(Melbourne Symphony Orchestra)

Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto

(Articles & Program Notes)
Published – 03.07.2019
(Writing)

Over the past few years, I’ve become steadily more fascinated with the backstories of the composers often performed on stages like this one. The composers whose melodies we can hum on cue if asked or anecdotally speak about during intervals. I’ve become interested in the very human stories that you find once you scrape a little more at the outer shell – who was Bach beyond his church and his children? And Beethoven, once you’ve discussed his hearing and hair? That’s what I’ve tried to do for you tonight – find you information that will if not change the way you hear the pieces of music on the program, at least, enhance the experience of them.

Because when push comes to shove, classical music is about people. It’s about you, being here in the audience, it’s about the musicians on stage and the lives they live when they’re not in concert dress. And, most importantly for us right now, it’s about the composers and the world in which they inhabited as they were writing. It’s the history that was happening concurrently, and the personal drama that moulded and shaped their work. Tonight, we have three huge dramatic works, Dvorak’s The Wood Dove, or The Wild Dove, depending on the edition you’ve been given, Tchaikovsky’s famous Violin Concerto and Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, arranged by Ravel. All of them personal, either in story or context, and all of them deeply emotional in one way or another for both the composer in their writing, and for us, as their audience.

Now, there a tons of beginnings for this talk – I mean, we’ve been confronted with three giants of the cannon, and so it took me a little bit of time to figure out where to start. Our three leading gents were literally all born a year apart, Mussorgsky in Russia in 1839, Tchaikovsky in Russia in 1840 and Dvorak in Czechia in 1841. So they were dealing with the same world, in some ways. Over in Russia, Tsar Nicolas the first was in power, leading the country with a pretty serious, no-nonsense soldier’s ethic. Russia was pretty poor, partly because nobility weren’t required to pay any taxes or for the many small and large war campaigns. Czechia, on the other hand, was going through the end of its National Revival, before the 1848 Revolution. Though our three composers weren’t far from each other geographically, they started their lives a little differently – Mussorgsky with wealth, Tchaikovsky with military influence and Dvorak with modesty.

I won’t go into their upbringing much further than to say each began their studies of music early, around the ages of 5 or 6, and were embedded in the world of music by their teenage years. They also err a little on the side of folk music, an interest in the rhythms and melodies of traditional music binding these three composers. To get us in the mood, I’d like to play mini excerpts from each composer; some of their earliest works!

Here is a little of Tchaikovsky’s At Bedtime written in 1863 or 64 while he was a student at the St Petersburg Conservatory. There were two versions, one as an a cappella chorus, and this one, for voices with orchestra. There are so many hints towards where his later works will take him – have a listen.

Now, something a little more fun! Dvorak’s first piece on record, written in 1854. The Forget-me-not Polka.

And finally, some early Mussorgsky: From 1857, his Souvenir d’enfance or childhood memories.

So now we’re deeply in the worlds inhabited by Mussorgsky, Tchaikovsky and Dvorak, let’s dive into the where they were when they were writing the Wood Dove, the Violin Concerto, and the Pictures.

Dvorak’s The Wild Dove, or The Wood Dove as it is listed tonight, was composed in a set of four symphonic poems, which he began work on towards the end of 1896, heralding in the end of his working career. From much earlier, Dvorak was incredibly invested in Czech poetry, particularly the works of Karel Jaromir Erben, who, apart from being a well-known poet, was also a historian and a pretty prolific translator and collector of Czech folk songs and fairy tales. Earlier in his career, Dvorak had set several of Erben’s works to music, before working on the larger cycle of four symphonic poems – The Water Goblin, The Noon Witch, The Golden Spinning Wheel and The Wild Dove. Formal recognition of the poet was always incredibly important to Dvorak, and after the works were published by Simrock and offered a weighty award by the Czech Academy of Sciences and Arts, and consequently published in several other countries, he had cause to write this impassioned note to the publisher himself:

“Dear Mr Simrock! Please answer me this: Why is the following sentence omitted?: ‘The poetic subject matter underlying the enclosed work was taken from the collection of Czech poems Blumenstrauss, in Czech Kytice, by K. J. Erben’ etc. It is present in the Czech text, so why does it not appear in German and English? Over here everyone recognises and knows that the poet is Erben. All the more reason that it must also appear in the German text.”

