SoundReels: Cycles of Fate in John Corigliano's Score for 'The Red Violin'

Aug 1, 2018

A violin with a past is fated to keep dooming the present.

In this episode of SoundReels, Classical 101's film music podcast, I team up with Jon Sherman, associate professor of film at Kenyon College, to talk about cycles of fate in John Corigliano's Academy Award-winning score for The Red Violin (1998).

Directed by Canadian filmmaker François Girard and written by Girard and Don McKellar, The Red Violin charts the story of a violin bearing a unique red varnish as it cycles through three centuries and across three continents, dooming whoever plays it to a terrible fate.

The film is united in the story and in the form in which the narrative unfolds by Corigliano's musical score. 

Soundtrack: Amazon | ArkivMusic

The Red Violin is, I think, one of the most compelling and visually stunning films on a musical subject around.

This episode of SoundReels explores the musical and narrative structures in The Red Violin, specifically the unique way in which the musical score reinforces the cyclicity of the film's narrative — how the film is told in episodes in which the violin cycles again and again through time, bringing ill fortune to everyone who comes in contact with it. 

That the musical score reinforces the film's narrative structure gives The Red Violin an effective coherence.

"This film should feel like a more episodic story, but it doesn't. And I think that is due to unity the musical score provides the story," Sherman says.

The main theme of Corigliano's score is "Anna's Theme," which we hear for the first time near the beginning of the film, as the underscore for a sequence that reveals the unfortunate incidents leading to the red violin's unusual color and sealing its fate as a harbinger of doom:

Then we hear different variations on "Anna's Theme" as the violin makes its way through time and travels around the world. First, to an orphanage in Vienna in the 1700s:

Then traveling around Europe with a band of gypsies:

Then to 19th-century England, where a musician reminiscent of real-life violin virtuoso Niccolò Paganini improvises a devilish virtuoso piece on the red violin:

The violin also makes its way to 20th-century China during the Cultural Revolution, then eventually to present-day Montreal. No spoilers here, so I'll leave you to watch the film and discover its priceless ending on your own.

And listen to this episode of SoundReels to learn about the brilliant concert work for violin and orchestra that Corigliano composed on "Anna's Theme" and how the structure of that piece connects with the narrative and musical forms in The Red Violin.

Enjoy all of the episodes of SoundReels, Classical 101's film music podcast, here. You can also experience more great film music during the Summer Festival of American Film Music on The American Sound, Saturdays at 6 p.m. and Tuesdays at 7 p.m. on Classical 101.