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FastNotes

  • Though Dvorák’s only violin concerto was originally written for then-superstar violinist Joseph Joachim, composer and soloist had such creative differences during its preparation that Joachim refused to perform the work. It has since found its well-deserved niche in the repertoire.

  • The concerto is filled with what violinists then would have regarded as eccentricities: an intensely dramatic opening, with only the briefest introductory tutti; an exposition without a concluding tutti; and a highly concentrated reprise.
  • One element that irked Joachim was the segue from the first movement to the lusciously lyrical second. He was used to enjoying the public’s approbation at the full-stop ending of a traditional first movement.
  • The finale, a free rondo, is in the nature of a Slavonic Dance, opening and closing with a blistering syncopated triple-time furiant, the most energetic of Czech folk dances.

Composed: 1879, rev. 1880, 1882
Length: 32 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, strings, and solo violin
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: February 21, 1952, Alfred Wallenstein conducting, with violinist Nathan Milstein

Dvorák's sole Violin Concerto grew out of his relationship with the Hungarian violinist Joseph Joachim. The two first met in May 1878, and Joachim soon became one of the composer's supporters. (That Brahms and Joachim were close friends certainly helped, as did Dvorák's own knowledge of the violin, which he had played since his childhood.) Dvorák composed the concerto for Joachim at Simrock's suggestion, working at the score between May and September 1879. Dvorák revised the work in early 1880, taking Joachim's suggestions into account; as the composer wrote to Simrock, "Although I have retained some themes, I have written several new ones. The whole concept of the work is however changed. The harmonization, the orchestration, and the rhythms are new."

Even with the revisions, Joachim was never happy with the concerto. He finally returned the score to Dvorák in 1882. The composer revised the work again before its premiere in Prague in October 1883 with the Czech violinist Frantisek Ondrícek as soloist. Ondrícek also introduced the concerto in Vienna and London, part of the spread of Dvorák's music across Europe during the 1880s.

The concerto is in three movements. The opening allegro begins with a forthright statement from the orchestra, answered by a rustic, folk-like motive from the soloist. The movement as a whole unfolds according to sonata-form principles, with a terse but relaxed second subject followed by the development section launched by the soloist revisiting the movement's opening material. After a shortened recapitulation of the themes, though, the expected coda never arrives. Instead, Dvorák makes a transition without a break into the adagio, whose manifold beauties alone justify the concerto's persistence in the repertory. The finale, a dancing rondo, relies on thematic material characterized by the same folk-like energy found in the Slavonic Dances, but the tunes are not borrowed from any folk sources. Rather, they are the creations of a composer completely immersed in the musical traditions of his homeland.

- John Mangum is the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association's Program Designer/Annotator.