Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Violin Concerto No. 1 in B flat Major, K. 207
Born: January 27, 1756 in Salzburg, Austria
Died: December 5, 1791 in Vienna, Austria
Mozart’s relationship to the violin began early in his life. He began studying the violin at age six, taught by his father, who had released his Treatise on the Fundamentals of Violin Playing in the same year of his son’s birth. Later in life, Wolfgang became a subject in the Austrian Court as conductor, soloist and violinist, and in 1772 Hieronymus Franz Josef von Colloredo Mannsfeld von Schrattenbach became the Prince Archbishop of Salzburg. The Archbishop’s tyrannical attitudes made him hated by the citizenry and Mozart. Mozart felt oppressed, infuriated and caught in a hideous trap.
However, still under the whip of the Archbishop, 1775 proved a prolific year for Mozart’s violin compositions. He had played in the Salzburg orchestra as a section player and concertmaster and made friends with the acclaimed violinist Gaetano Brunetti, and his five violin concerti were composed for him, although Mozart kept a set of parts for himself to use as well. Generally, it has been stated that Mozart composed all five of his violin concerti during those twelve months: No. 1 (K. 207) possibly was begun in 1773, based on analysis of the handwriting and manuscript paper; No. 2 (K. 211) in June; No. 3 (K. 216) in September; No. 4 (K. 218) in October; and No. 5 (K. 219) during December. Eight violin concerti have been credited to Mozart but only these first five are fully authenticated. Such output was amazing, but at age nineteen he was filled with energy, a certain bravura, and a bit of defiance.
The first concerto appeared on April 14, 1775. The composer was spurred in this endeavor by a need to win the approval of the new Archbishop, and to please his father (who encouraged his son to have a violin career) and to provide some new violin material for himself.
K. 207 in B flat major reveals a format which was echoed in the subsequent concerti: a substantial first movement, a singing second movement, and a vivacious conclusion. The Concerto No. 1 begins forte, marked Allegro moderato with the soloist playing immediately with the orchestra. A small elegant introduction from the orchestra presents the two main subjects. The soloist follows with a careful reiteration of the themes (the standard double exposition) continuing with conversations with the orchestra, but is clearly held in the limelight. Notice all the fast moving sixteenth notes in virtuosic declamations. Mozart then follows basic sonata-allegro structure, providing a small development (with coloration from a minor key) before moving on to a recapitulation before the quiet close. Mozart did not write any cadenzas for this concerto: he expected soloists to improvise.
The second movement, marked Adagio in E flat major, opens with a luxuriant melody in the strings. E flat major was a “warm key” for Mozart, which he used for expressive thought. This theme emerged later in his Marriage of Figaro in the aria “Porgi amor.” After an orchestral introduction, the soloist sings quietly with gentle accompaniment from strings and winds. This alternating collaboration holds steady throughout the movement. Two small pianissimo chords close this section.
An energetic rondo marked presto opens the finale. The music moves quickly throughout, with ample opportunities for the soloist to demonstrate prowess and expertise. Its vigor does stop off for a brief dance-like tune, before dancing to the conclusion, ignited by rapid scale passagi from the soloist.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Violin Concerto No. 3 in G Major, K. 216
Born: January 27, 1756 in Salzburg, Austria
Died: December 5, 1791 in Vienna, Austria
Johann Andreas Schachtner, a friend of the Mozarts, recalled that at age seven, Wolfgang appeared with his little violin to join a party making music in his home. He had been taking violin instruction from his father for a couple of years. Challenging his father’s demands to leave the guests, the child responded: “But you don’t need to have studied in order to play second violin” (my apologies to second violinists in the ISO). The story goes on to report that the little boy joined the group anyway, played beautifully, and Herr Schachtner, with tears streaming down his face, finally laid down his own violin to listen to the prodigy.
Although he did not like it, Mozart continued his violin studies, and became an acclaimed soloist during the 1770s. Since the violin was the most popular instrument of that time, the concertizing provided money and important background for future string writing.
