FEBRUARY 9, 2019 | 7:30 PM

Concerto in D Major for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 35

Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840–1893)


Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto is the result of great inner turmoil. In 1877, Tchaikovsky (then 37 years old) married Antonina Miliukova, a former student of his who had written to him not long before he decided to marry her to tell him she was in love with him. Tchaikovsky was not in love with her, but he seemed to find it easier to marry her for a variety of reasons. The marriage failed quickly.     As the marriage dissolved, Tchaikovsky’s patroness and friend, Nadezhda von Meck, stepped in and funded his flight abroad. (Though Tchaikovsky and von Meck never met, they remained close friends for many years.) Now unencumbered, Tchaikovsky threw himself into his work. In a letter to von Meck from this time he wrote, “My heart is full. It thirsts to pour itself out in music.” In the spring of 1878, he settled briefly in Switzerland and completed a rough draft of the Violin Concerto, completing the full scoring mere weeks later.

He also completed the Fourth Symphony and Eugene Onegin the same year. Tchaikovsky was inspired to write this violin concerto by a visit from another student and friend, violinist Yosif Kotek. After playing through Édouard Lalo’s Symphonie espagnole with Kotek, Tchaikovsky remarked on how much he liked the piece, expressing appreciation that Lalo “carefully avoids routine, seeks out new forms, and thinks more about musical beauty than about observing established traditions.” Kotek remained with Tchaikovsky while he worked, learning the new score as it was written and offering technical advice about the instrument when called on. (Both Tchaikovsky and Kotek were unhappy with the second movement, and he ended up replacing it with a new one before completing the work.)

    Tchaikovsky dedicated his new concerto to renowned violinist Leopold Auer, planning the premiere for the next year in order to give Auer time to learn the piece. Auer, however, promptly declared the concerto unplayable and refused to continue. Tchaikovsky took this quite hard and didn’t expect the work to be performed at all after being denounced by such a well-known performer. But just two years later, a young violinist named Adolf Brodsky contacted Tchaikovsky’s publisher. He’d learned the work and had talked conductor Hans Richter into performing it with him.  The Vienna Philharmonic. Commentator Phillip Huscher notes that this first performance in December, 1881 must have been “horrible, for the orchestra, under rehearsed and reading from parts chock full of mistakes, played pianissimo throughout, to avert disaster.”

Unfortunately, disaster was not entirely averted but appeared in the form of a review written by the critic Eduard Hanslick: “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 … that transfers us to the brutal and wretched jollity of a Russian holiday. We see plainly the savage vulgar faces, we hear curses, we smell vodka. Friedrich Vischer once observed, speaking of obscene pictures, that they stink to the eye. Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto gives us for the first time the hideous notion that there can be music that stinks to the ear.”

In spite of this setback, which haunted Tchaikovsky, Brodsky continued to advocate for and perform the Concerto, and Tchaikovsky amended the dedication from Auer to Brodsky. Auer eventually also came around, and although he never performed the work himself,he taught it to many of his students, including the great violinist Jascha Heifetz. 

In form and content, the opening movement, marked allegro moderato, could stand on its own. Tchaikovsky gives us lovely, long, expressive melodies that he highlights with delicate scoring. He sets these against more powerful virtuosic passages. The andante cantabile displays an aching sweetness in contrast to the previous movement. The soloist uses a mute to change the quality of the sound and achieve a more subdued character. This movement runs straight into the finale in D Major, marked allegro vivacissimo (“very lively!”) and filled with folk-inspired dance idioms.

Huscher remarks that Hanslick’s complaints about the Violin Concerto seem unfair: “Tchaikovsky’s lyric gift has seldom seemed so natural, flowing effortlessly through all three movements.” It’s scored for two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, timpani, strings, and solo violin.

