The restless energy of Elijah’s Violin is the hallmark of a contemporary composer whose music to a rare degree combines symphonic breadth with a talent for vividly decorative melodic writing. In the works of his first maturity, the piano solo Ritornelli and Intermezzi of 1972 for example, the decorative element was to the fore. By his early thirties, however, Saxton, a highly respected teacher and since 1999 a university lecturer and fellow of Worcester College, Oxford, had mastered an individual manner uniting foreground decoration with powerful, long-range harmonic planning as significant features of his style. To technical accomplishment, a sensibility grounded in Judeo-Christian culture added depth and seriousness, not least in scores like The Ring of Eternity (1983), Music to Celebrate the Resurrection of Christ (1988) and The Dialogue of Zion and God (1999).
It is therefore apt that in his own note for Elijah’s Violin, the composer should refer as much to the archetypal and symbolical aspect as to the programmatic potential of the Jewish folk-tale from Egypt to which the title and broad scheme of the piece refer. The narrative, with its princes and princesses in various states of involuntary enchantment, its sea-journeys and magic musical instruments contains about as much picturesque material as any composer might desire. But though Saxton’s gifts as a musical illustrator are evident and formidable, what he chiefly expresses in this short symphony are the timeless inner truths that the story communicates.
The melodic fifth announced in the opening bars, thrusting upwards against pulsing basses, is an important feature. At each recurrence it becomes a fresh event: sinister on bassoons and cellos then resonantly wild on bare octaves in the first movement; or twisted to a harsh seventh in the desolate third; or stirring fresh energies as prelude and apotheosis to the fourth. Part of the dynamic current, the solo violin dances, laments and finally asserts its freedom, before the music dies away as if - in the fashion of tradition fables - it were part of an endless retelling.
Elijah’s Violin was commissioned by the English Chamber Orchestra, who gave the first performance at the Barbican on 13 February 1989, conducted by Jeffrey Tate.