Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)

Born May 7, 1840 in Kamsko-Votkinsk, Russia.
Died November 6, 1893 in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Violin Concerto, Op.35 in D Major

Composed March 17-April 11 1878.

First Performance: December 4, 1881 with Adolf Brodsky as soloist Hans Richter conducting the Vienna Philharmonic.

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, strings.

In the spring of 1877 Tchaikovsky received a declaration of love in a letter from a woman whom he had met in 1865. She was later his student at the Moscow Conservatory. In spite of describing her as “… a woman with whom I am not the least in love”, in June 1877 he asked her to marry him. His reasons can only be guessed at. Perhaps he was succumbing to pressures from his family or perhaps he wanted to hide his homosexuality which was then publicly scorned. Not surprisingly the marriage was a disaster. They were separated after only 6 weeks. They never divorced but also never saw each other again. Any mention of “the reptile” as he called her would leave him upset for days.

To recover from this disastrous marriage Tchaikovsky began to travel finally ending up in March 1878 at a Swiss retreat of the shores of Lake Geneva in Clarens (where Stravinsky worked on the Rite of Spring).

Kotek and Tchaikovsky

He began composing again, working on several piano pieces including a sonata there. Within a few days he was visited by his former pupil and friend, violinist Yosif Kotek (1855-1885). Kotek was the one who introduced him to his patroness Nadezhda von Meck (1831-1894). Inspired after playing through Lalo’s Symphonie Espagnole with Kotek, he began work on a violin concerto on March 17th. On March 19, 1878, he wrote to Mme. von Meck: “For the first time in my life I have begun to work on a new piece before finishing the one on hand. I could not resist the pleasure of sketching out the concerto, and allowed myself to be so carried away that the sonata has been set aside.” The first movement was finished by the end of the month and the rest was completed on April 11th. After playing the concerto over with Kotek in April, the original andante slow movement was replaced with the present Canzonetta. The original movement was recycled into his Op. 42 and retitled “Meditation”.

Kotek never played the concerto in public. He didn’t feel he was up to its technical demands. Tchaikovsky then dedicated it to Hungarian violinist, teacher and composer Leopold Auer (1845-1930) hoping that he would premiere it. Unfortunately Auer declined the dedication and declared the Violin Concerto “unplayable” – the same epithet used for his first Piano Concerto a few years earlier. Tchaikovsky was distressed by this pronouncement writing in his diary: “This verdict, coming from such an authority, had the effect of casting this unfortunate child of my imagination for many years to come into the limbo of hopelessly forgotten things.” It was not performed until December 1881 when it was rededicated to Russian violinist Adolf Brodsky (1851-1929) who gave the premiere in Vienna. This was the only one of Tchaikovsky’s major composition to be premiered outside Russia.

Reviews were mixed. Influential music critc Eduard Hanslick’s review appeared the next day in the Neue Frei Presse:

This is also the case as regards his long and pretentious Violin Concerto. For a time it proceeds in a regular fashion, it is musical and not without inspiration, then crudeness again gains the upper hand and reigns to the end of the first movement. The violin is no longer played; it is rent asunder, beaten black and blue. Whether it is actually possible to give clear effect to these hair-raising difficulties I do not know; but I am sure Mr. Brodsky in trying to do so made us suffer martyrdom as well as himself. The Adagio, with its tender Slavonic sadness, calmed and charmed us once more, but it breaks off suddenly, only to be followed by a finale which plunges us into the brutal, deplorable merriment of a Russian holiday carousal. We see savages, vulgar faces, hear course oaths and smell booze. Friedrich Vischer, describing lascivious paintings, once said there were pictures which “stink to the eye”. Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto brings to mind the hideous idea that there may be music which stinks to the ear.

Hanslick’s intemperate contumely deeply affected Tchaikovsky. To the end of his life he could recite this review word for word. It is interesting that Auer changed his mind about the work and later became one of its champions and for his famous students such as Heifetz it became a signature piece.

There are three movements.

1. Allegro moderato

2. Andante (Canzonetta)

3. Finale: Allegro vivacissimo

Allegro moderato.

After a brief introduction that contains materials not heard again, the soloist enters with a very brief cadenza leading to the lyrical main theme.

Example 1. main theme

The second theme is calmer but also lyrical. The orchestra presents the first theme followed by the soloist showing off with the second theme. The orchestra responds to lead the soloist to the difficult cadenza. Over the soloist’s final trill the recapitulation of both themes begins in the flutes. A gradual accelerando brings the movement to a brilliant climax.

Canzonetta (Andante).

The gentle middle movement is an arch form, based on a slow melancholy woodwind theme followed by the wistful, lyrical main subject in the muted violin’s lower register.

Example 2. Canzonetta

The despair of this opening is in complete contrast to the opening movement. A cheerful trio provides contrast but is followed by the darker opening sad music – unmuted and slightly modified – which brings the movement to a quiet close which leads directly to the finale.

Finale: Allegro vivacissimo.

The sonata-rondo finale is full of contrasts. There is a joyous folk-like dance with a fiery Russian character similar to a Trepak.

Many writers have noted that the main theme resembles the theme from finale of Mendelssohn’s concerto.

Example 3. Finale

The exuberant main theme is offset by more introspective passages introduced by the soloist over a drone in the lower strings.

Example 4.

As expected from a rondo form, these sections alternate with the themes being developed each time. The trepak finally takes over towards the end to bring the concerto to a rousing conclusion.