Violin Concerto in A Minor, op. 53

        Dvořák successfully composed in a wider variety of genres than do most major composers, owing to his receptiveness to commissions, his popular standing in the musical world, and his remarkable commitment to solving musical problems through effort, rather than waiting upon inspiration.  That being said, it must nevertheless be observed that the solo concerto played a relatively minor rôle in his œuvre.   Most music lovers are familiar with his cello concerto, but the A minor violin concerto is an equally attractive composition from an earlier period in his life.

        Dvořák labored early in his career as a violist in the local opera pit orchestra in Prague, and later supported himself into his thirties as a private piano teacher.    By that time he was achieving some recognition as a local young composer of talent, but he did not make an impact on the larger musical world in Europe until 1875.  He applied for an Austrian state stipend for artists with some substantial compositions in support and was accepted for financial aid.   His star rose dramatically the next year when Brahms was on the jury and threw his considerable influence behind Dvořák from then on.  Dvořák was flooded with opportunities from the big German music publishers, including commissions from significant artists, and that is the genesis of the A minor violin concerto.

        The great German violin virtuoso, Joseph Joachim, had performed Dvořák’s String Sextet in 1879, and that led Joachim to solicit Dvořák to compose the violin concerto.  It was duly finished by September of that same year, and dedicated to Joachim.   However, Joachim was unhappy with the work, and Dvořák promptly destroyed it and completed another version of it the next spring.   Apparently, it still didn’t please Joachim, for he never performed it, and the world première was given in Prague in 1883 by František Ondříček.  The second version does preserve the themes of the original, but in Dvořák’s words, “ . . . the whole concept of the work is different.” 

         While solo concertos of the nineteenth century often conjure up images of dazzling flights of virtuoso figurations, this early work of Dvořák is reflective of a particular time in his life (often called the first Slavonic period) when he turned away from the modern German style of the times—think Wagner--and towards an integration of Slavonic folk elements.   Accordingly, the concerto is rife with cantabile melodies, and the solo part is not so distinct unto itself, but thoroughly integrated with the orchestra as a partner, so to speak.  Thus, the soloist is heard from the beginning with the orchestra.   After a cadenza for the soloist, the first movement leads without a break into the slow, second movement—a gem of lyric beauty with a middle section that affords the soloist a chance to show off his technique.  A return to the slow section ends with an ingratiating solo by the horn.  The last movement is a highly entertaining amalgam of Bohemian elements, including the native Czech furiant and dumka.  Cast in a modified rondo form (basically a section that is repeated after brief diversions), the furiant of the opening and closing sections is a dance that alternates 3/4 and 2/4 metres, or if you prefer, sounds as though it has significant syncopations.   The dumka of the middle section is a traditional Slavic piece in duple time that is usually in a minor key and is contemplative, perhaps even a lament.   These two colorful folk elements admirably suit the alternating sections of the rondo form of the last movement, and together make for a truly Bohemian concerto.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan