Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky:
Concerto for Violin and Orchestra D major Op. 35
The Violin Concerto by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky is one of the truly great compositions for violin composed in the 19th century and is frequently mentioned in the same breath with the concertos by Ludwig van Beethoven (1806), Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy (1845), Max Bruch (Concerto Nr. 1, 1868) and Johannes Brahms (1879). However, Tchaikovsky's concerto differs from most of these in deliberately eschewing their solemnity and grandeur as it was the primary aspiration of the Russian to allow his musical concept itself to have a direct impact: "It is music that flows from the depths of an artistic soul roused by inspiration that alone can touch, move and excite".
Although written to cope with a personal crisis in the composer's life, Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto is a life-affirming and optimistic work. It is popular with the musicloving public and performers have always found it be an extremely challenging work that requires them to master major technical difficulties.
Overcoming the year of crisis 1877
Tchaikovsky wrote his only violin concerto in 1878. It was not the first solo concerto he had written, as he had already composed the famous Piano Concerto in b-flat minor, Op. 23, in 1874. However, momentous changes had happened in his personal life in the few years in between. Tchaikovsky had married Antonina Milyukova in 1877, but they ended their relationship after less than three months together (even though the marriage was not officially dissolved). He had already begun the extensive correspondence with his confidante and benefactress Nadezhda von Meck (1831 -1894) in late 1876. Nadezhda was the wealthy widow of a Russian railway tycoon and paid Tchaikovsky an annual subsidy of 6000 roubles, making him financially independent and enabling him to resign from his teaching post at the Moscow Conservatoire. But in 1877, Tchaikovsky's personal situation was still desperate: Anecdotal reports speak of a suicide attempt while his marriage was failing. The composer then tried to process hisexperiences in works that are most reflective of these, such as his Fourth Symphony in f minor, Op. 36 and the opera Eugen Onegin. He also looked to find relief by taking long trips abroad.
The creation of the Violin Concerto
It was during one such trip that Tchaikovsky was lodging in early 1878 in Clarens, a village on Lake Geneva in Switzerland. Here he played through Edouard Lalo's 1873 Symphonie espagnole together with his friend, the violinist Yosef Kotek (1855 - 1885) and soon thereafter began to compose his own violin concerto that was to be similarly characterised by its elegance and sparkling rhythms. He made remarkable headway with the concerto despite the fact that, quite unlike his usual practice, he was also working on his Piano Sonata in G major, Op. 37 at the same time.
As early as 10 March 1878, Tchaikovsky informed Nadezhda von Meck about the progress of his work on the Violin Concerto: "In such a frame of mind, composition loses all sense of labour; it is pure bliss. Indeed, while writing one has no sense of time passing." Yet there were still difficulties to be overcome, particularly with the slow central movement, which in its first version found no favour with the composer himself. "The finale of the concerto is captivating, but we have discarded the Andante and tomorrow I shall write a new one", he reported on 4 April 1878. (The discarded slow movement was later published as the Méditation of the Souvenir d'un lieu cher for violin and piano, Op. 42 No. 2). The new slow movement was far more to the liking of the composer: "The Canzonetta is frankly magnificent. What poetry and what yearning in those sons voilés, these mysterious notes! " he wrote to Nadezhda von Meck. Even so, he still complained: "I worked hard on the orchestration of the concerto", but the Violin Concerto was already completed by 11 April 1878.
The question of the "unplayability" of the Violin Concerto
Tchaikovsky composed the Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 35 in a single, grand blaze of creativity and it was only later that the main problems began to crop up. After having refused to dedicate the work to his companion and helper Yosef Kotek (and denying him the performance of the premiere), Tchaikovsky first offered the concerto to the renowned violinist Leopold Auer (1845 - 1930). Auer taught at the St. Petersburg Conservatoire from 1868 to 1917 and among his later pupils were virtuosos such as Nathan Milstein and Jascha Heifetz. The violinist thought it a pity that the printed edition of the score for Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto had already been prepared, as he considered the work to require major revisions. Auer promised to undertake these revisions himself, but then seems to have laid the work aside for the next two years. Tchaikovsky thereupon withdrew the dedication of the piece. Leopold Auer was later to confess that he did not immediately recognise the full significance of Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto.
It was after being scrutinised by Auer that the work gained the reputation of being unplayable and an overall ungrateful piece. By this, the verdict was repeated that the piano virtuoso Nikolai Rubinstein had delivered a few years earlier on Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 in b-flat minor, Op. 23 - he had called it "worthless" and "completely unplayable".
Finally Adolf Brodsky emphatically pleaded for the Violin Concerto. Adolf Brodsky (1851-1929) was six years younger than Leopold Auer. He had studied under Josef Hellmesberger in Vienna and at the Moscow Conservatoire. He himself taught as a professor at the Moscow Conservatoire from 1875 to 1883, after which he moved to Leipzig to continue his teaching activities. Brodsky was well aware of the profound challenge that the performance of Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto represented for the violin soloist, but the violinist also stated the opinion that: "One can play it endlessly without getting tired. This is essential if one wants to overcome the difficulties."
Premiere and early reception
Like Tchaikovsky's first Piano Concerto, his Violin Concerto was also to premiere outside Russia, while there is no evidence to support a claim that it was performed in 1879 in New York. Its first official public performance was in Vienna on 4 December 1881 by the Philharmonic Orchestra under Hans Richter, with Adolf Brodsky as soloist. The work initially polarised its audience, calling forth both praise and criticism. This is also reflected in press reports, whereby the verdict of the Neue Freie Presse, by music critic Eduard Hanslick, has gained particular notoriety: "Friedrich Vischer once said there existed pictures one could see stink. Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto brings us face to face for the first time with the revolting thought: may there not also be musical compositions that we can hear stink? "
Adolf Brodsky also presented the concerto, again under the baton of Hans Richter, on 8 May 1882 in London and on 20 August 1882 in Moscow. A grateful Tchaikovsky dedicated the work to Brodsky. However, even Leopold Auer came to appreciate its value. He first performed it in 1893 a few months before the death of the composer, and again on 18 November in a memorial concert. But by this time, the Violin Concerto's rise to fame was already on its way.
