Classics 6 Program Notes - Tchaikovsky & Bartok

Saturday, April 27, 2019 at 7:30pm

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

Violin Concerto in D, Opus 35

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was born at Votkinsk, Russia district of Vyatka, on May 7, 1840, and died in St. Petersburg on November 6, 1893. He began work on the Violin Concerto at Clarens, Switzerland, in March 1878, completing it on April 11, but on the advice of his brother Modest and his student Yosif Kotek, he took a few more days to replace the original Andante with the present Canzonetta for the middle movement. Leopold Auer, to whom the concerto was first dedicated, pronounced it “impossible to play,” and the first performance was given by Adolf Brodsky at a Vienna Philharmonic concert conducted by Hans Richter on December 4, 1881. In addition to the solo violin, the concerto calls for flutes, oboes, clarinets, and bassoons in pairs, four horns, two trumpets, timpani, and strings. Duration is about 33 minutes.


In his four-volume biography of Tchaikovsky, David Brown devotes the entire second volume to a narrow span of four years in the composer’s life, as indicated by the subtitle: “The Crisis Years, 1874-1878.” The crisis was a real one and it had complicated elements, both professional and personal. Its centerpiece was the composer’s catastrophic marriage, a step taken in the hope of stopping supposition about his homosexuality. He and his bride had scarcely started off on their honeymoon before the composer recognized the folly of his action. In torment, he ran away to Switzerland to try to forget. It was there that he composed the Violin Concerto.

The marriage was by no means Tchaikovsky’s only crisis during those years. At the beginning of the period in question, he had composed a piano concerto for his close friend Nikolai Rubinstein, only to have the pianist declare the work worthless and unplayable. Utterly dismayed, Tchaikovsky finally managed to arrange a premiere—in far-away Boston—so that if it was a flop, he would not have to be present to hear it himself. Ironically that concerto rather quickly became one of the most popular of all piano concertos. Soon after, Tchaikovsky composed the ballet Swan Lake, arguably the finest ballet score of the entire 19th century, though it was a failure in its first production, and the composer went to his grave without ever knowing that the world would regard his work as a masterpiece.

There were some assorted triumphs, though. The Fourth Symphony—deeply etched with his Slavic fatalism—was not only a success, but marked one of the first major works that he composed with the extraordinary patronage of Nadezhda von Meck, who sent him a regular stipend for a dozen years on the strict understanding that they were never to meet. The grateful composer declared that in the future his every note would be composed with an implicit dedication to her.

But in the aftermath of his marriage there was only flight—frantic determination to get away. His wife Antonina was staying at Kamenka with the composer’s sister and her husband. Letters passed back and forth between all the members of the family, Antonina making wild charges (such as the one that Tchaikovsky’s valet had bewitched him into hating her), some expressing hope for a reconciliation, and Tchaikovsky’s repeated insistence that such a thing could never be.

He spent some months in Italy, where several of his brothers joined him, and he gradually grew calmer in the contemplation of Italian art and the Italian countryside. But financial necessity forced him to find a cheaper place to stay, and on March 9, 1887, he arrived in Clarens, Switzerland. He quickly telegraphed his student, friend, and possible lover, the violinist Anton Kotek, who was then in Berlin, to inform him of the change of address. On the 13th he began a piano sonata, his first act of composition since the wedding. The next day Kotek arrived in Clarens.

Within a few days, Tchaikovsky abandoned the piano sonata, which was not going well. Within a day or two, he and Kotek played through Lalo’s Symphonie espagnole, which, in spite of its title, is a violin concerto. His interest in this piece (he noted that it had “a lot of freshness, lightness, of piquant rhythms, of beautiful and excellently harmonized melodies”) may well have turned his own mind in the direction of a violin concerto. He liked the way that Lalo “does not strive after profundity, but carefully avoids routine, seeks out new forms, and thinks more about musical beauty than about observing established traditions, as do the Germans.”

