Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D Major, Op.35

The spring of 1878 was a significant period for Tchaikovsky. He gradually began to emerge from the depression brought on by his disastrous marriage to Antonina Miliukova. The composer rested in the Swiss resort of Clarens and he was working on his Piano Sonata in G major but finding it heavy going.  Presently he was joined there by his composition pupil, the violinist Iosif Kotek, for whom Tchaikovsky felt a warm affection. The two played works for violin and piano together, including a violin-and-piano arrangement of Édouard Lalo’s Symphonie espagnole. Tchaikovsky was fascinated by the work and wrote to his friend and patron Nadezhda von Meck: “It [the Symphonie espagnole] has a lot of freshness, lightness, of piquant rhythms, of beautiful and excellently harmonized melodies…. He [Lalo], in the same way as Léo Delibes and Bizet, does not strive after profundity, but he carefully avoids routine, seeks out new forms, and thinks more about musical beauty than about observing established traditions, as do the Germans.”

Tchaikovsky made swift, steady progress on the concerto, including works for violin and orchestra. His Piano Concerto No 1 and the famous Variations on a Rococo Theme for cello and orchestra were also composed.  Inspired by Lalo’s Spanish Symphony, Tchaikovsky decided to write a Violin Concerto for Kotek. Work progressed rapidly and after only a month the work was completed, he work was completed within a month despite the middle movement getting a complete rewrite (a version of the original movement was preserved as the first of the three pieces for violin and piano, Souvenir d’un lieu cher). Since Tchaikovsky was not a violinist, he sought the advice of Kotek on the completion of the solo part. “How lovingly he’s busying himself with my concerto!” Tchaikovsky wrote to his brother Anatoly on the day he completed the new slow movement. “He plays it marvelously.” Tchaikovsky planned to dedicate the concerto to Joseph Kotek, but felt constrained by the gossip that he and the young man were on intimate terms. In 1881, he broke with Kotek after the latter refused to play the Violin Concerto, believing it was poorly received and would do damage to his budding career. However, he did dedicate to Kotek the Valse-Scherzo for violin and orchestra, written in 1877, on its publication in 1878.

Tchaikovsky intended the first performance to be given by Leopold Auer, for whom he had written his Sérénade mélancolique for violin and orchestra, and accordingly dedicated the work to him. Auer refused, however, meaning that the planned premiere for March 1879 had to be cancelled and a new soloist found. Decades later, the violinist told New York’s Musical Courier magazine that the first feeling he experienced was one of immense gratitude, but then regretted that Tchaikovsky had not shown him the work in progress. “A lot of awkward spots would have been saved,” says the performer.

In the end, the first performance of the work was entrusted to violinist Adolf Brodsky. The Violin Concerto was premiered on 4 December 1881 in Vienna, under the baton of Hans Richter. Tchaikovsky changed his dedication to Brodsky. Critical reaction was mixed. The influential critic Eduard Hanslick called it “long and pretentious” and said that it “brought us face to face with the revolting thought that music can exist which stinks to the ear”. Nonetheless, Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto remained one of listeners’ favourites. It is also a must-perform work at the International Competition named after the composer, and the best violinists in the world consider it an honour to perform this work. The concerto is in three movements: Allegro moderato, Canzonetta: Andante , Finale: Allegro vivacissimo.

The richness and boldness of Tchaikovsky’s creative imagination are boundless. They are subject to a firm constructive will and are brought together within strict, rationally organized forms, but they do not limit the freedom and immediacy of expression. The themes captivate with their melodic beauty and plasticity; they unfold naturally and unforced, gradually expanding and growing. The two themes of the first movement are not contrasting, rather they complement each other. The first is more energetic and masculine, rhythmically distinct, the other is lyrical and soft. Both have a light major colouring and differ only in the shades of expression. Particularly remarkable for its melodic breadth and plastic drawing is the second theme, which can easily be counted among Tchaikovsky’s finest lyrical melodies. Growing out of the simple motif of the chorus, in its continuous and intense development it reaches a vast range of more than two octaves and acquires a vividly expressive sound.The general bright mood is not disturbed by the concerto’s middle movement, a miniature canzonetta that is shrouded in a haze of light, undeep reverie. (As already mentioned, Tchaikovsky originally wrote another middle movement, more expansive in form and sustained in an elegiac tone. But apparently the composer felt that it did not suit the general structure of the work well enough and might give a sense of extension, so he decided to replace it with another, simpler and shorter one). Tchaikovsky follows the symphonic concept already established in his oeuvre in the whirlwind finale, turning to images of festive folk revelry. The second theme of the rondo-sonata form, with its sweeping rhythmically acutely accentuated theme, is particularly vividly folk-genre in character, sounding against a background of ‘rustic’ quavers in the cellos and persistent, boisterously teasing repetitions of the same short melodic flourish. In the course of development this theme unexpectedly changes its appearance, acquiring a soft and graceful character (molto meno mosso), but soon gives way again to vigorous motor movement.

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