Program Notes


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

DIED: November 6, 1893, Saint Petersburg, Russia

COMPOSED: Begun in March 1878, and completed on April 11

WORLD PREMIERE: December 4, 1881. Adolf Brodsky was soloist, with Hans Richter and the Vienna Philharmonic

US PREMIERE: January 18, 1889. Maud Powell was soloist, with Walter Damrosch and the New York Symphony

INSTRUMENTATION: Solo violin, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and strings

DURATION: About 33 mins

THE BACKSTORY  Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto is as indispensable to violinists as his B-flat minor Piano Concerto is to the keyboard lions. Each work got off to a dismaying start. The Piano Concerto, completed early in 1875, was rejected by Nicolai Rubinstein in the most brutal terms and had to travel to faraway Boston for its premiere. Three years later, the painful episode repeated itself with the Violin Concerto, which was turned down by its dedicatee, the influential concertmaster of the Imperial Orchestra in Saint Petersburg, Leopold Auer.

From the beginning, Tchaikovsky had intended the concerto for Auer. Here is the story as Auer told it to The Musical Courier, writing from Saint Petersburg on January 12, 1912:

When Tchaikovsky came to me one evening, about thirty years ago, and presented me with a roll of music, great was my astonishment on finding that this proved to be the Violin Concerto, dedicated to me, completed, and already in print. My first feeling was one of gratitude for this proof of his sympathy toward me, which honored me as an artist. On closer acquaintance with the composition, I regretted that the great composer had not shown it to me before committing it to print. Much unpleasantness might then have been spared us both. . . .

Warmly as I had championed the symphonic works of the young composer (who was not at that time universally recognized), I could not feel the same enthusiasm for the Violin Concerto, with the exception of the first movement; still less could I place it on the same level as his strictly orchestral compositions. I am still of the same opinion. My delay in bringing the concerto before the public was partly due to this doubt in my mind as to its intrinsic worth, and partly that I found it would be necessary, for purely technical reasons, to make some slight alterations in the passages of the solo part. This delicate and difficult task I subsequently undertook, and re-edited the violin solo part, and it is this edition which has been played by me, as also by all my pupils, up to the present day. It is incorrect to state that I had declared the concerto in original form technically unplayable. What I did say was that some of the passages were not suited to the character of the instrument, and that, however perfectly rendered, they would not sound as well as the composer had imagined. . . .

The concerto has made its way in the world, and after all, that is the most important thing. It is impossible to please everybody.

Nicolai Rubinstein had eventually come around in the matter of the Piano Concerto, and Auer not only became a distinguished exponent of the Violin Concerto but, as he said, taught it to his remarkable progeny of pupils—Heifetz, Elman, Zimbalist, Seidel, Parlow, and others. As for Auer’s editorial emendations, they may be unnecessary, strictly speaking, but they are in no sense a betrayal. But 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.” And hence the delayed premiere in a far-off and unsympathetic place.

Adolf Brodsky, who turned thirty in 1881, was of Russian birth, but trained chiefly in Vienna. He became an important quartet leader, served as concertmaster of the New York Symphony and of the Hallé Orchestra in Manchester, England, and eventually settled in the latter city as Director of the Royal College of Music. He had already tried to place Tchaikovsky’s concerto with the orchestras of Pasdeloup and Colonne in Paris before he managed to persuade Hans Richter and the Vienna Philharmonic. Brodsky was warmly applauded, but the music itself was hissed. What is best remembered about the premiere is Eduard Hanslick’s review in the Vienna Neue freie Presse:

The Russian composer Tchaikovsky is surely no ordinary talent, but rather, an inflated one, obsessed with posturing as a man of genius, lacking discrimination and taste. . . . The same can be said for his new, long, and ambitious Violin Concerto. For a while it proceeds soberly, musically, and not mindlessly, but soon vulgarity gains the upper hand and dominates until the end of the first movement. The violin is no longer played; it is tugged about, torn, beaten black and blue. . . . The adagio is well on the way to reconciling us and winning us over, but it soon breaks off to make way for a finale that 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 for the first time confronts us with the hideous idea that there may be compositions whose stink one can hear.

THE MUSIC  But, as Leopold Auer said, it is impossible to please everybody. Tchaikovsky pleases us right away with a gracious melody, minimally accompanied, for the violins of the orchestra. Indeed, we had better enjoy it now, because he will not bring it back. But as early as the ninth measure, a few instruments abruptly change the subject and build up suspense with a quiet dominant pedal. The violins at once get into the spirit of this new development, and they have no difficulty running over those few woodwinds who are still nostalgic about the opening melody. And thus the soloist’s entrance is effectively prepared. What she plays at first is the orchestral violins’ response to the dominant pedal, but set squarely into a harmonic firmament and turned into a “real” theme. Later, Tchaikovsky introduces another theme for the solo violin, quiet but con molto espressione. The transitional passages provide the occasion for the fireworks for which the concerto is justly famous. The cadenza is Tchaikovsky’s own, and it adds interesting new thoughts on the themes and provides further technical alarums and excursions.

At the first run-through in April 1878 everybody, Tchaikovsky included, sensed that the slow movement was not right. Tchaikovsky quickly provided a replacement in the form of the present Canzonetta and found a new home for the original Andante as the Méditation that begins the three-movement suite for violin and piano Souvenir dun lieu cher. The Canzonetta is lovely indeed, both in its melodic inspiration and in its delicately placed, beautifully detailed accompaniments.

Perhaps with his eye on the parallel place in Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, Tchaikovsky invents a dramatic crossing into the finale, though unlike Beethoven he writes his own transitional cadenza. So far we have met the violin as a singer and as an instrument that allows brilliant and rapid voyages across a great range. Now Tchaikovsky presents it to us with the memory of its folk heritage intact. We can read Hanslick again and recognize what he is talking about when he is so offended. Tchaikovsky’s finale sounds to us like a distinctly urban, cultured genre picture of country life, but one can imagine that in the context of 1881 Vienna it might have struck some delicate noses as pretty 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.

(June 2019)

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