Symphony No. 5 in E Minor, Op. 64 

Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840–1893)


Throughout his life, Tchaikovsky remained mindful of his standing in society as a composer and public figure. He was very aware of the importance of the legacy of his work and determined not to disappoint but rather to build on the work of the musical giants who had come before him – Beethoven, for example, whom Tchaikovsky credited with expanding the idea of symphonic form to a work of high dramatic art. 

    Like his Symphony No. 4, Tchaikovsky’s fifth was constructed around the theme of “fate,” although perhaps this fifth symphony represents a more distilled version of the idea than the fourth, which was heavily inspired by Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 and Bizet’s Carmen. Tchaikovsky continued to work with musical illustrations of the concept of fate in his sixth symphony, the Pathetique.

    After his patroness, Nadezhda von Meck, had learned of his predicament with Antonina Miliukova and helped free him of that situation, Tchaikovsky endeavored to keep her better updated on his life and especially his work. He wrote detailed letters, which tell us that he began work on his Symphony No. 5 in May of 1888. Several weeks later, Tchaikovsky wrote to von Meck, “I shall work my hardest. I am exceedingly anxious to prove to myself, as to others, that I am not played out as a composer … the beginning [of the fifth symphony] was difficult, but now inspiration seems to have come. We shall see.” 

    Tchaikovsky outlined the symphony in later correspondence: “Intr[oduction]. Complete resignation before Fate – or, what is the same thing, the inscrutable designs of Providence. Allegro. 1. Murmurs of doubt, laments, reproaches against … 2. Shall I cast myself in the embraces of faith? A wonderful program, if only it can be carried out.” 

Although this is by no means a complete description – he was experiencing disillusionment with the concept of programmatic music and was endeavoring here to give an idea or concept without explaining each and every turn of phrase – we do get a small window into Tchaikovsky’s thoughts on the work along with his self-doubt. 

    The main way that Tchaikovsky incorporates a philosophical idea into his music is through the use of a recurring theme fragment, or “motto,” similar in concept to Richard Wagner’s leitmotif and Hector Berlioz’s idée fixe. Tchaikovsky introduces this theme in the clarinets quite early on and then references and transforms it throughout. Commentator Michael Clive notes that this theme fulfills two roles: “[We] can associate [it] with Tchaikovsky’s contemplation of personal fate … [it] also lend[s] an overall cohesion.” 

    The first movement opens with a dark and melancholy introduction in which the fate theme is presented. This moves shortly into a faster allegro and brings the first transformation of the fate theme. Clive describes it as “somehow combin[ing] funereal gravity with suspense.”

    The second movement, marked a moderate andante, opens with a new iteration of the fate theme. Tchaikovsky slowly weaves it in and out until it bursts out in the brass. Small elements of the softer music creep back in, but the earlier sense of calm doesn’t completely take hold again. 

    The third movement is a respite from the weight of the previous movements and is set as a waltz (Valse). Clive comments, “This music introduces a disarming naïveté into the symphonic context – a striking juxtaposition which reminds us that Mahler is just around the corner.” Despite its relatively lighthearted character, the Valse does also contain the fate theme. 

    The final movement contrasts the opening E Minor key with bright E Major and, like the first movement, begins with a slow introduction. This gives way to the stunning allegro section over which the fate theme emerges forcefully in the major key, propelling us toward an unbridled joy at the close. 

    Although Tchaikovsky declared this symphony a failure following its completion, giving way to crippling self-doubt, both musicians and concertgoers have consistently rejected this assessment. Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 is an undeniable favorite. In it, Tchaikovsky manages to create a sense of great intimacy, shocking contrasts, and lovely colors. Clive remarks, “The sheer abundance of melody in Tchaikovsky’s symphonies can eclipse their superb craftsmanship, but it is ever-present, both subtle and spectacular.” After the premiere another critic commented, “If Beethoven’s Fifth is Fate knocking at the door, Tchaikovsky’s Fifth is Fate trying to get out.” 

    The work is scored for three flutes and piccolo, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, and strings.