Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto is more than just a concert hall classic. Its familiar themes have seeped into a thousand cultural contexts. It’s in a Monty Python sketch, and you’ll find it in the soundtrack for movies such as “The Goonies,” “The Equalizer” and “Unfaithfully Yours.”
It’s hard to imagine that such a quintessential piece of late-Romanic virtuosity could ever have been less than ultra popular. But the piece endured a surprisingly bumpy birth and took several years to gain a following.
Russian violinist Philippe Quint, who will perform the violin concerto Nov. 15-17 with the Pacific Symphony, has made a decades-long study of the work’s genesis and strange history. He has also spent years learning how to put his own stamp on the often-performed concerto.
“I probably learned it in my early 20s when I had just started studying at the Juilliard School,” said Quint 44, a native of St. Petersburg. “But by the time I started learning it I was already so familiar with it that it didn’t feel like a new work I was studying from scratch. That made everything about it harder.”
In the case of famous music, familiarity can breed discontent and shallow thinking. “As youngsters we listen to a lot of records and performances,” Quint said. “Rather than digging into the score, we play by ear. We feel like this is the right way without realizing that much of what we’re doing is unconscious imitation.”
In this case, Quint was imitating the best.
“I grew up listening to Heifetz and Oistrakh. They have left such strong imprints on the interpretation that it sounds definitive to our ears — almost like this is the only way to go. Unless you play it similarly, it feels wrong. That stigma goes with just a few other concerti. All of that needs to be taken away at some point.”
That’s exactly what Quint did. He consciously abandoned Tchaikovsky’s concerto for a time. “I put it away for several years until I felt I had something personal to say about the work.”
It was during that period that Quint discovered the strange and serpentine history of the concerto’s birth and early life.
“In the middle of that waiting period I found out what happened. It’s really one of the most controversial stories in classical music. It’s almost an urban legend at this point.”
Many turned it down or hated it
Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto was written quickly in 1878 during his stay in Clarens, a picturesque Swiss resort town on Lake Geneva. It proved to be the perfect antidote to the severe depression that had been consuming him. The composer had brought along a violin-and-piano arrangement of Édouard Lalo’s Symphonie espagnole, which impressed him and clearly had an influence on his compositional approach. Tchaikovsky was joined by his composition pupil, the violinist Iosif Kotek, who helped him extensively with the solo writing.
Composing the work was the easy part. Tchaikovsky’s attempts to get a proper premiere were thwarted again and again. The respected violinist Leopold Auer thought it wasn’t well written and turned down the composer’s request to perform its debut. Kotek also refused to play it in public, which must have hurt, since he and Tchaikovsky were very close – possibly lovers.
The concerto finally received its first performance in 1881 in Vienna, conducted by Hans Richter. The reviews were not kind. The concerto “brought us face to face with the revolting thought that music can exist which stinks to the ear,” wrote influential critic Eduard Hanslick. It wasn’t until the late 1880s that Czech violinist Karel Halíř and others made the work more popular.
Quint’s years of sifting through the historical record have led him to some interesting conclusions about Tchaikovsky’s concerto.
“Most sources refer to the Hanslick review in Vienna as being definitive. From other sources and from my own speculation I can tell you that the concerto didn’t receive enough rehearsal time. The parts weren’t well prepared; the soloist wasn’t well prepared. It was one of those last-minute performances that made a bad impression.”
Quint acknowledges that the work has its challenges, some of which arise from Tchaikovsky’s relative lack of familiarity with virtuoso violin playing.
“I can certainly say that parts of it are awkward. But I could say the same about pretty much any concerto. There is no easy concerto out there. I find Mozart and Beethoven and Brahms (violin music) to be in many parts difficult to play.”
Though Tchaikovsky wrote only one violin concerto, Quint points out that he penned a wealth of music for strings, much of it virtuosic and idiomatically composed.
“There is a string sextet, Souvenirs de Florence. There are several short works that are largely unknown. There is a great body of chamber music and some quartets.” Quint forgot to mention that universally loved chestnut, Serenade for Strings.
As for the sad fact that Tchaikovsky left us with only one violin concerto, the challenge with composing any concerto is practicality, Quint said.. “Why did
Beethoven write only one (violin concerto)? It has to do with time and commissions and who is paying for the work. Concertos don’t really get written, even to this day, because the composer wants to write one. It’s more about money than anything else.”
Paul Hodgins is the senior editor of Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org