Perhaps this experience persuaded him to give up the sonata entirely and turn to a concerto, particularly since he had a violinist at hand to give him technical advice about the solo part. On March 17 he began the new piece and discovered to his delight that—unlike the piano sonata—it went easily. In just eleven days he sketched the entire concerto. The composer’s brother Modest and Kotek expressed reservations about the slow movement, though they were enthusiastic about the two outer movements. Upon consideration, Tchaikovsky agreed with them and on April 5 he replaced the original slow movement with a new piece. The enthusiasm of all three men was so great that Tchaikovsky finished the orchestration, too, in short order. By April 11 the concerto was complete.

Now, however, he was in for another professional crisis—a repetition of his experience with the First Piano Concerto. He dedicated the work to Leopold Auer, hoping naturally that the great violinist and teacher would play the first performance, which was, in fact, advertised for March 22, 1879. The music had already been published, and Auer regretted (so he wrote 30 years later) that he had not been consulted before it had been fixed in print. Auer is supposed to have declared the work to be “unplayable,” though he later defended himself by explaining that he meant only that, as written, some of the virtuoso passages would not sound as they should.

In any case, Tchaikovsky was deeply wounded. Kotek himself declined to play the work in Russia. Two years later Tchaikovsky learned from his publisher that Adolf Brodsky had learned the piece and was planning to play it in Vienna. That performance, which took place at the end of 1881, called forth one of the most notorious reviews of Vienna’s conservative music critic Eduard Hanslick. Tchaikovsky never got over it; to the end of his life he could quote it by heart.


The Russian composer Tchaikovsky is surely no ordinary talent, but rather, an inflated one, obsessed with posturing as a genius, lacking discrimination and taste....The same can be said for his new, long, and ambitious Violin Concerto. For a while it proceeds soberly, musically, and not mindlessly, but soon vulgarity gains the upper hand and dominates until the end of the first movement. The violin is no longer played; it is tugged about, torn, beaten black and blue....The Adagio is well on the way to reconciling us and winning us over, but it soon breaks off to make way for a finale that transports us to the brutal and wretched jollity of a Russian church festival. We see a host of savage, vulgar faces, we hear crude curses, and smell the booze. In the course of a discussion of obscene illustrations, Friedrich Vischer once maintained that there were pictures which one could see stink. Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto for the first time confronts us with the hideous idea that there may be compositions whose stink one can hear.


Hanslick, sitting in a Vienna coffee shop, clearly found Russia, and everything Russian, as represented in Tchaikovsky’s music, to be uncivilized. How ironic that, among his contemporaries, Tchaikovsky was regarded as the westernized Russian, the one who had spurned the truly nationalistic approach of “The Five.”

In any case, we have trouble today locating the “stink” in this music. For nearly a century it has simply been one of the four or five most popular violin concertos in the literature, which is answer enough to Hanslick.

About the Music

The first movement starts with a simple, graceful melody in the violin—a melody that will not return. (This is a trick that he famously employed in the First Piano Concerto, too.) Here we might even anticipate a quasi-classical piece like the Rococo Variations. But soon the orchestral part grows more portentous, preparing for the soloist’s entrance. The melodic flow of the exposition is not only a joy to contemplate for sheer melodic invention but also a marvel of continuing development, as tiny figures from one melody crop up, subtly varied, in the next.

The Andante is an extended song (its heading Canzonetta is significant). During the months away from Russia, Tchaikovsky had written endlessly in his letters of his nostalgia, of his longing to be home again. He poured all of the yearning into the melancholy of this ardent movement.

The finale is vigorous, even pictorial, with hints of peasant bagpipes and dances, vivid in its color and rhythm, but not in its smell! Even at its most virtuosic, the solo part is designed to color and highlight the melodic unfolding of the movement. Surely it is this openhearted singing quality that wins all hearts.


Béla Bartók

Concerto for Orchestra

Béla Bartók was born in Nagyszentmiklós, Transylvania (then part of Hungary but now absorbed into Romania), on March 25, 1881, and died in New York on September 26, 1945. The Concerto for Orchestra was commissioned in the spring of 1943 by Serge Koussevitzky through the Koussevitzky Music Foundation in memory of Natalie Koussevitzky. Bartók composed the work between August 15 and October 8, 1943; Koussevitzky led the Boston Symphony Orchestra in the first performances on December 1 and 2, 1944. The Concerto for Orchestra is scored for three flutes (third doubling piccolo), three oboes (third doubling English horn), three clarinets (third doubling bass clarinet), three bassoons (third doubling contrabassoon), four horns, three trumpets (with a fourth trumpet marked ad lib.), three trombones, tuba, timpani, side drum, bass drum, tam-tam, cymbals, triangle, two harps, and strings. Duration is about 36 minutes.