In 1775 when he was nineteen, Mozart penned four more violin concerti, having composed the first in 1773. While writing his violin concerti, he was also working as concertmaster and fulltime section player for Hieronymous Colloredo, Prince-Archbishop of Salzburg’s royal orchestra. Mozart’s duties were extensive, including co-conducting, playing and composing special requests for the archbishop’s pleasure and parties. Coupled with these responsibilities, the speed of such concerto output was startling, but as a teenager, he was filled with energy, bravura, confidence, and a bit of defiance. Defiance was aimed at the man whom he called “Archbishop Booby” who had deservedly earned the hatred of the citizenry, especially of Mozart. Mozart hated him not only for his tyrannical, autocratic attitudes, but also because he treated Mozart as an uppity servant, paid him a paltry sum of 150 guilders, and insisted that he eat with the maids and footmen. Constant tension and fighting were inevitable. When Mozart visited Vienna in 1781, he was finally sacked by Count Arco, the archbishop’s steward.
Even though he considered playing the violin to be “an unpleasant chore,” it is likely that Mozart wrote his violin concerti for himself as soloist. The Third, however, was written for his friend Antonio Brunetti. In 1781, Mozart decided to quit playing the violin. Henceforth, if playing a string instrument at all, he played viola for the last ten years of his life.
It is not known when K. 216 premiered, but a good guess is that it was sometime soon after its completion in September. Only one performance with Mozart as soloist has been verified. The Third Violin Concerto has three movements. In the first, Mozart adheres to conventional sonata form. The opening introduction begins with a chipper theme displayed by first violins, based on an aria from Il re pastore (The Shepherd King, a light opera Mozart had completed one year previously). A second theme is also included in the opening section before the soloist enters with a lightly perfumed version of the first subject. A bold oboe struts into the soloist’s initial presentation, but is quickly dismissed by the leading violin. The development offers virtuosic solo and collaborative opportunities while focusing on the secondary subject. Texture and mood change with a diversionary recitative, bridging to the traditional recapitulation. A solo cadenza is followed by a coda.
The second movement (Adagio) presents an intimate, slow-moving lyrical cantilena sung first by muted violins and then the soloist, underscored with triple metered accompaniment from second violins and violas. Muted strings are joined with pizzicato basses and gentle, sustained wind harmonies. Flutes replace the reedy oboes to soften the texture. Occasionally the winds have a dialogue with the soloist, but orchestration at all times remains light and discrete. This backdrop provides a steady yet quiet foundation against which the soloist projects the final restatement of the tender theme at the close. Noted Mozart scholar Alfred Einstein described this section as “an adagio that seems to have fallen straight from heaven.”
The third movement is a bright rondo in a triple meter (3/8). After the orchestra opens the scene with a lilting tune, the soloist happily joins in the first episode. A series of episodes follow before a return of the initial rondo theme. Suddenly, the music is stopped mid-flight as Mozart drops in two slower ideas—one based on a Hungarian folk tune, shifting to 2/2 meter in gavotte style, in the middle of the last movement. Known as a movement within a movement, this unexpected intrusion was a familiar practice of the baroque. Mozart’s surprise episode closes as suddenly as it began, and the jolly opening returns as if nothing had happened. At the conclusion, winds are given a prominent role in saying goodbye. It is likely that this concerto also included a harpsichord during early performances.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Violin Concerto No. 5 in A Major, K. 219 (“Turkish”)
Born: January 27, 1756 in Salzburg, Austria
Died: December 5, 1791 in Vienna, Austria
1775 was a banner year for Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Within eight months, he wrote five violin concertos, the last being completed in December of that year. Although a teenager, he was well acquainted with the instrument. He had been a child prodigy as a violinist, performing at the Salzburg Court in 1763 when he was only seven. The year must have been very busy. In 1775, he was not only composing at a rapid pace but was serving as a part time concertmaster and full-time section player for the Archbishop of Salzburg’s orchestra. His father, Leopold, insisted, “You have the potential to become the finest violinist in Europe if you would only do yourself justice and play with boldness, spirit and fire.” Papa Mozart knew of what he spoke, having published a treatise on the “Fundamentals of Violin Playing” in 1756, which became a standard text that was referenced throughout the 19th century. Not only did it discuss and instruct violin technique but also addressed matters of performance practice and realization of ornaments. Eventually, Mozart played all five concertos to great success throughout Europe in the 1780s. In 1791, when he went to Vienna, he put his violin away, preferring the viola.
