Tchaikovsky composed his Violin Concerto during a stay in Switzerland in 1878. Inspired by his interactions there with the young violinist Josef Kotek, the composer completed the entire concerto in less than a month.
The road to the Concerto’s premiere was not smooth. Tchaikovsky dedicated it to prominent violinist Leopold Auer, but Auer declined to perform it. Instead, Adolph Brodsky played the premiere, but was tremulously accompanied by the Vienna Philharmonic (on one rehearsal!).
Despite any other differences about the concerto, there was general agreement about the Canzonetta. Even Auer noted the “charm of the sorrowfully inflected second movement,” and celebrated critic Eduard Hanslick found the work “not without genius.”
The finale exults in sheer physicality, in sudden shifts of mood and meter, and in a gleeful fiddling essence unfettered by the old traditions of “proper” Germanic concerto writing.
Length: c. 35 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 3 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, strings, and solo violin
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: January 7, 1921 with violinist Max Rosen, Walter Henry Rothwell conducting
Tchaikovsky composed his Violin Concerto during a stay in Switzerland in 1878. Inspired by the presence of the young violinist Josef Kotek in his circle there, the composer completed the entire concerto in less than a month. During the work’s composition, Kotek and Tchaikovsky collaborated closely, but, almost as soon as the ink on the manuscript had dried, Kotek began to cool toward the work. This, added to Tchaikovsky’s need for a famous name on the work’s title-page to guarantee performances in Western Europe and America, meant that the dedication was offered to the Hungarian violinist Leopold Auer. He declined it, declaring the work too long and the solo part unplayable, something Tchaikovsky had heard before and a reminder that while Tchaikovsky’s music is considered comfortable (though by no means unchallenging) for listeners and performers today, this was not always the case.
Russian-born violinist Adolph Brodsky eventually mastered the concerto’s technical challenges well enough to premiere it in Vienna, where it was not well received. The critic Eduard Hanslick, whose staunch support of Brahms helped – perhaps a bit unfairly – to brand Brahms as a conservative, heaped abuse on the work’s innovative layout and solo part in his review of the first performance:
“For a while, it moves along well enough, musical and not lacking in spirit, but soon the roughness gets the upper hand and remains in charge until the end of the first movement. It is no longer a question of whether the violin is being played, but of being yanked about and torn to tatters. Whether it is at all possible to extract a pure sound out of these hair-raising acrobatics I do not know, but I do know that in making the attempt Mr. Brodsky tortured his audience no less than he did himself. The adagio, with its gentle Slav melancholy, is well on the way to reconciling us and winning us over. But abruptly it ends, making way for a finale that transports us into the brutish, grim jollity of a Russian church festival. In our mind’s eye we see nothing but common, ravaged faces, hear rough oaths, and smell cheap liquor.”
Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto appears unconventional when placed alongside stalwarts of the genre by other composers (not least the Brahms Concerto, which premiered two years before Tchaikovsky’s, and, no doubt, was fresh in Hanslick’s mind). The first movement combines lyricism with nobility, as the violin spins out the movement’s two themes over an ever-shifting accompaniment. The slow movement, which Tchaikovsky labeled Canzonetta (Little Song), opens with a delicate woodwind introduction, before the violin’s melancholy entry. The movement leads without pause to the rondo-finale, a movement with rhythmic abandon and a folk-like flavor. The rondo, which alternates a main theme with contrasting episodes, gives the violinist a chance for reckless bravura display. In a sense, Tchaikovsky’s concerto is guilty of some of the charges made by Hanslick, but what good concerto doesn’t benefit from some “hair-raising abandon” and a little bit of “brutish, grim jollity”?
— John Mangum