Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto

Pyotr IlyichTchaikovsky (1840-1893)
Violin Concerto in D major, Op.35

1.Allegro moderato
2.Canzonetta: Andante
3.Finale: Allegro vivacissimo

In July 1877 Tchaikovsky married Antonina Miliukova. He was neither the first nor the last man to enter into matrimony as a facade for his real inclinations. It was, however, by any standards one of the most catastrophically ill-advised acts he could have performed. He had first met her in 1865, when he was 25 and she 16. He did not remember this occasion although it seems she did, and carried a torch for him ever after. She later studied at the Moscow Conservatory where Tchaikovsky was one of her professors, but had to leave due to financial difficulties.

She wrote to him at least twice in 1877, and their engagement was announced that year. By then she was 28, rather past what was then considered the ideal marrying age, and Tchaikovsky was the subject of gossip concerning his sexual tastes. He hoped that marriage would provide the cover for him to pursue his own liaisons as before. The marriage would therefore appear to have been the product of a certain desperation on both sides. Even on their honeymoon, Tchaikovsky was writing to his sister detailing all that he despised about Antonina and her family.

Entering an institution to which he was so unsuited with a woman whom he did not even like very much was clearly not going to end well. Tchaikovsky duly suffered a mental collapse and walked out on the marriage after only six weeks. The couple remained legally married until Tchaikovsky’s death, and Antonina spent 20 of the 24 years she outlived her husband in an asylum. Her own reminiscences of her marriage were recorded there after her husband’s death. They suggest a naive woman unable properly to understand what had happened but vaguely aware that there had been some sort of misunderstanding between them. For his part, Tchaikovsky virulently criticised her in letters to his friends, referring to her as “The Reptile.” They met only a couple of times again, even then much to Tchaikovsky’s disgust.

Tchaikovsky escaped to a resort by Lake Geneva in Switzerland to recover. It was here that his Violin Concerto took shape. He was joined by a pupil of his: Yosif Kotek was talented enough to have been a pupil of Joseph Joachim. They played through a number of works on violin and piano, including the French composer Eduard Lalo’s Symphonie espagnole. This seems to have been the immediate catalyst for the concerto. He wrote to his patron, Nadezhda von Meck. “Lalo... does not strive after profundity, but he carefully avoids routine, seeks out new forms, and thinks more about musical beauty than about observing established traditions, as do the Germans.”

With Kotek on hand to provide technical advice, work on the new concerto proceeded swiftly and it was completed within a month, even though Tchaikovsky replaced the original middle movement with the Canzonetta that provides the lyrical heart. He hoped that the violinist Leopold Auer would give the first performance. In his enthusiasm he sent it straight to his publisher complete with dedication: it was in print before the dedicatee had actually seen it. Later in life, Auer denied the rumour that he had declared the concerto “unplayable”, but he was certainly not convinced of its quality, and felt that some of the violin writing was not suited to the instrument. He therefore declined to perform it, and the planned premiere in March 1879 had to be cancelled. Eventually Adolf Brodsky became the first performer, and second dedicatee of the concerto in December 1881.

Reactions were mixed. “Long and pretentious” was the judgement of the influential critic Eduard Hanslick, while Theodore Helm of the Wiener Signale declared it to be “an accumulation of discords, confused climaxes and dressed-up trivialities, covered by the national flag of the most barbarous sort of Russian nihilism.” None of this has prevented it becoming a firmly established favourite with violinists and audiences alike.

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