Violin Concerto in D major, op. 35
solo violin, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, strings
notes by James Keays
I. Allegro moderato
II. Canzonetta: Andante
III. Finale: Allegro vivacissimo
First performance: December 4, 1881, Vienna. Adolph Brodsky, violin. Hans Richter, conductor.
Although Tchaikovsky was often without peer when it came to writing lyric and dramatic works for the stage and orchestra hall, he was never able to express himself as well within the medium of the concerto. Some writers have suggested that his life-long avoidance of close interpersonal relationships made it difficult for him to come to grips with the personal struggle that often lies at the heart of a good Romantic concerto. Others suggested that he was too lyrical a composer to be able to write a forceful and dramatic work pitting an individual against the many. Whatever the reasons, his otherwise large catalog contains only one successful piano concerto and a single concerto for violin.
The Violin Concerto in D was written in 1878 during the period immediately after Tchaikovsky had fled from his disastrous marriage. To escape, he traveled to France, Italy, and Switzerland, where he met his old friend, the violinist Joseph Kotek. Together, they played Lalo’s Symphony Espagnole, and the experience apparently moved Tchaikovsky to immediately begin work on a concerto. The sketches were completed in only eleven days, while the scoring took only two weeks. Although Kotek advised him on the solo part, the work was dedicated to the famous Leopold Auer. (Kotek was later recompensed by another dedication.) When it came to performing the piece, however, both Kotek and Auer refused Tchaikovsky’s requeste to perform the premiere, claiming that the piece was impossible to play owing to the many double stops, glissandi, trills, leaps, and dissonances. A first performance was delayed until December 4, 1881, when Adolf Brodsky performed it with the Vienna Philharmonic. Though some in the audience hailed the work, the famous critic Eduard Hanslick believed that the work actually gave out a “bad smell.” A few years later, Auer was encouraging his students to study the work.
The work is filled with lyric melody suggestive of the Slavic and Russian folksong that so often found its way into Tchaikovsky’s ballets. Despite the difficulties of the solo part, the violin focuses on decorating the theme rather than on presenting purely technical passages. The second theme of the first movement has often been cited as an example of Tchaikovsky at his lyric best. Both themes are displayed predominantly in the extended written-out cadenza. An almost overly expressive Canzonetta in the distant and unexpected key of G minor serves as the second movement. In the lively finale, the influence of folksong is most strongly heard, both in the harmonies and in melodies built upon descending fourths. Taken as a whole, the work turned out to be one of Tchaikovsky’s most creative and least pretentious works, as well as a measure of how well he was able briefly to detach himself from his personal problems.
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