K. 219 differs from the other four concertos in allowing the soloist to enter with a slow melody (marked Adagio) before introducing a totally new theme (marked aperto) and settling in to present the two main ideas. Thus, Mozart was trying something new from the other concertos, which reflected Baroque concerto structure. The music of the exposition overall is vintage, sparking Mozart. His development tones down the merriment in the minor mode before the recap snaps back into A major and provides a virtuosic summation.
The second movement is contemplative, intimate and thoughtful. Although the orchestra begins this section, the soloist quickly takes charge and the orchestral forces relax into the background. This is the longest and most elaborate of the three movements.
The last movement is technically a rondo, moving gracefully in minuet style. The “minuet music,” introduced briefly by the soloist, will appear three times. The first episode is elegantly decorated, and the second episode fattens out a bit and has more dynamic coloration. Small pauses quickly delineate the rondo sections. Another pause prefaces the surprise. It is the high stepping Turkish march, popping in out of nowhere, that has provided the sobriquet. Four of the five highly accented melodies in this section are based on Hungarian folk tunes. The soloist remains the leader of the fun with firm orchestral responses. Cellos and basses are instructed to play coll’ arco al roverscio, using the wooden part of the bow rather than the hair. Janissary music (music of the Turkish military establishment) was very popular at this time, so the surprise march was clearly an audience pleaser. After the interruption, the soloist leads back to the main theme and approaches an enigmatic close. In place of customary dash and display, the closure presents statements and (dynamic) understatements of what had gone before, ending modestly with a rising, poised and controlled melodic line from the soloist.
Scottish Fantasy, Op. 46
Born: January 6, 1838 in Cologne, Germany
Died: October 2, 1920 in Berlin-Friedenau, Germany
Max Bruch was born eleven years after the death of Beethoven, hit his stride as a contemporary (and adoring fan) of Brahms, outlived Debussy and was acquainted with jazz. This longevity witnessed major changes in western classical music, but Bruch resisted their allure. He condemned the Wagnerian Music of the Future ideas, sniffed at twentieth century explorations into atonality and impressionism, and remained loyal to the traditions of Schumann and Mendelssohn.
“The violin can sing a melody better than a piano, and melody is the soul of music,” he proclaimed. His trio of violin concerti became very popular. In particular, the G minor Violin Concerto was a huge success, and the Scottish Fantasy, arriving fourteen years later, though not a concerto, shared the reflected glory. In a letter to his publisher on July 30, 1880 Bruch stated “the title ‘Fantasy’ is very general and as a rule refers to a short piece rather than to one in several movements…However, this work cannot properly be called a concerto because the form of the whole is so completely free and because folk-melodies are used.”
Bruch adored Scotland (some called him a Scotophile), read Sir Walter Scott, sometimes set Scottish poets to music, and collected Scottish folk songs (as well as those of Sweden and Russia) long before folksong collecting became fashionable or seriously researched as fodder for classical music. In 1863, he published twelve Scottish folk airs in four-part settings; while conductor in Liverpool (1878–1880), he also assiduously studied the indigenous music of Great Britain.
The Scots Musical Museum, a six volume compendium of Scottish songs, appeared between 1787 and 1803. This collection was a primary source for many 19th century composers (including Beethoven) and it was natural that Max Bruch turned to The Scots Musical Museum to obtain authentic musical ideas for Opus 46, written for the Spanish virtuoso Pablo de Sarasate. From the collection, Bruch pulled three songs with poetry by Robert Burns, and the fourth by an unknown source. Bruch wrote his Scottish Fantasy while snuggly ensconced in his Berlin studio during the winter of 1879–1880. Sarasate premiered Opus 46 in September, 1880 at the Bach Festival in Hamburg.
