Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840 – 1893): Concerto in D major for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 35
Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons; 4 horns, 2 trumpets, trombone; strings; percussion
Performance time: 34 minutes
When it comes to malicious fun, it's hard to beat celebrating the stupidity of critics. The world of classical music is filled with poorly judged writing about masterpieces that have earned a cherished place in our hearts and in the standard repertory, but were viciously panned by critics when they were introduced. Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto is a favorite case in point: The nearly universal popularity of this richly beautiful concerto, full of spirit and singing melodies, is now so firmly established that it is hard to imagine there were dissenters when it was new. But their negative opinions followed a well-worn pattern that has afflicted many other concertos that have gone on to eventual success: first, a key instrumentalist declares the work poorly written for the instrument, perhaps even unplayable; next an early critic derides it as crude or tasteless; then the clamorous public embraces it, demanding more performances; and finally, early detractors reconsider or forget their reservations.
In this case, the manuscript was rejected by violinist Josif Kotek, a friend and composition student of Tchaikovsky's, after the composer chose the great Leopold Auer as dedicatee and to play its premiere. Auer had misgivings about the work and was widely quoted as calling it "unplayable," forcing the concerto's first public performance to be postponed until still another violinist, Adolph Brodsky, could be found. Brodsky introduced the concerto in Vienna on December 4, 1881.
More than three decades later, Auer recounted his early involvement with the concerto to a New York publication, the Musical Courier, in what amounted to a bit of self-justifying revisionist history. But the most famous incident in this concerto's bumptious beginnings is surely the review of the premiere by Eduard Hanslick, the dean of the Viennese music critics and one of the era's most influential tastemakers. Hanslick wrote:
The Russian composer Tchaikovsky is surely not an ordinary talent, but rather an inflated one, with a genius-obsession without discrimination or taste. Such is also his latest, long and pretentious Violin Concerto…[by] the end of the first movement, the violin is no longer played; it is beaten black and blue. The Adagio [the canzonetta second movement] is again on its best behavior, to pacify and to win us. But it soon breaks off to make way for a finale that transfers us to a brutal and wretched jollity of a Russian holiday. We see plainly the savage vulgar faces, we hear curses, we smell vodka…Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto gives us for the first time the hideous notion that there can be music that stinks to the ear.
Today we find such invective not only wildly inaccurate, but also shocking in its ethnic slander. "Music that stinks to the ear" remains one of the most infamous phrases in the annals of music history. If such writings amuse and astonish us with our benefit of hindsight, they were rarely fun for the composers involved — and especially not for Tchaikovsky, who brooded over negative critical opinion and reportedly read Hanslick's review over and over, until he had committed it to memory. His pain was not just a matter of an artist's sensitive ego (though he certainly had one of those); Tchaikovsky was well aware that he and his fellow-composers were belatedly creating a classical legacy for their country. A distinctive Russian sound was something he sought to cultivate, but not the smell of vodka — especially not as heard by a Viennese critic. Austrian and German music writers were notorious for believing their nations were the sole stewards of the European classical tradition.
Ironically, the concerto itself might never have been composed if Tchaikovsky had not been in flight from such critical and personal insecurities, which tormented him constantly. Negative reviews and his marriage to his pupil Antonini Ivanova Milioukov, through whose infatuation he sought to obscure his own homosexuality, made his life a nightmare. Though he arranged for himself and his wife to travel separately, their reunion loomed, along with the frightful prospect of cohabitation. His resulting depression worsened his fragile health. A forged telegram from his brother Anatoly provided an excuse for him to travel to St. Petersburg, where a doctor prescribed a divorce and further travel. He left for Germany, Switzerland and Italy less than two weeks later.
Tchaikovsky found respite on the shores of Lake Geneva in the Swiss resort town of Clarens and began work on the concerto. Descriptions of his life there seem idyllic: the lakeside landscape of Switzerland, peaceful and picturesque, with an abundance of piano-and-violin arrangements to explore with his pupil Josif Kotek. Their work on an arrangement of Édouard Lalo's boisterous Symphonie espagnole — an expansive, five-movement violin concerto — may have provided some creative impetus for Tchaikovsky to tackle a violin concerto of his own. As he wrote to his patron, the legendary Madame von Meck,
[Symphonie espagnole] has a great deal of freshness, lightness, piquant rhythms, and beautiful and excellently harmonized melodies…[Édouard Lalo], in the same manner as [French composers] Léo Delibes and Georges Bizet, does not strive after profundity, but rather he cautiously avoids routine, seeks out new forms, and thinks more about musical beauty than about observing established traditions, as do the Germans. [Note the counter-argument to Hanslick's ethno-centrism here. As music historian David Brown notes, Tchaikovsky "might almost have been writing the prescription for the violin concerto he himself was about to compose."]
Composition of the concerto proceeded swiftly, blessedly free of emotional encumbrance, with Tchaikovsky for once actually seeming to enjoy the act of creation. "For the first time in my life I have begun to work on a new piece before finishing the one on hand," he wrote to Madame von Meck. "I could not resist the pleasure of sketching out the concerto…" in addition to a sonata he was working on. He wrote to her again on April 20 to announce the concerto's completion scarcely six weeks after he had begun composing it, although other correspondence indicates he had been mulling its possibilties for years. Considering the harmonious process that engaged both Tchaikovsky and Kotek, the student's rejection of the piece — which followed Auer's characterization of it as "unplayable" — must have come as a shock. "How lovingly [Kotek] busies himself with my concerto," Tchaikovsky had told his brother Anatoly while composing it. "…He plays it marvelously."
What to Listen For
130 years after the concerto's premiere, Hanslick's esthetic judgments of it seem bizarre, but his contention that the violin is beaten "black and blue" is more understandable: Auer, one of the greatest virtuosos of his day, steadfastly maintained that the original version could not be played as written long after others were happily doing so. Since then, generations of violinists have found a way. As Auer finally told the Musical Courier, "The concerto has made its way in the world, and that is the most important thing."
The concerto's first movement, an allegro moderato in D major, is all graceful lyricism — seemingly an affectionate description of the scenic charms of Clarens, where it was composed. But its virtuosity and vigor seem to delineate the existential questions that are always present and passionately articulated in Tchaikovsky's major works, especially the symphonies. This emotional intensity reaches a climax in the buildup to the first cadenza.
The second movement, a serenely mournful andante cantabile, contrasts markedly with the first; the violin's entry is melancholy, and it voices a singing lament that eventually gives way to a happier pastoral melody, like a song of spring. Both moods shadow each other for the duration of the movement, as we alternate between brighter and darker soundscapes.
The concerto's final movement follows the second without pause. It is extravagantly marked allegro vivacissimo, and returns to the opening movement's D major key, recapturing its exuberant energy. This movement also incorporates an energetic Russian dance (Hanslick's whiff of vodka?) that leaps off the page with as the violinist's bow dances along with it. A nostalgic second theme provides an emotional counterpoint to the movement's higher-energy passages, but it finally eclipsed by a passionate, exuberant finale.