Early in the 1940s, with a world war raging in Europe, Bartók immigrated to the United States, where he had a position doing research on recordings of eastern European folk songs housed at Columbia University. He had all but given up composition during the preceding years, depressed by the state of Europe and by his own financial insecurity. Bartók enjoyed his work with the folk materials at Columbia, but he was painfully aware that his position there was only temporary, and he kept casting around for lectureships, concerts, and other ways of earning a living.

Worse, he had begun to have a series of irregular high fevers that the doctors were unable to diagnose, but which turned out to be the first indication of leukemia. By early 1943 the state of his health and the fact that Americans showed little interest in his music brought him to a low point. He insisted that he never wanted to compose again. The medical men were unable to do much, yet powerful medicine that spring came not from a doctor, but rather from a conductor—Serge Koussevitzky.

Violinist Joseph Szigeti had told Koussevitzky of Bartók’s situation, warning him that the proud composer would not accept anything remotely smacking of charity. Koussevitzky therefore offered work: $1000 to write a new orchestral piece with a guarantee of a performance by the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The commission was a tonic for the ailing composer; at once he was filled with ideas for a new composition.

Throughout his American years, Bartók found no reason to feel that his music had struck any sort of responsive chord here. In December 1941 he had claimed to Kodály that he felt lucky in lacking the inclination to write a new large score since “even if I had a new orchestra work it would be impossible to get it performed.”

Koussevitzky’s visit in April 1943 changed all that, for the conductor commissioned a work and guaranteed a performance. The change in Bartók’s spirit was immediate. His wife Ditta wrote to Joseph Szigeti to tell him of the change in her husband: “One thing is sure: Béla’s ‘under no circumstances will I ever write a new work’ attitude has gone. It’s more than three years now—”

Bartók spent the summer resting under medical supervision at a sanatorium at Lake Saranac in upstate New York; here he wrote most of the new work in just eight weeks, between August 15 and October 8. And in working on the score, he recovered much of his former energy and enthusiasm. He told Szigeti early in 1944 that the improvement in his health allowed him to finish the Concerto for Orchestra—or perhaps it was the other way around.

Béla and Ditta Bartók made the trip to Boston late in November 1944 to attend the premiere, as the composer reported to a friend a few weeks later:


We went there for the rehearsals and performances—after having obtained the grudgingly granted permission of my doctor for this trip. It was worth wile [sic], the performance was excellent. Koussevitzky is very enthusiastic about the piece, and says it is “the best orchestra piece of the last 25 years” (including the works of his idol Shostakovich!).


About the Music

For the first performance Bartók wrote a commentary printed in the orchestra’s program book, something he did only rarely. His summary of the spirit of the work was no doubt a response to his own feeling of recuperation as he composed it:


The general mood of the work represents, apart from the jesting second movement, a gradual transition from the sternness of the first movement and the lugubrious death-song of the third, to the life-assertion of the last one. The title of this symphony-like orchestral work is explained by its tendency to treat the single instruments or instrumental groups in a concertant or soloistic manner. The “virtuoso” treatment appears, for instance, in the fugato sections of the development of the first movement (brass instruments), or in the perpetuum mobile-like passage of the principal theme in the last movement (strings), and, especially, in the second movement, in which pairs of instruments consecutively appear with brilliant passages.


He paired the first and fifth movements, as well as the second and fourth, so that the overall structure is a symmetrical pattern balanced through the middle (this was a favorite design in his multi-movement works).

The Concerto opens with a mysterious introduction laying forth the essential motivic ideas: a theme built up of intervals of the fourth, answered by symmetrical contrary motion in seconds. These ideas become gradually more energetic until they explode in the vigorous principal theme in the strings, a tune that bears the imprint of Bartók’s musical physiognomy all over with its emphatic leaping fourths and its immediate inversion. It is a rich mine of melodic motives for future development. The solo trombone introduces a fanfare-like figure, again built of fourths, that will come to play an important role in the brasses later on. A contrasting theme appears in the form of a gently rocking idea first heard in the oboe. Most of these materials make their first impression as melodies pure and simple, not as the source material for contrapuntal elaboration, but Bartók works out a wondrously rich concoction with all kinds of contrapuntal tricks, and the fact that this was possible is, of course, no accident; the composer planned it from the start in designing his themes.