Now the text itself is awfully dramatic, depicting a gruesome story of love and deception. A young women poisons her husband, but has no remorse about this. She feigns the most overwhelming grief at his funeral, and almost immediately finds a young, handsome man to fall in love with. They have a luxurious wedding within a month of the death of the husband she kills! One day though, a wild dove sits on the grave of the dead man and begins to sadly coo, reminding the women of her guilt. She suddenly cannot stand the idea of what she did to that poor husband, and takes her own life. To create an atmosphere that portrays such dark and devastating themes, Dvorak has to use all musical elements, because he cannot lean directly on the text. In his four symphonic poems, he constructed a large part of the thematic material based directly upon the rhythm of Erben’s verse, so if you were to listen carefully, you may be able to line up exact words with the music you hear. In the Wild Dove, Dvorak focusses very heavily on the details of the story, and uses the colours of the orchestra to bring those into focus. Dvorak composed a single motif, which often used in highly contrasting ways and moods, gives the piece some cohesion, as it ebbs and flows between great love, great loss, and great remorse. Speaking of that single motif, you will hear it sing out in extremely different contexts in this piece – at the funeral march, and then again, totally transformed, in the wedding scene.

Here is a moment from the top of the Wild Dove, in a recording from the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra under Nikolaus Harnoncourt. Notice from the outset the atmosphere Dvorak is creating. It’s quite a quiet beginning, so do close your eyes if you’d like to.

I can’t wait for you to imagine that story as you hear this work. It’s incredibly self-contained – it kind of runs through all human emotion in just 20 minutes, but you feel as if you’ve been swept into this intense tale from the moment those quiet notes begin. The piece was premiered in 1898 with Leos Janacek as conductor and its reception was mixed. Dvorak was always known as, and often is still referred to as a composer of absolute music, which refers to instrumental music not intended to represent or illustrate something else. This was not specifically the case, though – Dvorak wrote a bit of a mix of both absolute and programmatic music, but the four symphonic poems, regardless of their initial mixed reviews, have become firm favourites of the repertoire.

Keeping on with pieces that go from not super popular when they’re conceived to absolute pillars of the repertoire, let’s get to this violin concerto.

Tchaikovsky, when he got to writing his Concerto in D Major, now completely beloved, had been through a pretty traumatic personal experience. He’d been briefly tied to a very dramatic student of his, who professed that if he wouldn’t agree to marry her, she’d have to kill herself. The composer, buried deeply at the time, in the writing of his opera Eugene Onegin, took this girl’s plight slightly to heart, and agreed. No happiness lasted through, and after just a few days, he himself took off with the idea of ending his own life in mind. He travelled for a while, to France, to Italy, and finally to Switzerland, where he joined up with his friend, the violinist Joseph Kotek. Kotek was a virtuoso, and had studied with Tchaikovsky at the Moscow Conservatory, where it said he was the composer’s favourite pupil. They had an intellectual and physical bond, and when they caught up in 1878, Tchaikovsky really needed a friend and needed a renewed faith in his craft. Tchaikovsky arrived in Switzerland in March of that year, with Kotek arriving just a handle of days later, carrying with him a whole bunch of new works for violin, which he played through with Tchaikovsky at his side. Edouard Lalo’s Symphonie espagnole stood out to Tchaikovsky, and hearing it performed by Kotek with all his youthful exuberance, made the composer really start to think about creating his own work for the violin. He had been squirreling away at the Piano Sonata in G Major, but he pushed that away now, focussing all his energy on this concerto. With invaluable technical advice from Kotek, Tchaikovsky absolutely raised through the composition, playing each section through as soon as it was ready, the ink not even dry on the page. About the process, which was invigorating for both musicians, Tchaikovsky wrote “how lovingly Kotek busies himself with my concerto! It goes without saying that I would have been able to do nothing without him. He plays it marvellously!” And marvellously the project went, because it was all done in less than a month. There were some revisions following the first play through, but all in all, the piece and its orchestration complete by early April. Now surely the logical followed, right? The piece would be dedicated to and premiered by Joseph Kotek? Wrong. Tchaikovsky, who was heartbreakingly ashamed of his sexuality, which is a fact well known now, was worried about the gossip that it could cause, and the piece didn’t get performed until December of 1881. Tchaikovsky intended the first performance then, if he couldn’t have Kotek, to be given by Leopold Auer, who he’d written several other works for, but his offer was turned down. Many years later Leopold wrote this story for the Musical Courier in New York about the experience:
‘“When Tchaikovsky came to me one evening, about thirty years ago [actually thirty-four], and presented me with a roll of music, great was my astonishment on finding this proved to be the Violin Concerto, dedicated to me, completed and already in print. [This was the reduction for violin and piano, printed in 1878; the publication of the full score did not take place until 1888.] My first feeling was one of gratitude for this proof of his sympathy toward me, which honored me as an artist. On closer acquaintance with the composition, I regretted that the great composer had not shown it to me before committing it to print. Much unpleasantness might then have been spared us both…. Warmly as I had championed the symphonic works of the young composer (who was at that time not universally recognized), I could not feel the same enthusiasm for the Violin Concerto, with the exception of the first movement; still less could I place it on the same level as his purely orchestral compositions. I am still of the same opinion. My delay in bringing the concerto before the public was partly due to this doubt in my mind as to its intrinsic worth, and partly that I would have found it necessary, for purely technical reasons, to make some slight alterations in the passages of the solo part. This delicate and difficult task I subsequently undertook, and re-edited the violin solo part, and it is this edition which has been played by me, and also by my pupils, up to the present day. It is incorrect to state that I had declared the concerto in its original form unplayable. What I did say was that some of the passages were not suited to the character of the instrument, and that, however perfectly rendered, they would not sound as well as the composer had imagined. From this purely aesthetic point of view only I found some of it impracticable, and for this reason I re-edited the solo part. Tchaikovsky, hurt at my delay in playing the concerto in public and quite rightly too (I have often deeply regretted it, and before his death received absolution from him), now proceeded to have a second edition published, and dedicated the concerto this time to Adolf Brodsky, who brought it out in Vienna, where it met with much adverse criticism, especially from Hanslick. The only explanation I can give of the orchestral score still bearing my name is that when the original publisher, P. Jurgenson, of Moscow, to suit the composer, republished the concerto, he brought out the piano score in the new edition, but waited to republish the orchestral score until the first edition of it should be exhausted. This is the only way I can solve the problem of the double dedication. The concerto has made its way in the world, and after all, that is the most important thing. It is impossible to please everybody.”