Opus 46 has four movements, preceded by a lengthy, slow prelude. The first opens in E flat minor with a brooding introduction, reminiscent of the cloudy Scottish weather. Harps and Scottish rhythmic snaps are liberally sprinkled throughout to evoke the Scottish atmosphere and musical presence. Low brass murmur support as the solo violinist sings a sad tune. Sunshine emerges in the Adagio cantabile section which presents the Scottish tune Auld Rob Morris, now discretely harmonized in muted strings.
The second movement (Allegro) begins with small pieces of a musical idea which coalesce into the tune The Dusty Miller (with bagpipe drones [sung by the basses] and country fiddling). Bruch allows this to morph into a Scottish dance. The music relaxes toward the end, quoting Auld Rob Morris before leading into an Andante based on “I’m a’ Doun for Lack of Johnnie.”
A tiny recall of Auld Rob Morris in recitative style bridges into the third movement, Andante sostenuto. The soloist begins slowly and wistfully, followed by variations.
The finale explodes into fireworks with quotes from “Scots Wha Hae,” commemorating the Scottish victory (guaranteeing their independence) at Bannockburn. This tune also became an unofficial national anthem of Scotland. Lyrics were written by Robert Burns in 1793, in the form of a speech given by Robert the Bruce. Burns allowed the publication of the song in the Morning Chronicle of May 8, 1794, saying, “let them insert it as a thing they have met with by accident and unknown to me.” The text reads:
“Scots, wha hae wi Wallace bled
Scots, wham Bruce has aften led;
Welcome tae yer gory bed,
Or tae yer victorie!”
A secondary theme also emerges. After a moment to catch one’s breath, the soloist takes off in virtuosic display which is quieted momentarily by a calming interlude, with memories of the opening movement. Led by the orchestra, the war mood is quickly re-invigorated and the violinist enthusiastically joins the martial music before gleefully producing its own fiery cadenza.
Violin Concerto in E minor. Op. 64
Born: February 3, 1809 in Hamburg, Germany
Died: November 4, 1847 in Leipzig, Germany
Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto stemmed from a deep friendship and collaboration with the esteemed violinist Ferdinand David. It was the first “in a distinguished series of violin concertos written by pianist-composers with the assistance of eminent violinsts.” In this case, the composer and violinist knew each other well, initially meeting at age fifteen (while David was concertizing throughout Germany), and the two kept up a close relationship throughout their lives.
In 1835, shortly after his appointment as Music Director of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, Mendelssohn secured the concertmaster’s post for David. Three years later, in July 1838, Mendelssohn wrote to him saying “It is nice of you to press me for a violin concerto. I have the liveliest desire to write one for you and, if I have a few propitious days, I will bring you something ... I would like to compose a violin concerto for next winter. One in E minor keeps running through my head and the opening gives me no peace.”
By 1839, Mendelssohn was frustrated and reported; “this task is not an easy one. You ask that it should be brilliant, and how can anyone like me do this? The whole of the first solo is to be for the E string.” With David’s help, the concerto was eventually completed in 1844. David was responsible both for the cadenza and for giving frequent advice regarding technical matters through the compositional process. Sadly, Mendelssohn was too ill to attend the successful premiere on March 13, 1845 (he would be dead in a year and a half) and Opus 64 was conducted by Niels W. Gade with David as the soloist.
From the beginning of the collaboration, David and Mendelssohn had agreed that this concerto should not be a vehicle for empty showmanship. With this guideline, the outcome was a serious, exquisite, elegant essay in the romantic concerto genre, ultimately ranking among the finest violin concerti written in the nineteenth century. Louis Biancolli assessed, “In classical poise, melodic suavity and refined romantic feeling, it is an epitome of Mendelssohn’s style. Finesse, cultivated taste, and an unerring sense of the appropriate [are] among its chief attributes.” Perhaps David anticipated this when he said to the composer while the work was gestating: “This is going to be something great! There is plenty of music for violin and orchestra, but there has only been one big, truly great concerto (Beethoven) and now there will be two!” “I am not competing with Beethoven,” Mendelssohn replied.
