Concerto in D Major

for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 35, Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

In early 1878, Tchaikovsky’s patron, Nadezhda von Meck, gave the composer money to use for an extended holiday. She felt that his failed marriage in 1877 and suicide attempt by drowning in the Moscow River warranted a trip outside of Russia to recover his spirits. Taking violinist Joseph Kotek as a companion, Tchaikovsky set off for Clarens, Switzerland. The two read through reams of violin music, including Edouard Lalo’s Symphonie espagnole. Lalo’s Symphonie was a seminal force in Tchaikovsky’s decision to write his own violin concerto, which he began on March 17 and completed in only two weeks. Little did he realize he had created a lightning rod for criticism. To start it off, Mme. von Meck wrote of her personal displeasure with the concerto. “I shall not give up the hope that in time the piece will give you greater pleasure,” Tchaikovsky responded.

Its first dedicatee, Leopold Auer, head of the violin department of the St. Petersburg Conservatory and concertmaster of the Imperial Orchestra, refused to play the concerto deeming it “unsuitable to the character of the instrument.” Critic Edouard Hanslick wrote that it was “a rare mixture of originality, crudity, of inspiration and wretched refinement, with an audible, odorously Russian stench.” Continuing on in the Neue freie Presse, Hanslick’s disgust gained momentum: “(In the first movement) vulgarity gains the upper hand. The Adagio is well on the way to reconciling us and winning us over when, all too soon, it breaks off to make way for a finale that transports us to the brutal and wretched jollity of a Russian church festival. We see a host of gross and savage faces, hear crude curses and smell the booze.” Hanslick lobbed grenades at Tchaikovsky as well. “The Russian composer is surely no ordinary talent, but rather an inflated one, obsessed with posturing as a man of genius and lacking of all discrimination and taste.”Tchaikovsky cut out the review and literally carried the critic’s words in his pocket for several months, becoming very depressed. The concerto’s future seemed catastrophic.

Things began to look up when, on December 4, 1881, Adolf Brodsky, the second dedicatee, premiered the work in Vienna and wrote, “ One can play the concerto again and again and never be bored. And, this (repetition) is a most important circumstance for conquering its difficulties.” The concerto was revived.

It is true that the concerto demanded new violin techniques, but not impossible ones. In this regard the concerto was forward looking, ranking among those musical works whose demands initiated new technical abilities and expertise from the performer. Ultimately, as violinists improved, Tchaikovsky’s work has become one of the great showpieces in violin repertoire. Its fanciful gypsy-like tunes, colorful Russian orchestration and pyrotechnics make it a timeless thriller. “I never compose in the abstract,” Tchaikovsky explained. “I invent the musical idea and its instrumentation simultaneously.” Concept and instrumentation were one.

Years later, Auer regretted his early refusal to play the concerto. In the Musical Courier, January 1912, he stated, “I have often deeply regretted (my refusal) and before Tchaikovsky’s death received absolution from him. “

A brief introduction from the first violins opens the concerto. After a small crescendo, the soloist is launched unobtrusively with a tiny solo and presentation of the main theme, sung above minimal string accompaniment. The subject becomes increasingly elaborate, gains strength, and the orchestra adds weight and coloration. A second theme, marked con molto espressione, is similar and equally beguiling. Such lack of contrast between the two main themes is unusual, but the composer’s intent was to write idiomatically for the violin, not to genuflect to traditional formal controls. The development section savors the main theme before growing into a fiery cadenza. A recapitulation follows
the soloist’s high-wire performance, but then the orchestra takes a bow with its own extravaganza in a coda, which asks for no less than four accelerations of tempi.

The second movement (canzonetta) is exactly that: a small, quiet, song. Both its structure (ABA) and texture are simple. Woodwind chords prepare the soloist’s setting. Two elegant themes are quietly presented with accompaniment from violins, violas, and French horns. In the third section, the woodwinds return with a recall of the opening, and lead directly into the finale.

In contrast, the third movement immediately ignites renewed vigor and acrobatics. The soloist whips out a dance-like tune, which is capsulated in rondo format (alternating theme and episodes.) Tchaikovsky releases all orchestral stops and the soloist, now launched on a frenetic ride, is front and center. Keeping up, he must navigate perilous scales, double stops, dangerous leaps with blazing speed and accuracy. Herein lie many of the technical difficulties alluded to earlier. The effect is undeniably stunning. Michael Steinberg concluded that “Although Tchaikovsky could not please Dr. Hanslick, he has no trouble at all winning us over!”

© Marianne Williams Tobias, Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, 2015

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