Violin Concerto in D Major, op. 35

          Most probably, no composer other than Beethoven has enjoyed the popularity in this country of that of Pyotr Tchaikovsky.  His reputation has been secure since his early maturity, and yet, it is equally true that no other major modern composer has endured the distortions and indignities as that imposed upon his personality and personal life after his death.  A welter of factors have been trotted out to “explain” his art and its personal genesis: his sexuality, politics, religious beliefs, social class.  Every generation of musicologists--radical and otherwise, social commentators, and political ideologues has taken its shots at the man.   And it must be said, chief among the negative attitudes simply has been the implication that his music is vulgar, overly emotional, and void of intellectual attainment--all clearly a reflection of the composer, himself!

          That said, it is refreshing to see that much of the critical persiflage of the last century is now being replaced by a clearer, less ideologically freighted appreciation.   He is historically important for his integration of the symphonic tradition of Beethoven and Schumann into the colorful, nationalistic atmosphere of Russia.   But, ultimately it is the eloquence and technical mastery of his compositions that founded his lasting popularity.  He was blessed with an extraordinary gift for melodic imagination, and learned to use it in contexts of structural integrity--not a given among the world’s great melodists.

          The violin concerto was written in 1878 during a time of growing success as a composer, after having lived in Moscow for slightly over a decade.  During that time he had composed four of his six symphonies, his first piano concerto, and other important works.  However, composition of the violin concerto is associated with one of the most controversial and unfortunate episodes in Tchaikovsky’s life--his ill-fated marriage with Antonina Ivanovna Milyukova.  It was a hurried affair, with neither party’s motives exactly clear even today, after endless sifting of the evidence.   It lasted only two months, but they never divorced.  Thereafter, Tchaikovsky underwent a long-term re-orientation in his artistic output.

          After returning from recuperation in Switzerland from the marriage, Tchaikovsky set to work on the concerto, collaborating with a young violinist, Iosif Kotek, who had been a student of his at the Moscow Conservatory.   It was completed swiftly, but the première was delayed, owing to the difficulty of finding a violinist who was either willing--or able-- to perform it.   It finally received its first public performance in Vienna in 1881.  The ensuing review by the famous Viennese critic, Eduard Hanslick (you may remember his difficulties with Richard Wagner) has gone down in journalistic history.  Among his comments were that in the work “the violin . . .is beaten black and blue;” that the finale has the “brutal and wretched jollity of a Russian holiday” with “savage vulgar faces . . . curses . . . and vodka.”  “Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto gives us for the first time the hideous notion that there can be music that stinks in the ear.”

          Well, today of course, we all know better.   It is one of the most difficult of violin concertos, and Tchaikovsky’s inimitable melodic gift is omnipresent.   It is a masterpiece, even though it never achieves the traditional balanced give and take expected between orchestra and soloist.   Its effervescence, bravura, and appealing melodies have earned it a lasting place in the répertoire.

          The first movement begins softly in the orchestra, with a clear theme—although it’s not the main one—followed shortly by intimations of the real main theme.  All of this doesn’t last long, for Tchaikovsky, unlike many of his peers, doesn’t believe in a long introduction before the soloist enters.  In this case, after a few meditative bars, the solo violin plunges right in to what is clearly the main theme.  Tchaikovsky’s themes are always clear, aren’t they?  There is, of course, a second theme, too, but the main point here is that the orchestra’s rôle is definitely subordinate to the soloist, who carries the tunes throughout.  Clearly apparent, as well, is the virtuosity necessary to bring off the violin part, which is a combination of the famed Tchaikovsky lyricism and a fiery intensity of challenging melodic figurations.   The cadenza before the recapitulation is Tchaikovsky’s and a more formidable one would be hard to cite.  For those who revel in violin pyrotechnics, this is your métier!   The driving gallop to the end of the movement is the pure Tchaikovsky familiar to all who know his other orchestra works.

            The woodwind section intones a little organ-like chorale to introduce the entry of the soloist in the slow movement.  The mood here is not one of tragedy or deep reflection, but seemingly one of a kind of pastoral rhapsody, and that would be altogether appropriate, considering the beauty of the Swiss countryside in which it was conceived.   An aura of improvisation pervades this relatively brief interlude, with ample opportunities for some exchanges between the soloist and the woodwinds. The woodwinds end the movement, as they began it, and without a break, we’re plunged immediately into the last movement.  After a few cadenza-like moments wherein the soloist toys with the main theme, it’s off to the races.   But it’s not an unalloyed dash to the end, for the composer wisely intersperses quiet moments that only enhance the return of the dizzying pyrotechnics. So back and forth we go, always driven by the élan and panache of Tchaikovsky’s inimitable skill at stirring up a climatic finish.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan