The Kennedy Center

Violin Concerto No. 2 in D minor, Op. 22

About the Work

Henri Wieniawski Composer: Henri Wieniawski
© Richard Freed

Untitled Document

The Concerto in D minor was composed in 1862 and was given its premiere in Moscow on November 27 of that year, with Wieniawski himself as soloist and Anton Rubinstein conducting. Oscar Shumsky was the soloist in the National Symphony Orchestra's first performance of the Concerto, with Stanley Chapple conducting, in a Watergate concert on June 18, 1944; the orchestra last performed the work on February 3, 1985, in a concert with winners of that year's Young Soloists Competition, with Cynthia Finks as soloist and Hugh Wolff conducting.

In addition to the solo violin, the score, dedicated to Pablo de Sarasate, calls for 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, timpani, and strings. Duration, 22 minutes.

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It is fitting that a work by Tchaikovsky precedes this concerto in the present concerts, for there was a touching connection between these two composers, as we shall see a few paragraphs down the road. As the dedication of the score makes clear, there were connections as well between Wieniawski and his fellow violinists, Sarasate being only one of his colleagues who eagerly took up his compositions (and Wieniawski, of course, happily reciprocated. He was one of the most brilliant and beloved "virtuoso-composers" of his time, an outstanding exemplar of what Yehudi Menuhin described (in his foreword to a biography of Eugène Ysaÿe) as "that romantic race of mighty men who were violin virtuosi."

The French form of Wieniawski's given name, Henri, is usually used, because he used it so widely himself, from the beginning of both his serious training and his actual career. He was a genuine prodigy: he entered the Paris Conservatoire at the age of 8 and only three years later, upon being graduated with first prize in violin, he entered the international concert circuit in full force. In 1849, having been stimulated by his contact with the composer Stanislaw Moniuszko in Warsaw, he returned to the Conservatoire to study harmony for a year--and after that he had no need of a teacher in either performance or composition.

Before he was in his teens he began performing with the most illustrious colleagues: joint recitals with Anton Rubinstein at the piano; performances as both violinist and violist in the Beethoven Society series in London, together with fellow violinists Joseph Joachim and Heinrich Wilhelm Ernste and the cellist Alfredo Piatti; engagements with the most respected English and Continental orchestras. In 1859 Rubinstein persuaded him to come to St. Petersburg, where he was appointed personal violinist to the Tsar; he joined the faculty of Rubinstein's conservatory in that city and remained there until 1872, when he and Rubinstein together made a long and phenomenally successful American tour. From here he was summoned to Brussels to replace his ailing senior colleague Henri Vieuxtemps at the Royal Conservatory, where the parenthetically aforementioned Ysaÿe was one of his pupils.

By the time Vieuxtemps was able to resume his duties, Wieniawski's own health began to fail. When he undertook the Berlin premiere of his Second Concerto, on November 11, 1878, his performance was cut short by a heart seizure; his illustrious colleague Joachim rose from the audience, apologized for not being able to play "my dear friend's wonderful concerto," and offered the Bach Chaconne in its place. After that Wieniawski was never able to complete a performance in public again, and he found himself not only sick but virtually destitute, having lost most of his money in ill-advised American investments and then gambled away the remainder of his considerable earnings. Tchaikovsky had been a student at the St. Petersburg Conservatory during Wieniawski's years on that institution's faculty; when he learned in the spring of 1880 that Wieniawski was deathly ill in Moscow, he persuaded his own patron, Nadezhda von Meck, to have him brought from his hospital bed to her home, and it was there that Wieniawski died. (A daughter, Irene Regine, born to Wieniawski and his English wife less than a year before his death became one of the few successful female composers of he time, writing under the pseudonym Poldowski.)

Most of Wieniawski's compositions are brief pieces, but he produced two full-scale concertos, the second of which is by all odds the most admired of all his works. Although composed and introduced in 1862, it was not published until 1870, with the dedication to Sarasate. Few violinists have failed to take it up sicne then, though it has been far less prominent on concert programs in the last few decades than it was earlier.

The opening movement ( Allegro moderato ) is dominated by a big, broad, impassioned theme which bears a curious resemblance--almost a "pre-echo"--to a phrase in the song "Dein ist mein ganzes Herz" ("Yours is my heart alone") in Franz Lehár's 1929 operetta Das Land des Lächelns ("The Land of Smiles").

The first movement leads without pause into the celebrated Romance (Andante non troppo) , whose lyric theme is still more songlike (and which for some time was heard more frequently on its own than as part of the concerto). Like so many impressive and memorable melodies, this one is built on the simplest of outlines, its purpose being only to enable the violin to sing and the listener to be both moved and delighted.

The finale ( Allegro moderato, a la zingara ) provides a sharp contrast with the moods conveyed in the earlier movements, and brings the concerto to a scampering, exhilarating conclusion--but even here the lyric element is given its due, in a brief but affecting recollection of the opening movement's theme.