The Kennedy Center

Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 35

About the Work

Painting of Tchaikovsky Composer: Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
© Harry Haskell

Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 35


Born May 7, 1840 in Kamsko-Votkinsk, Russia 

Died November 6, 1893 in St. Petersburg


About the Composer: For all Tchaikovsky’s heart-on-sleeve Romanticism and his intimately revealing correspondence with his patron and confidante, Nadezhda von Meck, much about the man and his music remains enigmatic. The composer’s characteristically ecstatic effusions masked an inner life racked by anguish and self-doubt. In the late 1870s and early 1880s, he produced a string of sunny and extroverted works, including the brilliant Violin Concerto, the tub-thumping 1812 Overture, and the incandescent Serenade for Strings. Yet the same period saw the composition of the Fourth Symphony, with its portentous fate motif, and the opera Eugene Onegin, the tragic overtones of which mirrored the homosexual Tchaikovsky’s unhappy marriage. By the time he appeared on the podium at the opening of Carnegie Hall in 1891, he was one of most celebrated musicians in the world. Two years later, shortly after conducting the premiere of his “Pathétique” Symphony, he died under mysterious circumstances. Endowed with a sensibility at once poetic and conservative—Mozart was one of his favorite composers—Tchaikovsky sought what he called “the higher artistic truth which springs from the mysterious depths of man’s creative power and pours out into clear, intelligible, conventional forms.”


About the Work: Tchaikovsky dashed off the original version of his Violin Concerto in less than a month in the spring of 1878. “Ever since the day when the auspicious mood came upon me, it has not left me,” he enthused to Mme. von Meck. “In such a phase of spiritual life, composition completely loses the character of work; it is pure enjoyment.” The concerto was written for a former pupil of the composer named Yosif Kotek, with whom he had a close and possibly intimate relationship. Anxious to avoid any appearance of impropriety, he dedicated the work to the virtuoso Leopold Auer, who disappointed him by pronouncing the fiendishly difficult solo part “unviolinistic” and declining to perform it. Although Auer offered to help revise the score, he procrastinated so long that Tchaikovsky, in a huff, awarded both the dedication and the honor of the first performance to Adolph Brodsky. The long-delayed premiere took place in Vienna on December 4, 1881. Years later, Auer made amends: He not only championed the concerto tirelessly in the concert hall (in the much-revised version that he had promised to make earlier), but ensured that it would become a mainstay of the violin repertoire by teaching it to Nathan Milstein, Jascha Heifetz, and other up-and-coming virtuosos.    


A Closer Listen: The gently lilting tune that the first violins play at the beginning of the Allegro moderato is a red herring: Almost immediately a drumroll ratchets up the tension, as an embryonic D-major theme emerges in a series of short syncopated phrases. The solo violin enters in its lowest register, stretches its wings in a graceful arpeggio, then settles down to develop the theme in a warmly lyrical fashion. The music grows steadily more virtuosic, with the syncopated melody reappearing in various guises, now accompanied by a majestic brass fanfare, now embedded in a delicate skein of violinistic filigree. A brilliant cadenza seems to portend the movement’s imminent end, but instead of the quick wrap-up we expect, Tchaikovsky treats us to an extended synopsis of the Allegro, culminating in a scintillating stretto.

      The relaxed Canzonetta, with its sultry, Slavic-inflected theme in G minor, provides a welcome respite from the supercharged intensity of the concerto’s outer movements. A quizzical half-step figure at the end effects a seamless transition to the spitfire Finale. Once again, as at the beginning of the work, the soloist enters unaccompanied. After warming up on material the orchestra has just presented, the violin dashes off in a double-time sprint in the home key of D major, alternating with contrasting passages in A major. The music periodically runs out of energy, then winds itself back up and continues on its way, until finally Tchaikovsky calls a halt to the proceedings, and both orchestra and soloist stop short on a dime.