Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Born in Votkinsk, Russia, May 7, 1840; died in St. Petersburg, Russia, November 6, 1893
Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto belongs to that illustrious group of masterpieces that were savaged by uncomprehending critics at their premieres. Nearly all the critics at its first performance — in Vienna on December 4, 1881 with Russian violinist Adolf Brodsky as soloist backed by the Vienna Philharmonic — gave the work negative reviews, but the one penned by the notoriously conservative Eduard Hanslick was so vicious it stung Tchaikovsky for years after. "Tchaikovsky is surely no ordinary talent, but rather, an inflated one … lacking discrimination and taste. … The same can be said for his new, long, and ambitious Violin Concerto. … The violin is no longer played; it is tugged about, torn, beaten black and blue." Hanslick demolished the 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."
Because of its flamboyant language and mind-boggling wrong-headedness, this is the review that has come down to us from a city that was generally unsympathetic to Tchaikovsky's Russian intensity. A much fairer judgment of the concerto's worth came from an anonymous critic for the Wiener Abendpost: "The first movement with its splendid, healthy themes, the mysterious, quiet middle movement (who could fail to be reminded by this of Turgenev's female characters!) and the wild peasant dance make up a whole for which we would claim an outstanding place among contemporary compositions."
Today, this work holds an outstanding place among all violin concertos. One of the more demanding works for the violin virtuoso, it is more remarkable still for its unwavering melodic inspiration and passionate expression of human feeling. Here Tchaikovsky speaks to us from the heart, using the communicative voice of the solo violin as his medium.
The concerto came in the aftermath of the composer's ill-conceived marriage to Antonina Milyukova in 1877. Eight months later in March 1878, his wanderings to escape his wife brought him to Clarens, Switzerland on the shores of Lake Geneva. Here he and his brother Modest were visited by the gifted 22-year-old violinist Yosif Kotek, a composition pupil of Tchaikovsky's in Moscow. Kotek had been a witness at the composer's wedding and a confidante of his post-nuptial anguish; now he provided both artistic inspiration and practical technical advice for Tchaikovsky's recently begun Violin Concerto. In less than a month, the work was nearly finished, and on April 3, Kotek and Tchaikovsky gave it a full reading at the piano. After the run-through, both agreed the slow movement was too slight for such a large work, and in one day flat, the composer replaced it with the tenderly melancholic Andante second movement it bears today.
So prodigal is Tchaikovsky's melodic inspiration that he can afford to begin the sonata-form opening movement with a lovely little theme for orchestral violins and then — just as he did at the beginning of his First Piano Concerto — never play it again. The orchestra next hints at the big theme to come and provides anticipatory excitement for the soloist. After a brief warm-up stretch, he launches one of Tchaikovsky's most inspired themes, and one with multiple personalities. At first, it is gentle, even wistful, but when the orchestra takes it up a few minutes later, it becomes very grand: music for an Imperial Russian ball. Later still in the development section, the soloist transforms it again with an intricately ornamented, double-stopped variation. The violin's second theme, begun in its warm lower register, retains its wistful nature. Much later in the poignant recapitulation section, the principal theme is beautifully adopted by the solo flute.
The exquisite second-movement “Canzonetta” (“little song”) in G minor — Tchaikovsky's one-day miracle — blends the melancholy colors of woodwinds with the violin. Tchaikovsky scholar David Brown suggests it reflects the composer's homesickness during his self-imposed exile from Russia. Rather than ending, it rises on a two-note sighing motive and then explodes into the Allegro vivacissimo finale.
In this hearty rondo inspired by Russian folk dance, Tchaikovsky finally lets the soloist fly. He alternates two contrasting themes: the first a high-spirited scamper; the second a slower, downward-drooping melody that shows off the violin's earthy low register and also features a nostalgic dialogue with woodwind solos. At the close, the dance keeps accelerating to a breathless finish.