How can a soul haunt in a mystical way a musical instrument and instill life and sound of breathtaking beauty into a perfect material creation – this is what the story of the feature film Red Violin is about. A film by director François Girard, created in 1998, it features the music of the remarkable American composer John Corigliano (1938). A graduate in composition from the Columbia University and the Manhattan School of Music, he worked as assistant producer of Lennard Bernstein’s attractive television series of youth educational concerts. In addition to having earned fame with his film scores, Corigliano in his turn undertook teaching of composition at the Julliard School and acted as honorary professor at Lehman College of the University of New York.
With the story’s leading line of an auction sale of ancient instruments, the magnificent “Red Violin” meanders in its wanderings through different epochs (from the Seventeenth century to the present day) and various places around the world (its journey originated in Cremona, passed from Italy through Austria, China and Canada). A central element in the film is the master violin, the handiwork of Italian violin maker Nicolo Bussotti, who coloured the varnish he used on his ultimate creation with the blood of his wife, Anna, who had succumbed to complications at the birth of their long–awaited son. The double misfortune with the death of the child seemed in its turn to preordain the tragic fate of anyone who touched the magnificent instrument. The voice of the violin was entrusted by the composer to the charismatic violinist Joshua Bell. He performed with the Philharmonia Orchestra under Esa–Pekka Salonen in the recording of the soundtrack to the film, which subsequently received several Oscar, Grammy and Ginny Best Soundtrack Awards. Here’s what John Corigliano shared about the composition of The Red Violin Chaconne for violin and orchestra: “Composing the music for the film The Red Violin gave me an opportunity to visit my own past, for my father, John Corigliano (I was a “Jr.”) was a great solo violinist and the Concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic for almost a quarter of a century. The film spans three centuries in the life of a magnificent but haunted violin in its travels through space and time. A story this episodic needed to be tied together with a single musical idea. For this purpose I used the Baroque device of a chaconne: a repeated pattern of chords upon which the music is built. Against the chaconne chords I juxtaposed Anna’s theme, a lyrical yet intense melody representing the violin builder’s doomed wife. From these elements I wove a series of virtuosic etudes for the solo violin, which followed the instrument from country to country, century to century. I composed these elements before the actual filming, because the actors needed to imitate actual performance of the music. Then during the summer of 1997 while the film was being shot all over the world, I remained at home and composed the 17–minute “Red Violin Chaconne [based on] the music [from the eponymous film deriving] from Anna’s theme, the chaconne, and the etudes”.
Joshua Bell was also the first performer of this concert work – the premiere took place in San Francisco on 26 November 1997, with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Robert Spano. Based on the film score, Corigliano also wrote the Red Violin Suite for Violin and Orchestra (1999), and in 2003 – the Red Violin Concerto for Violin and Orchestra.