Violin Concerto in A minor, Op. 53
Related Artists/CompaniesAntonín Dvorák
National Symphony Orchestra: Cristian Macelaru, conductor / Anne-Sophie Mutter, violin, plays Dvorák (Fri./Sat.) and a D.C. premiere (Thu.) - Feb. 13 - 15, 2014
"Brilliant violinist" (The New York Times) Anne-Sophie Mutter joins two programs led by conductor Cristian Macelaru in his NSO debut: one features Dvorák's Violin Concerto; the other offers a D.C. premiere written specifically for Mutter.
About the Work
Dvorák composed his Violin Concerto in the summer of 1879 and revised the score the following year on the advice of Joseph Joachim; the first performance was given in Prague on October 14, 1883, with František Ondrícek as soloist. Ruth Posselt was the soloist in the National Symphony Orchestra's first performance of this work, with Sir Ernest MacMillan conducting, on January 23, 1938; in the most recent ones, on September 24, 25 and 26, 1998, Midori was the soloist and Leonard Slatkin conducted.
In addition to the solo violin, the score, dedicated to Joseph Joachim, calls for 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and strings. Duration, 31 minutes.
Like so many of his contemporaries throughout Europe, Dvorák was enthralled by the music of Liszt and, more particularly, Wagner during the early stages of his creative life. His responsiveness was understandably intensified in February 1861, when, as a violist, he rehearsed and performed in the orchestra Wagner himself conducted in a Prague concert of his works. The Wagnerian strain is evident in Dvorák's early symphonies, to the point of citation almost as direct as Bruckner's—but even in those works there is as much to indicate the new influence that had by that time begun to loom large in Dvorák's consciousness and was to be a dominant factor in his mature works. As his distinguished biographer Otakar Šourek observed, it was then that
Dvorák, recognizing the originality and national feeling of Smetana's music, resolved to follow the same path in his own compositions. He began to turn to account his Czech nationality in his own works, as well as the clear-cut and characteristic stamp of his own personality. Where formerly his artistic speech, under the influence of Wagner and Liszt, expressed a tempestuous ebullience, and was unequal and unnatural in construction, it was now clarified and simplified, returning again as regards form to classical models, while at the same time, like Smetana, he refreshed his musical thoughts at the rich sources of Czech national music. Henceforward Dvorák's works began to show the qualities which became typical of all his subsequent musical compositions: proportion and elegance of form, beauty, nobility and individuality of musical content.
The development of that “proportion and elegance of form” may have been helped along by yet another influence to which Dvorák opened himself at about the same time, that of Brahms, who became his benefactor and friend in 1877, when, after serving on a jury that awarded Dvorák a grant from the Imperial Ministry of Culture (Bohemia being then part of the Austrian empire), he recommended him to his own publisher, Simrock of Berlin, and gave him encouragement in other forms.
On New Year's Day 1879 Brahms conducted the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra in the first performance of his new Violin Concerto; the soloist was his close friend Joseph Joachim, to whom the work was dedicated. Dvorák decided to follow suit and compose a concerto of his own for Joachim. He composed his Concerto between July 5, 1879, and about the time he reached his 38th birthday in September of that year, and then sent the score to Joachim. Discussions with Joachim the following April led to a revision of the score, completed on May 25, 1880. Even then Dvorák was not fully pleased with the work, and he made further emendations as late as 1882. While he acted on several of Joachim's suggestions and expressed his profound gratitude for them, he firmly rejected his advice to amend the original design of the opening movement, in which the usual recapitulation was omitted.
Curiously, although Joachim expressed enthusiasm over the Concerto and accepted the dedication, he never performed the work, either when it was new or at any time in the quarter-century that remained to him. When the work was finally introduced in Prague in October 1883, the soloist was the 24-year-old František Ondrícek, the best-known of the nine musical offspring of Dvorák's violinist friend Jan Ondrícek and eventually the founder of the famous Ondrícek Quartet that was active in Vienna before World War I.
The Concerto's first movement opens boldly, with a vigorous orchestral statement of what may be regarded as the first of the two parts of the first theme—the second part following on the violin. The second theme, of lesser importance, suggests a Brahmsian character. There is no slack in this movement, and its symphonic character is underscored by the sheer brilliance of the orchestration: throughout the work the orchestral coloring is by no means merely ornamental, but is an integral and indispensable element in Dvorák's expressive design.
A reflective bridge passage links the first movement to the second, whose ruminative character is also reminiscent of Brahms to a degree. The principal theme is subtle and long-lined, and its mood prevails despite the nervous interjections of a second theme which in this case does not make much headway. Especially effective is the autumnal glow of the horns as they recall the opening phrase at the end of the movement, with the violin soaring serenely above them.
While the finale surely had the corresponding movement of the Brahms Concerto as its model, it is in this movement that the Czech folk element is most strongly felt. Dvorák had written his first set of Slavonic Dances only a year before undertaking the Violin Concerto, and the spirit of the furiant informs this dazzling, effervescent rondo, in which one of the episodes, however, may be likened to the more ruminative dumka. No fewer than a half-dozen attractive themes are introduced, with the astonishing rhythmic vitality emphasized now by pizzicato strings, now by timpani, now by drone effects simulating peasant bagpipes. The movement could almost stand by itself as a grand Slavonic fantasy in which the violin is master of the revels.