The “Game of Pairs” that forms the second movement is simple but original in form, a chain-like sequence of folk-oriented melodies presented by five pairs of instruments, each pair playing in parallel motion at a different interval: the bassoons in sixths, then oboes in thirds, clarinets in sevenths, flutes in fifths, and trumpets in seconds. After a brass chorale in the middle of the movement, the entire sequence of tunes is repeated with more elaborate scoring.

The third movement, Elegia, is one of those expressive “night music” movements that Bartók delighted in. He described it as built of three themes appearing successively, framed “by a misty texture of rudimentary motifs.” The thematic ideas are closely related to those of the first movement, but they are treated here in a kind of expressive recitative of the type that Bartók called “parlando rubato,” a style that he found characteristic of much Hungarian music.

The Intermezzo interrotto (“Interrupted Intermezzo”) alternates two very different themes: a rather choppy one first heard in the oboe, then a flowing, lush, romantic one that is Bartók’s gift to the viola section. But after these ideas have been stated in an ABA pattern, there is a sudden interruption in the form of a vulgar, simple-minded tune that descends the scale in stepwise motion. This tune actually comes from the Seventh Symphony of Dmitri Shostakovich, which Bartók heard on a radio broadcast while working on the Concerto for Orchestra. According to his son Péter, he was so incensed with the theme’s ludicrous simplicity that he decided to work it into his new piece and burlesque it with nose-thumbing jibes in the form of cackling trills from the woodwinds, raspberries from the tuba and trombones, and chattering commentary from the strings. (Bartók’s scorn no doubt comes from his lack of understanding of the political pressures Shostakovich was under in Stalin’s Russian, and a failure to realize how often he had to suppress his own views through musical irony.)  Soon, however, all settles back to normal with a finale BA statement of the two main tunes.

The last movement begins with characteristic dance rhythms in an equally characteristic Bartókian perpetuo moto that rushes on and on, throwing off various motives that gradually solidify into themes, the most important of which appears in the trumpet and turns into a massive fugue, complicated and richly wrought, but building up naturally to a splendidly sonorous climax.

The overwhelming success of the Concerto for Orchestra marked the real beginning of Bartók’s fame with the broad concert audience. It remains without doubt his best-known and best-loved purely orchestral work, but over the years it has also provided a key by means of which many listeners have learned to love Bartók’s music, including the pieces that were once found to be too “difficult.” And for Bartók personally, composing this score proved to be just the tonic he needed. It had filled his summer 1943 “rest cure” with, if not rest, at least a cure. In the fall Bartók and Ditta received a visit from their friend Agatha Fassett, who was astonished at the change in the composer over the summer, and when he showed her the completed score to the Concerto for Orchestra, he said to her (as she recalled later in her book on Bartók’s last years):


But what nobody could possibly see in this score is that through working on this concerto, I have discovered the wonder drug I needed to bring about my own cure. And like so many other discoveries, it just happened accidentally, and was only a by-product of what was of true importance to me, and I was almost unaware, at the time, that it was happening.


The despair that had caused him to give up composing had been overcome—even more so when the Concerto for Orchestra began its triumphal conquest of concert halls the following year. Bartók began accepting new commissions and undertaking further projects, though it was also clear that his health was not permanently improved. As he told a friend in Seattle a few weeks after the first performance of the Concerto for Orchestra: “You said in one of your letters that my recovering was a miracle. This is true only with some reservations: it was only a hemidemisemi-miracle.” Be that as it may, the months remaining to him produced the Sonata for Solo Violin, dedicated to Yehudi Menuhin, and the Third Piano Concerto, finished but for the last 17 measures, as well as the unfinished Viola Concerto and sketches for a seventh string quartet. For a man who had declared a short time earlier that he never wanted to compose again, that may be miracle enough.


© Steven Ledbetter (