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Views And Reviews: Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto

Paul Serotsky introduces us to Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto, a work of which one respected critic said “The violin is no longer played, [but] beaten black and blue . . . [this is] music that stinks in the ear.”

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Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) – Violin Concerto (1878)

Written soon after his disastrous marital experience, the Violin Concerto overflows with a joie de vivre reflecting his gratitude to his “fairy godmother”, Mme. von Meck. By the time of its premičre (Vienna, 1884) he was riding high. It’s just as well, as his boat was perilously rocked by general condemnation, spearheaded by these choice words from the respected critic, Eduard Hanslick: “The violin is no longer played, [but] beaten black and blue . . . [this is] music that stinks in the ear.”

What ruffled his feathers? On its own, certainly not the rude, robust Russian-ness, exotic as many Western ears then found it. However, taken together with Tchaikovsky’s obvious invocation of the spirit of Mozart, it may well have been perceived by Austro-Germans as a wicked parody of one of their own. If so, the it’s ironic that many Tchaikovsky devotees were similarly offended by a certain 1960s “rock ‘n’ roll” rendition of the March from “The Nutcracker”.

Tchaikovsky, though, intended no feather-ruffling. On the contrary, he held Mozart in high esteem, his ideal of formal elegance. The trouble was, he was also determined to build on his country’s vibrant but rough-necked folk-culture and, naturally, he wished to express his own musical identity. Generally, fulfilling one aspiration tended to defeat the other. Happily, in this concerto, he pretty well achieved that elusive reconciliation.

1. Allegro moderato. “Mozart”, oozing from the brief introduction’s every pore, furnishes the firm foundation from which “Tchaikovsky” symbiotically sprouts. A classical sonata form unfolds, expanding the violin’s rôle to range between classical poise and red-blooded romantic virtuosity.

2. Canzonetta: andante. A neat arch-structure, based on a melancholy woodwind theme and a wistful, meltingly lyrical main subject – mellow “Tchaikovsky” expressed with the restrained elegance of “Mozart”.

3. Finale: allegro vivacissimo. The Mozartian elegance remains only in the clarity of form (A-B-A-B-[A/B]) – the materials have wholly Russian, spine-tinglingly rude characters. The quicksilver “A” dashes and flashes, whilst “B” is a microcosmic “theme and variations” – shades, perhaps, of Mozart’s “Turkish” concerto!

“Symbiosis” is the operative word. The impression of “Tchaikovsky emerging from Mozart” is palpable – music to feed the mind as well as the heart. Has a “stink” ever smelt this good?

© Paul Serotsky

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