melody. To safe guard her beloved violin Pei takes the violin to Yuan for safe-keeping, as she will have to stand trial. We close the vignette with a sad, lyrical string born rendering of the Chinese revolutionary song

The final vignette, Vignette #5, is set in Montréal in 1997 and is performed in English and French. Cesca reveals the final card, Death, which she interprets as not a harbinger of death, but instead rebirth given that the card was inverted. We shift to many years later where Yuan has been found dead with the discovery of a treasure trove of instruments, including the Red Violin. Corigliano supports the scene with the grim Chaconne and strains of Anna’s Theme, for she/Red Violin as Cesca predicted have been reborn. We close with the Chinese government sending the instruments to Montreal for appraisal and auction. Morritz who is an appraiser arrives in Montreal to inspect the violins sent by the Chinese government. In “Morritz Discovers the Red Violin” he is astonished to discover what he believes to be the Red Violin, the legendary last violin of Nicolò Bussotti. We see in his eyes a profound desire as he cradles it in his hands. Corigliano speaks to this realization darkly, with the Chaconne joined with fleeting strains of the Red Violin Theme. At 1:12 the Red Violin Theme emotes as his eyes betray his intention. He orders it restored and sends samples of its varnish to the University of Montreal for analysis. He has secretly purchased a replica of the Red Violin and intends to use his access privileges as accessor to substitute at the last moment. As he works in the lab Corigliano weaves a bleak textural soundscape, that closes on a discordant Chaconne, which climaxes atop a grotesque crescendo. Mr. Ruselsky, one of the bidders comes to the lab and requests to play some of the instruments. He first plays the Stradivarius, which Corigliano supports with the Coitus Musicalis Theme. He then plays the Red Violin against Moritz’s protests. A sublime rendering of Anna’s Theme graces us and we see rapture in Moritz’s eyes. The cue, which supports this scene is not found on the album.

A telegram informs Moritz that his instincts are proved right, that the varnish does indeed include traces of human blood. We flash back to Cremona where we see Nicolò carrying Anna’s corpse to his shop. Ominous statements of the Chaconne and a contrapuntal solo violin doloroso carry his progress. He cuts her hair and fashions a brush that he will use to stain the violin. He then slits her wrist to obtain blood to be used to stain his violin supported by a tortured rendering of her theme. The cue for this flashback scene is not found on the album. Moritz informs the auction house manager that the violin is authentic and sets into motion a diabolical plan to steal it. In “Morritz’s Theme” Moritz sits in his room contemplating the Red Violin. There are scene shifts to and from the auction and we are graced with a full rendering of his theme, which is kindred to the Red Violin Theme and so full of longing, a reflection of his covetous desire for the instrument. In “The Theft” Moritz heads to the auction house with the replica supported darkly by a grim low register textural soundscape, which begins an ominous pulsing crescendo as Moritz penetrates the back room and manages to switch out the Red Violin for the replica. We crest at 1:05 with repeating ghastly discordant phrases, which speak to the theft. As Moritz exits the building and bidding intensifies, the discordant phrases evolve into a grotesque intensifying accelerando, which climax as he is almost struck by a car. We end on a plaintive diminuendo, which plays against Ruselky’s joy of securing the ‘Red Violin’.

“Finale” is not contained on the album. Moritz is being taken to the airport and speaks first to his wife, and then his daughter, whom he explains to that he is bringing her a special gift. The scene is supported by an exquisite full rendering of the Red Violin Theme. We close with a final flashback to Cremona where Anna thanks Cesca for the reading and departs to go see her husband. Supported by her theme. The film ends with a close-up of the Tarot deck and flows into the “End Titles” which is regrettably truncated on the album, containing only a restatement of the Anna’s Theme, this time inverse in that it transitions from violin to her voice. In the actual film End Titles, there is extended rendering of shifting variations of Anna’s Theme, which closes inversely as the score began, with a transfer of the melody from violin, to voice.

“The Red Violin” – Chaconne for Violin and Orchestra” offers a wondrous album highlight of Corigliano’s brilliant concert piece. Who better is there to provide insight, then the composer himself;

“As The Red Violin: Chaconne for Violin and Orchestra begins, diaphanous ascending string lines unveil the chaconne chords, voiced in incantatory dotted rhythms, in low winds and brass. Then solo violin and orchestra utter, and expand on, Anna’s theme. Virtuosic etudes quicken the pace, lead to a rushing climax; these yield to a stratospherically high, gravely slow melody, which remembers, against slowly shifting string sonorities, Anna’s romantic theme. The string chords louden, strengthen with winds and brass: then the soloist reclaims, in determined accents this time, the diaphanous string line that opened the score. The orchestra halts to launch the soloist’s cadenza, impetuous and songful by turns: then the chaconne, in strings chords rendered brittle by sharp attacks with the wood of the bow, gradually climax in a grand tutti restatement of the incantatory opening and a whirlwind coda for all.”

The Red Violin offers one of the finest examples in cinematic history of how a musical score can sustain and unify a film’s narrative. The story of the Red Violin stretches over three centuries, and involves five different geographical settings and languages. Corigliano’s utilization of a Chaconne as a unifying force, and the haunting Anna’s Theme, which is transmuted by her death and Nicolò’s infusion of her soul into beloved instrument was genius. Masterful is how he adapts the Red Violin Theme to the circumstances and sensibilities of time and place. Folks, the conception and execution of this score reveals Corigliano’s mastery of his craft. His writing for violin and Joshua Bells virtuoso performances are a violin lover’s dream come true. In scene after scene the music is insightful, impactful and meaningful, achieving a perfect confluence with film narrative. I believe this score, the last of this series to be the finest in Corigliano’s canon and a late Bronze Age gem. I would like to see a remastered and complete score issued one day as this is a classic, which demands it. Until then, I highly recommend this score for your collection.

For those of you unfamiliar with the score, I have embedded a YouTube link to Corigliano’s Chaconne for Violin and Orchestra. Enjoy: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gNlI-Oko758

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.

  1. Karoly Mazak
    May 2, 2019 at 1:30 pm

    Thank you for this fascinating series, I have discovered a lot of wonderful music based on your reviews.

    Now that the series is over, I wonder what your original selections were. Based on your first post, your selections covered scores dating from 1933 to 2014, with ten “Modern Age” scores since the turn of the millennium.

  2. March 28, 2022 at 10:56 am

    Awesome series

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