Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto
Amazing Violin Pyrotechnics

The dazzling Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto in D Major is extremely popular and devilishly difficult. It originated in despair, but exploded in fame...

It's one of the most difficult violin concertos there is, even though people booed more than they applauded at the premiere!

It's packed with Tchaikovsky's typically exciting Russian tunes, and explosive violin gymnastics. Let's explore the piece...

History of the Concerto

In 1877, Tchaikovsky married one of his former pupils, partly out of obligation to find a wife. She was manically obsessed with him.

Tchaikovsky, however, was homosexual. He couldn't stand the impossible situation, and had to keep rejecting the poor girl's advances. He even traveled to other cities for a while to avoid her.

He became so depressed that he had a nervous breakdown. A doctor told him he had to divorce, so he did. To escape the bad memories of Russia and his failed marriage, he traveled around Europe a bit.

Clarens in Switzerland, where the Tchaikovsky violin concerto was written

He settled in Clarens, a resort town in Switzerland. There he met one of his composition students (a violinist called Yosif Kotek).

He started writing the Violin Concerto in Clarens. Writing it must have been some kind of medicine for his damaged emotional state, since he wrote it really fast and enthusiastically!

Yosif helped him out a lot, giving him advice about how the violin could be played and what was possible on it. Apparently Yosif knew the finished product so well that he could have performed it from memory!

The violinist Tchaikovsky wanted to premiere the concerto (Leopold Auer) thought that the solo part didn't really fit the character of the violin. So he edited it to improve it. Tchaikovsky saw this ungrateful act as a rejection of his work, and so got a different violinist to premiere it.

At its first performance (three years after the composer finished it!), the audience had mixed opinions. They applauded the soloist, Adolph Brodsky, but they booed and hissed the concerto itself! Even the orchestra didn't like the music, and played very quietly to not upset people.

One mean-spirited critic, Eduard Hanslick, said that he thought the music was so awful that you could hear it smell! He also said that the last movement had associations of vodka (I can see where he's coming from with that opinion...). Tchaikovsky was devastated by this cruel opinion. It stuck with him for the rest of his life.

Eventually though, with the help of the premiere soloist, the Tchaikovsky violin concerto became popular and famous. Even Leopold Auer began performing it. It's now one of the most well-known and liked violin concertos in the repertoire. Good!

Click to listen to and explore Sibelius's violin concerto, another brilliant gem in the violin repertory...

The Brilliant Music

The Tchaikovsky violin concerto is very difficult to perform! The Tchaikovsky violin concerto follows the typical pattern of a fast movement, then a slow movement, then a fast finale.

  1. Allegro moderato
  2. Canzonetta: Andante
  3. Allegro vivacissimo

I'm quite fond of the simplicity of the concerto. The music is light and fresh. It uses a simple orchestra with minimal special effects.

The piece doesn't try to be too clever - it just entertains with exciting and beautiful melodies. This is probably why it's so popular.

The first movement starts with a quiet string melody, before building up to introduce the solo violin. The violin plays the main theme:

Later we hear the second theme:

This leads to a huge repeat of the main theme for the whole orchestra. Afterward, we hear the solo violin doing some interesting versions of the main theme:

Now we come to an amazing cadenza, where the violinist gets the chance to show off with amazingly fast runs and violin tricks. The soloist plays around with both themes, taking bits of them and extending them imaginatively.

Eventually we hear the second theme repeated, before a very lively section rounds the first movement off.

The Tchaikovsky violin concerto features typically Russian folk tunes

The second movement is short and very lyrical. It's filled with nostalgia and warmth.

Tchaikovsky actually rewrote this from scratch after he realized his original second movement didn't really fit the rest of the concerto. In any case, the gentleness of this movement is a great bridge between the intensity of the first and third movements!

The third movement is the breathtaking finale. The violin goes back to its folk roots, and gleefully runs and leaps all over the place. The movement has a dramatic Russian spirit, with dazzling speed and skill from the soloist.

I'd say it was my favorite movement of the Tchaikovsky violin concerto, since it's so brash and crazy!

Great Recordings

Really, there's only one king of this concerto I can recommend: the virtuoso Soviet violinist David Oistrakh. He's a musician of the finest calibre, and injects the Tchaikovsky concerto with his own powerful Slavic personality and a brilliant, emotional warmth.

He recorded a collection of famous violin concertos, which has Tchaikovsky's (played with the Dresden Staatskapelle orchestra and conducted by Franz Konwitschny) Deutsche Grammophon. Get it, it's unbelievable!

David Oistrakh - Concerto

Here he is playing the third movement. Hold on to your seat...

You might also be interested in Tchaikovsky's popular piano concertos, each a stunning example of Tchaikovksy's huge imagination.

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