Violin Concerto in D Major, opus 35
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 huge 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 a multiple personality. 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 warm lower register, retains its wistful nature. Tchaikovsky composed the soloist's cadenza, which explores new aspects of both themes, then leads to a poignant recapitulation in which the principal theme is beautifully appropriated 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 that 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 over a peasant-band drone bass and also features a nostalgic dialogue with woodwind solos. At the close, the dance keeps accelerating to a breathless finish.
Concerto for Orchestra, Sz 116
Born in Nagyszentmiklós, Hungary, March 25, 1881; died in New York City, September 26, 1945
As Fascism swept over Europe on the eve of World War II, many of the continent's leading musicians fled, either to save their lives or for reasons of conscience. Béla Bartók was one of the latter: he despised the Nazis and everything they stood for. His was a painful choice, for spiritually and artistically he drew all his nourishment from his native land; leaving Hungary for America in late 1940 was thus a bitter exile from which he never recovered.
The five years Bartók spent in the U.S. before succumbing to leukemia at the age of 64 were tormented by illness, financial insecurity, and, most of all, homesickness for Hungary and anxiety about the war. For two years, he wrote nothing of importance and claimed he no longer had any desire to compose. In 1943, his fellow Hungarian emigrés, conductor Fritz Reiner and violinist Joseph Szigeti, grew anxious about his plight and prevailed upon Serge Koussevitzky, music director of the Boston Symphony and a champion of new music, to commission a work from him for Boston. But they urged the maestro to be very careful in his approach, for Bartók would absolutely refuse if he thought this was an act of charity. Koussevitzky visited the composer, now wasted to 87 pounds from as yet undiagnosed leukemia, in his hospital room and offered him $1,000 to write what was to become his most popular work: the Concerto for Orchestra.
The commission proved to be a miraculous tonic both for Bartók's health and his creativity. Leaving the hospital for the healthful clime of Saranac Lake in the Adirondacks, he composed the Concerto for Orchestra in less than two months, between August and October 1943. More commissions poured in, and Bartók's creative drought was over. The Concerto's premiere by Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony on December 1, 1944 was a triumph, and its brilliant writing and greater accessibility finally made Bartók a truly popular composer.
As an introduction to the Concerto for Orchestra, Bartók wrote: "The general mood of the work represents, apart from the jesting second movement, a gradual transition from the sternness of the first movement and lugubrious death-song of the third, to the life-assertion of the last one. … The title of this symphony-like orchestral work is explained by its tendency to treat the single orchestral instruments in a concertant or soloistic manner." Indeed, instead of writing a concerto to show off the abilities of a soloist, Bartók displayed the virtuosity of an entire orchestra: the prowess of its woodwind soloists, the fleetness of its strings, the brilliance and precision of its brass. Its five movements center on a tragic Elegia, and its finale is a celebratory Hungarian round dance.
Pay special attention to the opening movement's slow introduction for it previews the bitter twisting theme — in flutes, then muted trumpets, then loudly in the strings — that will form the substance of the third-movement Elegia. It accelerates into the boldly outlined theme of the main Allegro vivace section.
Seriousness is interrupted by the second-movement "Game of Pairs," in which duos of bassoons, oboes, clarinets, flutes, and muted trumpets present five wry little dances with the dry accompaniment of a side drum. After a serene brass chorale, the pairs return with elaborations of the dances; notice the surging muted string and harp accompaniment under the trumpets.
The Elegia returns to the tragic mood and the music of the opening slow introduction. Surrounding the thematic core are passages of what Bartók called "night music": eerie swirls of woodwinds and strings with oboe and piccolo bird cries piercing the mist.
The fourth-movement Intermezzo alternates two folkish themes: a chirpy one led by solo oboe and a swooningly romantic one for violas and strings. Midway comes a rude interruption: a raucous send up of the endlessly repeated march tune from the first movement of Shostakovich's Seventh Symphony (then being played constantly by European and American orchestras); the mad tempo and raspberries from the brass leave no doubt about Bartók's distaste for this piece.
With his blazing finale, Bartók achieves "life-assertion" with a high-speed round dance. Here, the strings' virtuosity is demonstrated in their wild perpetual motion, while the brass rejoice in some of the most intricate fugal writing the composer ever created. Wrestling with cancer during the bleakest days of the war, Bartók here shows a heroic act of faith in affirming the ultimate triumph of life and creativity.