Remarks on the musical structure of Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto
There is no doubt that Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 35 is very much different from numerous other violin concertos. Tchaikovsky's music much less strives for a stringent compositional structure than it does for an expression of a wide range of emotions. It is already significant that, following its initial presentation, the orchestral introduction does not play any role anymore and is never used again as the piece develops. Here Tchaikovsky follows the path he had first taken with his Piano Concerto No. 1 in b-flat minor, Op. 23. In the Violin Concerto, it is the solo instrument that presents the themes. This lineup of themes possesses a composure and equanimity that is unique. At first, the tempo is consciously restrained ("Moderato assai"), and there is little prior indication of the extraordinary escalation that reaches its climax in the massive, clashing and yet yielding march rhythms of the orchestra. The opening movement of the Violin Concerto, with its solo cadenza positioned unexpectedly between introduction and reprise, is as if it were its own self-contained cosmos that makes no claims to be following any conventions.
The second movement, the "Canzonetta" resembles a "song without words". It sympathetically supersedes the brilliant coda of the first movement and only gradually develops towards its main theme in the key of g minor. The Canzonetta remains both modest and straightforward and never has the effect of being overly elaborate or even sentimental. The remarkable thing is that Tchaikovsky instructs the soloist to play con sordino (with a mute), resulting in an enchanting range of tonal colours.
With an immediate directness, the brilliant Finale ("Allegro vivacissimo") finally makes its voice heard. The dance-like energy of this movement is captivating, but it is not an aristocratic elegance that is being expressed here. This movement not only seems to employ the characteristics of specifically Russian music but also rural motifs, as in the underlying bourdon tones in the A major secondary theme. Also notable are the numerous points at which the tempo slows to allow for subsequent phases of accelerando. With its gypsy motifs and sketch-like colour, but quite obviously Russian character, the finale as well contrasts with the elegance of the opening movement.
Ralph Vaughan Williams:
Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis for Double String Orchestra
The composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, who lived for most of his life in the countryside south of London, is to be regarded as a remarkable figure: The maternal grandmother of his was a sister of the founder of the theory of natural selection, Charles Darwin. He himself not only studied in London and Cambridge, but also took lessons from Max Bruch in Berlin in 1897 and from Maurice Ravel in Paris in 1908. Vaughan Williams was particularly drawn to the music of the Renaissance and English folk music. He transcribed more than 800 folk songs on study trips in the country.
The Tallis Fantasia, as it is also known, bears the name of one of the great English composers of the 16th century: Thomas Tallis was born in about 1505 and, as an organist at Waltham Abbey and in the Chapel Royal, served under the English monarchs Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary and Elizabeth I. The importance of the composer, who passed away in 1585, most of all lies in the field of sacred music. Besides his "Laments of the Prophet Jeremiah", the motet for forty voices "Spem in alium" belongs to his most popular works in our time. His playing with adding voices and subsequent reductions in the number of voices, which so to speak puts the listener in a constantly changing distance to the compositions, plays an important role with Ralph Vaughan Williams as well.
The Tallis Fantasia by Ralph Vaughan Williams premiered on 6 September 1910 at the Three Choirs Festival in Gloucester. The piece, which Vaughan Williams went on to revise in 1913 and again in 1919, was one of the works through which the composer triggered his artistic breakthrough. The Tallis Fantasia not only creates a connection to the past by employing modal tonalities, but actually uses an original theme composed by Thomas Tallis. This is taken from the hymn "Why fum'th in fight the Gentiles spite, in fury raging stout?" in the Archbishop Parker's Psalter. The melody is in the Phrygian mode, and opens with an austere rigour but glides into the sort of variations encountered in old English folk tunes. These two aspects are especially representative for the preferences of the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams.
The Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis was written for strings only. This evokes thoughts of reduction and simplicity, but the multitude of voices takes this firmly out of question. Vaughan Williams himself designated the Fantasia as a work for "double string orchestra", but in fact this description still remains somewhat imprecise: There is a full-size string orchestra (orchestra I), whose parts quite often undergo subdivisions, as well as a separately placed small string orchestra (orchestra II), consisting only of two first violins, two second violins, two violas, two cellos and a double bass. Furthermore, there is an additional string quartet formed by members of the first desks of the large orchestra.
It is again and again pointed out that the Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis has certain formal parallels with an early fantasia for viol instruments, one being the sequence of various sections in which the common underlying motif remains evident through all the imposed variations. The Tallis Fantasia opens with ethereal floating chords which soon lead into the main theme. This is prepared by plucked strings in the lower voices before being taken up by the full orchestra. Transcending the theme by means of a high counter voice then creates a peculiar impression, just as the performance directions "molto espressivo" and "appassionato" ("with passion") contrast to the more ascetic, objective Renaissance music. The different sizes of the orchestral groups result in fascinating variations in sound intensity, namely when extraordinary echo effects are produced. One section is introduced by a longer viola solo and this solo extends until a quartet is playing. On instances like this it also becomes apparent that Vaughan Williams was not merely attempting to emulate Renaissance models but that he created a piece of music very much at the height of its time. In addition to skilful melodic variation, there is also an enormous range of rhythmic opulence that is treated with exquisite subtlety. All this results in a composition full of atmospheric enchantment.