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Composed: 1878

Length: c. 33 minutes

Orchestration: solo violin with 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and strings

About this Piece

In October 1877, Tchaikovsky fled from his home and from a disastrous marriage that had lasted little over two months. It threw him into a deep depression, but curiously, this crisis that would have silenced most creative minds worked in his case in a positive direction. He never lost his will to compose even when he felt besieged by the world’s tormenting army. Always a wanderer, he left Russia and resumed work on two of his most masterly pieces, the opera Eugene Onegin and the Fourth Symphony. In March 1878, when he moved on from his refuge in Italy to Clarens in Switzerland, still troubled in spirit but rich in inspiration, he composed the Violin Concerto with remarkable speed.

His pupil Josef Kotek, a violinist of considerable ability, was one of the few people who had been aware of Tchaikovsky’s unhappiness in the first days of his marriage, and it is tempting to read an acknowledgment of confidence in the affectionate solo part of the concerto. Kotek visited Tchaikovsky in Clarens, and they played a great deal of music together, including Édouard Lalo’s recent Symphonie espagnole, which Tchaikovsky adored. The concerto was quickly written: the first movement in a week and the full draft in less than two weeks. Kotek was delighted with it, although both felt uneasy about the slow movement. No problem: Tchaikovsky immediately wrote another, the lovely Canzonetta.

The chosen key of D has an inescapable magic and brilliance on the violin. Beethoven appreciated this quality and used it to great effect in his only concerto for the instrument. Lalo’s Symphonie espagnole was also written in D, and Johannes Brahms a few months later completed his own Violin Concerto in D major. The course of Tchaikovsky’s concerto is not hard to follow, although the only real puzzle comes at the beginning: The first eight bars, so affecting and so innocent, are never heard again. The first subject proper is left until the soloist’s entry, and when it has generated a lively rush of notes, the second subject continues in precisely the same mood. It too develops in pace and complexity until the full orchestra gives out the main theme, like a grand ceremonial procession. The development follows, and a cadenza of great brilliance brings back the opening material. In the coda, the contest between violin and orchestra becomes more and more strident.

In the Canzonetta, a brief introductory passage for the wind section gives place to a melody of enchanting simplicity for the soloist. Nowhere in the movement is the writing the least bit showy; it contrasts and neatly dovetails with the rousing, brilliant Finale, where the composer’s Russian origin is more evident. It is abruptly sectional, the second tune being slower and even more folksy, over a drone bass in the cellos and a counterpoint in the bassoon. The third tune dialogues between solo winds (and later the soloist) in a similar manner as a melancholy scene in Eugene Onegin. All the tunes return, and the orchestra incites the soloist to a crackling display of fireworks to crown the concerto. ―Hugh Macdonald