The Mendelssohn concerto, completed seven years after its concept was first mentioned, bore no resemblance to the Beethoven work. Its three movements are played without pause. This concerto discards the usual orchestral introductory exposition, beginning instead with orchestral “accompaniment” style, thereby creating a sense of expectation. The violin soloist obliges quickly with a soaring, restless melody, intensifying as it rises. Completing its statement, the soloist moves to a lower register, and remains in the background, as the second theme murmurs from flutes and clarinets. Mendelssohn’s development provides a structural surprise. In this section, the composer moves a written cadenza from its traditional place at the end of the first movement to a new location at the end of the development. The recapitulation enters from the orchestra with the soloist continuing an arpeggiated figure derived from the cadenza. The soloist is clearly collaborating at this point with the orchestra rather than seizing the stage, revealing one of the concerto’s features of interlocking partnership between the two forces. A solo bassoon, holding one note from a cadential chord bridges this movement into the second.
The middle section, an Andante in C major, offers a tender theme sung by the soloist as its main subject. A middle section spins a minor tune over bustling 32nd notes providing significant contrast to the opening calm. The third section recalls the opening theme, refreshed by new accompaniment. Fourteen bars of transitional material bridge to the concluding section.
A tiny introduction and brass fanfare opens the brilliant finale. The soloist answers with lightly scampering arpeggios. A bright main theme from the soloist dances over fairy-like accompaniment from the orchestra. Echoes of A Midsummer Night’s Dream are everywhere. Changing this delicate mood, the orchestra asserts a strong second theme, which steadily loses its initial weight, gains flexibility, and finally runs off in a playful mood. The soloist provides a lyrical theme in the development section leading to continued collaboration with the orchestra until a dazzling conclusion.
Violin Concerto No. 1 in A minor, Op. 77
Born: September 25, 1906 in St. Petersburg, Russia
Died: August 9, 1975 in Moscow, Russia
Shostakovich wrote his two violin concerti for his friend, master violinist David Oistrakh, who was very helpful to him in the writing of the solo parts. The First Violin Concerto, written in 1947-48, lay hidden in a desk drawer until its premier October 29, 1955, with the Leningrad Philharmonic and the dedicatee as soloist.
It was not safe to bring it out until two years after Stalin’s death. The 1946 Zhdanov Doctrine, named after his “Witchfinder General” Andrew Zhdanov, had stated that the post war world was divided in two camps: the imperialist United States and the democratic Soviet Union, and it included a thinly disguised warning: “The only conflict that is possible in the Soviet culture is the conflict between good and best.”
Although a decree on music was not specifically issued until February 10, 1948, Shostakovich knew that the meaning of the Zhdanov Doctrine would apply to his work; that “best” meant adherence to specific government cultural standards. And he also knew that his First Violin Concerto would not have been acceptable: it was too individualistic. Too complicated. Too novel. Too atonal. Too incomprehensible for the lowest denominator of Soviet music audiences to easily enjoy.
The decree was not limited to an artistic critique. It also meant direct persecution and possible expulsion to the Siberian Gulag and forced labor camps. The term GULAG was the acronym for Main Administration of Corrective labor Camps. It was easy to get a one-way ticket on the Trans-Siberian railroad during Stalin’s regime, and during his dictatorship, over a million people would lose their lives in exile to one of the camps. And Shostakovich and Stalin did not get along. The composer was suspect. In 1948 he was condemned for formalist perversions and antidemocratic tendencies in music, alien to the Soviet people and its artistic tastes.
“Shostakovich’s First Violin concerto is a veritable ‘iron man’ concerto, calling on everything in the violinists’ technical arsenal, as well as vast physical and emotional stamina. Even Oistrakh begged the composer to give the opening of the finale to the orchestra so that ‘I can at least wipe the sweat off my brow’ after the daunting solo cadenza that concludes the third movement” (Program notes, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra).
