As we prepare for the UK Premiere of Hans Gál’s Violin Concerto, op 39 (written in 1933!) I thought I would be worth sharing some of Gál’s own thoughts on the concerto. I would not hesitate to speculate that his was probably the most musically thoughtful article ever published in Bournemouth Winter Garden’s Society Newsletter (from 1954).
In view of all this it seems amazing that concertos are still being written. Why does a composer do it?
This question I can only answer from my own, personal point of view. But I have reasons to assume that some of my colleagues have similar feelings. A concerto, to my mind, is one of the most thrilling, most fascinating problems of composition, a problem of form, style and expression that demands the utmost experience and technical resourcefulness. This problem has been solved by the great composers in different ways, but its essence remains the same everywhere and whatever the style of the music may be: how to arrive at an ideal balance of symphonically-conceived music and the relaxed playfulness of a brilliant solo part as the central, commanding feature. It is possible to dodge the main difficulty by ignoring one of these two main factors, but the result is never entirely satisfying in an artistic sense. On the one hand, there are concertos of the older, purely virtuosic type, which are rather extended solos supported by an orchestral accompaniment, with some tuttis thrown in for better weight. Even Chopin’s two beautiful pianoforte concertos belong to this category. This type of concerto is too much focussed on virtuosity and ornamental elegance to give full scope to the music as such, as a pure substance: there is too much rambling, and the solo seems to behave like a spoiled princess with a humble, self-effacing retinue. But aesthetically the opposite proceeding seems to me hardly preferable: a symphony with a solo instrument obligato—of which there are frequent examples in contemporary music. This conception of a concerto, to my mind, contradicts the very meaning of a type of composition, the purpose of which is to give a noble setting to a spirited, fascinating individuality on the platform.
The peculiar position of the solo part implies a most stimulating element of improvisatory spontaneity, the most characteristic instance of which is the cadenza in the classical concerto, but which practically pervades the whole structure. However closely built the musical substance may be, there must always he sufficient scope and time for the graceful or expressive or dreamy or purely brilliant exuberance of that capricious character who is the centre of events, and who is in danger of losing all his glamour whenever he becomes a mere part of the orchestra. The success of a concerto depends, more than on any other condition, upon whether the composer has been able to make this central character stand out as an interesting, original figure, and whether he has succeeded in giving his music the peculiar shape and texture suitable for this purpose.