Length: c. 22 minutes
Orchestration: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, E-flat clarinet, 3 bassoons (3rd = contrabassoon), 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, strings, and solo violin
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: March 25, 1965, with violinist Tossy Spivakovsky, Zubin Mehta conducting
The idea of writing a violin concerto was suggested to Stravinsky in 1930 by Willy Strecker, head of the Schott publishing firm in Mainz, as a vehicle for a young Polish-American violinist named Samuel Dushkin, a pupil of Leopold Auer and Fritz Kreisler. The composer's initial, seemingly alarmed response was, "But I am not a violinist!" He was, in fact, a pianist, whose two previous concertos had been written for his own performance. But this turned out not to be a rejection of the notion of writing for the violin; it was a qualified yes.
Stravinsky sought the advice of fellow composer Paul Hindemith, who was also a professional violist. Hindemith assured Stravinsky that the lack of first-hand experience with the violin would not be an impediment; on the contrary, he was certain that it would help Stravinsky "avoid a routine technique and would give rise to ideas which would not be suggested by the familiar movement of the fingers." Stravinsky, who seldom (ever?) lacked self-confidence was reassured by these words and set himself to the task.
Much later, in 1960, he would write: "[The Concerto] was commissioned for Samuel Dushkin by his patron and - in that worst year of the depression, 1931 - my 'angel,' the American gentleman Blair Fairchild. [Fairchild was also a successful businessman, a composer, and a diplomat with postings in Turkey and Iran]. He had heard Dushkin the child prodigy and he had sponsored his education and the violinist's career ever since… Dushkin came to confer with me [in France, where the composer was living] during the months of composition, and thus began a friendship and a musical collaboration that have lasted 30 years."
Dushkin would himself recall of the earliest stages of work on the Concerto. "One day when we were lunching in a restaurant, Stravinsky took out a piece of paper and wrote down this chord and asked me if it could be played. I had never seen a chord with such an enormous stretch, from the E to the top A, and I said 'No.' Stravinsky said sadly 'Quel dommage!' (What a pity!) After I got home, I tried it, and, to my astonishment, found that in that register, the stretch of the eleventh was relatively easy to play, and the sound fascinated me. I telephoned Stravinsky at once to tell him that it could be done. When the Concerto was finished, more than six months later, I understood his disappointment when I first said 'No.' This chord, in a different dress, begins each of the four movements." Stravinsky himself calls it his "passport" to the Concerto.
The world premiere took place on October 23, 1931, in Berlin, the composer conducting the Berlin Radio Symphony with, of course, Dushkin as soloist.
Later, in his characteristically feisty manner, the composer would observe: "The Violin Concerto was not inspired by or modeled on any example. I do not like the standard violin concertos - not Mozart's, Beethoven's, or Brahms'. To my mind, the only masterpiece in the field is Schoenberg's, and that was written several years after mine. The titles of my movements, Toccata, Aria, Capriccio, suggest Bach, however, and so to some extent does the musical substance. My favorite Bach solo concerto is the one for two violins, as the duet with a violin from the orchestra in the last movement must show. But the Violin Concerto contains other duet combinations, too, and the texture of the music is more chamber music in style than orchestral."
Stravinsky's Violin Concerto followed the reverse procedure of the composer's ballet scores, which began life as music for the stage and then became even more popular in concert, e.g. Le sacre du printemps and Petrushka. George Balanchine, with the composer looking over his shoulder, choreographed the Concerto in 1941 as Balustrade for Col. De Basil's Ballet Russe. This version quickly disappeared. And although the Concerto had by the late 1950s been taken up by such celebrated artists as Arthur Grumiaux and Isaac Stern, it did not, ironically, become part of the repertoire of every young violin virtuoso with the fingers (a given these days) and, perhaps more importantly, the requisite rhythmic acuity and saucy wit until after 1972, when Balanchine returned to the score with new choreography - now titled, simply, Violin Concerto - for his own New York City Ballet. It proved to be one of the great successes of his later career and, incidentally or not, an inspiration to concert violinists as well.
- Herbert Glass, after many years as a columnist-critic for the Los Angeles Times, has for the past decade been the English-language annotator and editor for the Salzburg Festival.