Program Notes

Concerto in D major for Violin and Orchestra, Opus 35 

BORN: May 7, 1840. Votkinsk, district of Viatka, Russia

DIED: November 6, 1893, Saint Petersburg, Russia

Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto got off to a rough start and was turned down by the musician for whom it was intended, Leopold Auer, the influential concertmaster of the Imperial Orchestra in Saint Petersburg. While Auer eventually became a distinguished exponent of the concerto, his initial rejection was a practical nuisance. His verdict, wrote Tchaikovsky, “coming from such an authority, . . . had the effect of casting this unfortunate child of my imagination into the limbo of the hopelessly forgotten.” Hence the delayed premiere in December 1881, when Adolf Brodsky introduced the work with Hans Richter and the Vienna Philharmonic. What is best remembered about the premiere is Eduard Hanslick's review in the Vienna Neue freie Presse:

The violin is no longer played; it is tugged about, torn, beaten black and blue. . . . [The] finale . . . transports us to the brutal and wretched jollity of a Russian church festival. We see a host of savage, vulgar faces, we hear crude curses, and smell the booze. In the course of a discussion of obscene illustrations, Friedrich Vischer once maintained that there were pictures which one could see stink. Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto . . . confronts us with the hideous idea that there may be compositions whose stink one can hear.

But, as Leopold Auer said, it is impossible to please everybody. Tchaikovsky pleases us right away with a gracious melody for the violins of the orchestra. A few instruments abruptly change the subject and build up suspense. The violins at once get into the spirit of this new development. And thus the soloist's entrance is effectively prepared.

At the first run-through in April 1878, everybody sensed that the slow movement was not right. Tchaikovsky provided a replacement in the form of the lovely Canzonetta. The composer invents a dramatic crossing into the finale. Here Tchaikovsky presents the violin with the memory of its folk heritage intact. This finale sounds to us today like a cultured genre picture of country life, but one can imagine that it might have struck some delicate Viennese noses as uncivilized.—Michael Steinberg

Michael Steinberg, the San Francisco Symphony’s Program Annotator from 1979 to 1999 and a contributing writer to our program book until his death in 2009, was one of the nation’s pre-eminent writers on music. We are privileged to continue publishing his program notes. His books are available at the Symphony Store in Davies Symphony Hall.

(July 2019)

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