The Kennedy Center

Violin Concerto in A minor, Op. 53

About the Work

Antonin Dvorak Composer: Antonín Dvorák
© Peter Laki

Antonín Dvorák spent the summer of 1879 with his friend Alois Göbl, who was secretary to Prince Alain de Rohan, at the prince's estate in the Czech countryside. It was there that he penned the first version of his violin concerto, no doubt intending to dedicate it to the famous violinist, Joseph Joachim. Joachim had played the premiere of the Brahms concerto just a few months earlier, on January 1, 1879. Brahms, who had done so much to help the young Dvorák's career (he was on the committee that awarded Dvorák his first grant, and he recommended him to his own publisher, Simrock), had also introduced him to Joachim, his friend of many years. The violinist performed two of Dvorák's chamber music works in 1879, so by the time the manuscript of the violin concerto reached him, he was well acquainted with the Czech composer's style.

It is well known how closely Joachim worked with Brahms on the latter's violin concerto. It was to be expected that Dvorák wouldn't get away with anything short of a complete, measure-by-measure examination of his score, which, in fact, resulted in the verdict that the concerto needed a thorough revision. Dvorák made a first set of changes early in 1880, sent off a copy to Joachim, and then waited almost two years for an answer. When Joachim finally responded, he made numerous emendations in the solo part. Despite his criticism, however, he repeatedly expressed his admiration for the concerto to Dvorák. Presumably, if he hadn't liked the work, he wouldn't have gone to the trouble of making corrections. Yet he does not seem to have ever played the concerto in public, although he did arrange for a run-through at the Berlin Conservatory.

Unlike Brahms, Dvorák was a string player himself, having played principal viola at the Provisional Theatre from 1862 to 1871 (in 1866, Bedrich Smetana became the conductor of that orchestra). Nevertheless, he welcomed Joachim's technical suggestions, and probably destroyed all earlier versions so that we cannot know the exact nature of the changes made.

An important structural idea of Dvorák's was to join the first two movements together without interruption. (Max Bruch had earlier done something similar in his popular Concerto in G minor, completed in 1865-66.) Robert Keller, advisor to the music publisher Simrock, criticized Dvorák for this irregularity, but the composer insisted on keeping it. And he was right: the Quasi moderato transition that leads from the first movement to the second is one of the most beautiful moments in the concerto.

All three movements of the work are primarily melodic in nature; in other words, the concerto's effect depends on the immediate appeal of the thematic material, rather than its development or a particularly innovative use of harmony. In the first movement, the solo violin enters after just a few minutes of orchestral introduction, and never stops playing for very long. Its main theme, first presented in a somewhat declamatory style, is later repeated more smoothly, with the instruction espressivo added. The lyrical second theme is rather brief, as is the development (in which snippets of the introductory orchestral fanfare are played softly by solo woodwinds, accompanied by virtuoso passages of the solo violin). The recapitulation is interrupted by the transition leading into the grandiose second movement, which has an exceptionally long melody composed of several phrases. Each of these will be taken up separately in the course of the movement. A more dramatic minor-mode episode occurs twice in this Adagio, played the first time by the solo violin, and the second time by the orchestra, in one of the rare passages where the soloist can take a brief rest. At the end of the movement, the solo violin engages in a haunting dialogue with a pair of horns.

The finale is a rondo whose melodies were inspired by Czech folk dances. The rhythm of the furiant, with its ambivalence between triple and duple meter, is clearly recognizable in the main theme (at the repeat, it receives an added accompaniment where the cellos and oboes imitate bagpipes). One of the episodes is a wistful dumka melody in D minor that later returns in a more brilliant instrumentation shortly before the end.