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Judith Weir

Publisher: Chester Music

Piano Concerto (1997),
commissioned by Dr and Mrs Anthony Henfrey for the Spitalfields Festival
Chester Music Ltd
Soloists and Orchestra
Year Composed
15 Minutes
Solo Instrument(s)
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Programme Note
Judith Weir Piano Concerto (1997),
I have written numerous pieces for the pianist William Howard (including Music for 247 Strings, The Art of Touching the Keyboard, I broke off a golden branch and El Rey de Francia). Amongst the many further ideas he and I discussed over a long period was that of my writing him a piano concerto. But it always seemed as if our idea of a piano concerto was not the same as everybody else’s. Ever since the modern piano was born, the composition of piano concertos has been on an inflationary spiral, and it is now a musical form associated with the crashingly loud side of music; which is not the kind of music I generally like to write.

But knowing of William’s performances of such smale scale concertos as the Mozart K 449 with as few as five strings in the accompanying orchestra, I was inspired to write him a contemporary piece which similarly lives in the space between chamber music and bravura-filled spectacle. The first performance (given at the 1997 Spitalfields Festival in London) was performed with an orchestra of nine solo strings, led from the keyboard. Subsequent performances have sometimes involved much larger string orchestras, often directed by a conductor. But this doesn’t seem to have altered the essentially intimate character of the music.

The work is in three movements and lasts about fifteen minutes. The first movement, basically an allegro, establishes the balance between piano and strings; as much a balance of timbres as of dynamics. The second movement, a florid completion of a fragmentary English folksong called ‘The Sweet Primeroses’, has rightly been described as a threnody, opening with a muted ensemble of lower strings. The final movement exhibits rude energy which has reminded some listeners of Scottish traditional music (perhaps an enthusiastic strathspey-and-reel orchestra sliding about on the strings) although I was not thinking of folk music when I wrote it.

Anthony and Mary Henfrey commissioned this piece to commemorate their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. Their kind gesture allowed me to make this modern experiment within a historical form.

© Judith Weir

Preview the score

  • Ensemble
    Schubert Ensemble
    William Howard, Susan Tomes, Petra
  • Ensemble
    Ensemble X
    Janice Kelly, Xak Bjerken, Judith Kellock
    Steven Stucky, Mark Davis Scatterday
    Albany Records:
Far from some epic struggle of the one against the many, Weir’s concerto is a return to the early Mozartian model of a chamber ensemble where the soloist leads rather than fights his colleagues. Written for an “orchestra” of nine strings grouped round the piano, it’s domestic music, lasting barely 15 minutes. But the intriguing thing is that it uses the rhetoric of 19th-century Romanticism, softened and reduced. What you hear are grand gestures in miniature: a game with scale which is characteristic of Weir’s work…fascinating, haunting, and further proof of the maverick mentality that makes Weir one of Britain’s most treasurable composers.
Michael White, The Independent on Sunday,01/06/1997
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