There are four movements in Opus 77 (sometimes also called opus 99 after its publication in 1956). At one time, Shostakovich noted that his concerto was “a symphony for solo violin and orchestra.”
The first movement is titled Nocturne, beginning in a low register, a slow pace, and producing a haunting atmosphere. The soloist begins with a long expansive melody which is based on the orchestra’s introduction, a part which seems to meditate on the introductory ideas. From time to time the bassoon offers contrapuntal commentary, and the winds offer complimentary color. The focus remains steadily on the violinist who is given biting, dissonant heavy discourse. “Only in the central episode where the soft celesta chimes, does the music give way and there is a glimpse of lightness or freedom.” At the close, the opening eerie mood returns, continuing what Oistrakh called “suppression of feelings.”
The second movement, Scherzo, bounces out quickly from the winds, followed by a sassy, rough answer from the soloist, likened to an “unruly vodka-fed folk dance.” Rhythms are brusk, crude and uneven, set within frenetic tempi. There is nothing playful or happy herein; if anything, we find a sardonic parody of jollity. For added impudence, Shostakovich inserts his own musical initials in the second section (the tones D, E-flat, C, B), the first time he put this four-note pattern into his music: a ploy he would use in other future works as well.
The third movement, Andante, is a passacaglia, producing a set of nine variations over the repeated baseline pattern of seventeen measures. From time to time, this baseline is passed along to other parts of the orchestra, aside from the low strings and tuba, such as the English horn. At the close of the ninth variation, the orchestra freezes on a long-held F: preparing for the gigantic cadenza, which bridges to the finale.
The finale continues with wild abandon in a Burlesca marked Allegro con brio. A brisk tune moves relentlessly forward with heavy timpani accents, sometimes called a “kicking Stalin gopak.” The soloist enters in a brilliant, fast-paced statement. Some elements of Stravinsky’s Petrushka are also quoted, lending a celebratory element in what could be liked to a crazed Shrovetide festival. Dynamics remain loud most of the time; orchestra and soloist combine with frequent interactions, which each performing force seizes aggressively. The passacaglia theme makes another appearance, but this time with a fast-paced presto running below it. There is no letup in the inferno as the concerto ends in scorching conflagration.
Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 35
Born: May 7, 1840 in Votkinsk, Russia
Died: November 6, 1893 in Saint Petersburg, Russia
In early 1878, Tchaikovsky’s patron, Nadezhda von Meck, gave the composer money to use for an extended holiday. She felt that his failed marriage in 1877 and suicide attempt by drowning in the Moscow River warranted a trip outside of Russia to recover his spirits. Taking violinist Joseph Kotek as a companion, Tchaikovsky set off for Clarens, Switzerland. The two read through reams of violin music, including Edouard Lalo’s Symphonie espagnole. Lalo’s Symphonie was a seminal force in Tchaikovsky’s decision to write his own violin concerto, which he began on March 17 and completed in only two weeks. Little did he realize he had created a lightning rod for criticism. To start it off, Mme. von Meck wrote of her personal displeasure with the concerto. “I shall not give up the hope that in time the piece will give you greater pleasure,” Tchaikovsky responded.
Its first dedicatee, Leopold Auer, head of the violin department of the St. Petersburg Conservatory and concertmaster of the Imperial Orchestra, refused to play the concerto deeming it “unsuitable to the character of the instrument.” Critic Edouard Hanslick wrote that it was “a rare mixture of originality, crudity, of inspiration and wretched refinement, with an audible, odorously Russian stench.” Continuing on in the Neue freie Presse, Hanslick’s disgust gained momentum: “(In the first movement) vulgarity gains the upper hand. The Adagio is well on the way to reconciling us and winning us over when, all too soon, it breaks off to make way for a finale that transports us to the brutal and wretched jollity of a Russian church festival. We see a host of gross and savage faces, hear crude curses and smell the booze.” Hanslick lobbed grenades at Tchaikovsky as well. “The Russian composer is surely no ordinary talent, but rather an inflated one, obsessed with posturing as a man of genius and lacking of all discrimination and taste.” Tchaikovsky cut out the review and literally carried the critic’s words in his pocket for several months, becoming very depressed. The concerto’s future seemed catastrophic.
