Judith Weir: Piano Concerto


Judith Weir was born in 1954 in Cambridge, and at a young age she began learning the oboe. Weir in her youth performed regularly with the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain. She studied composition whilst at school with none other than John Tavener. From here she then earned her place at Cambridge University, where she continued her composition studies. After she graduated she became heavily involved in music education in both the south of England and then Scotland. During this period she still composed, and it was mainly operas that allowed her to make a name for herself within the classical music world. 

During the 1990s she became the resident composer with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, and it was at this time she wrote much more orchestral-based pieces. She also experimented by combining chorus and orchestra in many of her works.

During her lifetime thus far, Weir has been commissioned to write for some of the most professional orchestras and chorus’ in the world. She has also worked with notable conductors and soloists. Weir has travelled to the USA to work with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. In 1995 she received her CBE and then in 2007 the Queen’s Medal for Music. 2014 saw Weir appointed as Master of The Queen’s Music.

Weir’s Piano Concerto was commissioned by Anthony and Mary Henfrey for their 25th wedding anniversary and was composed for pianist William Howard. The concerto received its premiere with the BT Scottish Ensemble at the Spitalfields Festival in June 1997. The concerto remains one of Weir’s most popular orchestral works. 


The Music

In her notes for this work, Weir talks about how William Howard served as a somewhat inspiration for the concerto:

“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 small 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.”


Set into three movements, the concerto is composed for piano and string orchestra.

Movement I 

Opening with a flourish from the piano, the light atmosphere is supported by a collection of the upper strings. As the piano moves down into its lower range, a taste of what to come is heard through subtlety syncopated rhythms. A piano interlude leads into the driving first section of the concerto.The angular movement between the piano and the strings creates two distinct voices who playfully pass around the main fragments of themes. A lyrical central section presents a wispy and whimsical theme that is lead by the soloist. Concluding with a short round up of fragmented themes, the movement ends quietly, and most importantly, unresolved.


Movement II – “The Sweet Primeroses”

The space created in the second movement is set out with a call and response figure between the soloist and orchestra. Based on open chords and supported by a chamber group, the sweetness of this movement comes from Weir’s use of textures and harmony. The chamber aspect, which Weir was inspired by Mozart’s chamber concertos, is perhaps the most prominent in this movement. The lack of a full tutti sound is not detrimental whatsoever as Weir expands her warmer harmonic language. As the intensity fluctuates, the second movement concludes quietly.


Movement III 

The finale, reverting back to the stylings of the opening movement, is initially based on string sliding and quick arpeggio work from the piano. This is soon dismantled and a frantic theme ensues. The quick tempo adds to the energetic atmosphere that Weir creates. Repeated cluster chords from the soloist add to the drama of this piece, as the strange sounds from the upper strings grow and diminish in sound. A small lyrical section breaks the tension, before the movement concludes suddenly. 


Ⓒ Alex Burns

Happy Reading!

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You might also enjoy… Alexander Scriabin: Piano Concerto No.1


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