Tchaikovsky’s concerto is a challenging work for any violinist – full of double stops, glissandi, trills, leaps and dissonances, but it is also full to bursting of lyric melody suggestive of Russian folksong. Folk music influence is always a marker of Tchaikovsky’s writing, but it is lush here – this is a work without pretence, and full of colour. If you were to hear it for the first time without knowledge of Tchaikovsky’s life you’d be forgiven for thinking he wasn’t going through much at all, other than perhaps, a particularly fruitful creative period. Let’s listen to a little of the second movement, the Canzonetta: Andante in G minor, before we discuss our final composer, Mussorgsky.

Now, imagine a gallery. Picture yourself walking in, exploring the smaller rooms around you, and visiting each painting, noticing the different stories, the different colours in each. First a gnome, with jarring shades, awkward leaps, unexpected harmonies, then an old castle – reminiscent of folk stories and fairy tales. Then there’s the famous Parisian park, children running. After, a wagon that arrives unexpectedly. And on it goes, the promenade around Mussorgsky’s gallery. He describes ten pictures, one after another, as if he were explaining his way through a museum of art. It is said that Mussorgsky, despite his considerable size, was a very pacey walker, and so his tempo markings, that describe not only the artworks, but also the way in which the gallery visitor would experience them, were very precise. The promenade is marked allegro, because this is no casual visit.

Mussorgsky composed the Pictures at an Exhibition as piano works first, back in 1874, after the death of his close friend, the artist Victor Hartmann. Now, Hartmann wasn’t really known for his art or architecture, but after a memorial showing was put together of his life’s work, Mussorgsky had the idea for his suite. He wanted to show someone “roving through the exhibition, now leisurely, now briskly, he said, in order to come closer to a picture that had attracted his attention, and at times sadly, thinking of his departed friend.” In just a few short months, the suite was completed, but it wouldn’t be heard until after Mussorgsky had died. Rimsky-Korsakov re-discovered the works, being the musical executor of Mussorgsky’s estate, and he edited the pieces and gave them their premiere. Many people, between Rimsky-Korsakov uncovering the dusty old manuscript and Ravel, turned their hand to orchestrating the ten pieces and promenade, but none stuck until 1922. It was Serge Koussevitzky, who went on to become the long-standing music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, who commissioned Ravel to create the works you’ll hear tonight. During his lifetime, Koussevitzky was a champion of modern music, and commissioned and premiered many new works that have gone on to be incredibly important pieces in the history of Western art music. Ravel’s orchestration shows the work of a master – colours are vivid, and Mussorgsky’s characters come alive with the new instrumentation. Now orchestration is no easy feat, Ravel’s job was absolutely not a simple task. To take piano works and create the colours that you hear? Now that is an art. “To orchestrate is to paint”, said the famous American composer Bernard Rogers. “Both arts enlist color and line as expressive means. In both, the sensuous ingredient sharpens and deepens the artist’s thought. Orchestration requires imagination, taste, and skill. It combines adventure and discipline.”

I hope you enjoy tonight’s adventure into the lands of these great composers. It certainly will be dramatic. Have a great night.

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