Things began to look up when, on December 4, 1881, Adolf Brodsky, the second dedicatee, premiered the work in Vienna and wrote, “One can play the concerto again and again and never be bored. And, this (repetition) is a most important circumstance for conquering its difficulties.” The concerto was revived.
It is true that the concerto demanded new violin techniques, but not impossible ones. In this regard, the concerto was forward looking, ranking among those musical works whose demands initiated new technical abilities and expertise from the performer. Ultimately, as violinists improved, Tchaikovsky’s work has become one of the great showpieces in violin repertoire. Its fanciful gypsy-like tunes, colorful Russian orchestration and pyrotechnics make it a timeless thriller. “I never compose in the abstract,” Tchaikovsky explained. “I invent the musical idea and its instrumentation simultaneously.” Concept and instrumentation were one.
Years later, Auer regretted his early refusal to play the concerto. In the Musical Courier, January 1912, he stated, “I have often deeply regretted (my refusal) and before Tchaikovsky’s death received absolution from him.“
A brief introduction from the first violins opens the concerto. After a small crescendo, the soloist is launched unobtrusively with a tiny solo and presentation of the main theme, sung above minimal string accompaniment. The subject becomes increasingly elaborate, gains strength, and the orchestra adds weight and coloration. A second theme, marked con molto espressione, is similar and equally beguiling. Such lack of contrast between the two main themes is unusual, but the composer’s intent was to write idiomatically for the violin, not to genuflect to traditional formal controls. The development section savors the main theme before growing into a fiery cadenza. A recapitulation follows the soloist’s high-wire performance, but then the orchestra takes a bow with its own extravaganza in a coda, which asks for no less than four accelerations of tempi.
The second movement (canzonetta) is exactly that: a small, quiet, song. Both its structure (ABA) and texture are simple. Woodwind chords prepare the soloist’s setting. Two elegant themes are quietly presented with accompaniment from violins, violas and French horns. In the third section, the woodwinds return with a recall of the opening, and lead directly into the finale.
In contrast, the third movement immediately ignites renewed vigor and acrobatics. The soloist whips out a dance-like tune, which is capsulated in rondo format (alternating theme and episodes). Tchaikovsky releases all orchestral stops and the soloist, now launched on a frenetic ride, is front and center. Keeping up, he must navigate perilous scales, double stops, dangerous leaps with blazing speed and accuracy. Herein lie many of the technical difficulties alluded to earlier. The effect is undeniably stunning. Michael Steinberg concluded that “Although Tchaikovsky could not please Dr. Hanslick, he has no trouble at all winning us over!”
Concerto for Violin and Orchestra
Born: March 29, 1902 in Oldham, England
Died: March 8, 1983 in Ischia, Italy
At age 37, in 1939 (the year he composed the violin concerto), William Walton stated that “I seriously advise all sensitive composers to die at the age of 37. I know I’ve gone through the first halcyon period, and am just ripe for my critical damnation.” Fortunately, he did not follow his own idea of an appropriate life span, and lived on until 1983. But the statement reveals how fearful he was of criticism. Predictably, his output is small. He worked slowly, worried a lot about negative judgement. In the corpus of his works we find many single specimens: one viola concerto, one cello concerto, one piano concerto, one violin sonata, one piano quartet, one string quartet, one opera and one violin concerto.
The violin concerto is cast in three movements. The first, Andante tranquillo, is marked “dreamily.” The soloist presents the first theme (used in one of his earlier songs Daphne), which gradually becomes highly elaborated and decorated. The second movement is rapid and swirling, with a small waltz-like interlude for contrast. It also includes a special section in which the violin plays a strange sound called harmonics, adding unique color. The last movement uses three basic melodies of distinctive shape and contrast, which all move to the concluding march-like section and final flourish that ends the work.
The International Violin Competition of Indianapolis wishes to thank Marianne Williams Tobias and the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra for their generous loan of these program notes for the 10th Quadrennial Competition.