Composed: 1903, rev. 1905
Length: c. 31 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, strings, and solo violin
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: November 5, 1931, Artur Rodzinski conducting, and soloist Efrem Zimbalist
Sibelius was trained as a violinist, although he never became a virtuoso performer. He started late on the instrument and gave up his ambitions late: he auditioned, unsuccessfully, for a place in the Vienna Philharmonic when he was 26, and when he was 50 could still write in his diary, “Dreamed I was twelve years old and a virtuoso.”
It is tempting, then, to imagine all sorts of personal issues sublimated in Sibelius’ Violin Concerto. Certainly inner demons were at play when he wrote it. In 1903 Sibelius was a celebrity in Finland and beginning to be known throughout Europe. He was also drinking heavily and living far beyond his means.
One of his strongest supporters at the time was the violinist Willy Burmester, who was eager to play the new concerto on which Sibelius was working. The composer readily promised the premiere to Burmester. He then made a sudden, unexplained, and seemingly self-destructive change, entrusting the 1904 Helsinki premiere instead to one Viktor Novácek. The result was an artistic disaster, as “a red-faced and perspiring Viktor Novácˇek fought a losing battle,” according to Sibelius biographer Erik Tawaststjerna. The influential critic Karl Flodin, generally favorable to Sibelius, reviewed it negatively not once, but twice.
Chastened, Sibelius went back to work and revised the Concerto heavily. Still not reconciled to Burmester, for whatever reason, Sibelius gave the new version to Karl Halir, who played the premiere in Berlin in 1905, with no less than Richard Strauss conducting the Berlin Philharmonic.
Very little of all this travail is apparent in the Concerto, though it gives even the most accomplished violinists cause for trepidation. It is a soloist’s concerto, squarely in the virtuoso tradition – and virtuosos have taken it to heart, making it the most often recorded 20th-century concerto, David Oistrakh alone recording it four times. It opens with the most magical, naturally expressive of themes, given to the soloist almost immediately, like the beginning of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, a work Sibelius played as a student.
But if there is plenty of room for technical display, it is displayed with a formal purpose quite characteristic of Sibelius. The cadenza in the first movement serves basically as the movement’s development section. (Remarkably, in the original version, the one that gave poor Novácek such trouble, there was a second cadenza, longer and more difficult than the surviving one.)
After the bristling tensions and dark energy of the first movement, the slow movement comes as a gift of grace, a moment of timelessness in an otherwise very time-conscious piece. The stark main theme is another wondrous inspiration – “mercilessly beautiful,” in the poet Lassi Nummi’s ecstatic vision of the Concerto – and this movement was the one Sibelius had the least doubt about, leaving it largely untouched during his ruthless purge of all unessentials in revision.
With the finale we are emphatically back in the flow of time, with an unrelenting forward motion. It is obsessive and driven, yes, but also brilliant and exciting, orchestra and soloist seeming to jostle each other for control of this speeding rocket.
— John Henken