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Notes on the Program
by Dr. Richard E. Rodda

Peter Ilyich Tcaikovsky

Violin Concerto in D major, Opus 35
Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky
(b. Votkinsk, 1840; d. St. Petersburg, 1893)

Composed in 1878.
Premiered on December 4, 1881 in Vienna, conducted by Hans Richter with Adolf Brodsky as soloist.
Instrumentation: woodwinds in pairs, four horns, two trumpets, timpani and strings.
Duration: approximately 32 minutes.

In the summer of 1877, Tchaikovsky undertook the disastrous marriage that lasted less than three weeks and resulted in his emotional collapse and attempted suicide. He fled from Moscow to his brother Modeste in St. Petersburg, where he recovered his wits and discovered that he could find solace in his work. He spent the late fall and winter completing his Fourth Symphony and the opera Eugene Onégin. The brothers decided that travel outside of Russia would be an additional balm to the composer’s spirit, and they duly installed themselves at Clarens on Lake Geneva in Switzerland soon after the first of the year.

In Clarens, Tchaikovsky had already begun work on a piano sonata when he was visited by Joseph Kotek, a talented young violinist who had been a student in one of his composition classes at the Moscow Conservatory, who brought with him a score for the recent Symphonie Espagnole for Violin and Orchestra by the French composer Edouard Lalo. They read through the piece, and Tchaikovsky was so excited by the possibilities of a work for solo violin and orchestra that he set aside the gestating piano sonata and immediately began a concerto of his own. He worked quickly, completing the present slow movement in a single day when he decided to discard an earlier attempt. (This abandoned piece ended up as the first of the three Meditations for Violin and Piano, Op. 42.) By the end of April, the Concerto was finished. Tchaikovsky sent the manuscript to Leopold Auer, a friend who headed the violin department at the St. Petersburg Conservatory and who was also Court Violinist to the Czar, hoping to have him premiere the work. Much to the composer’s regret, Auer returned the piece as “unplayable,” and apparently spread that word with such authority to other violinists that it was more than three years before the Violin Concerto was heard in public.

It was Adolf Brodsky, a former colleague of Tchaikovsky at the Moscow Conservatory, who first accepted the challenge of this Concerto. After having “taken it up and put it down,” in his words, for two years, he finally felt secure enough to give the work a try, and he convinced Hans Richter to include it on the concerts of the Vienna Philharmonic in 1881. Brodsky must have felt that he was on something of a crusade during the preparations for the performance. There was only a single full rehearsal allotted for the new work, and most of that was taken up with correcting the parts, which were awash with copyist’s errors. Richter wanted to make cuts. The orchestra did not like the music, and at the performance played very quietly so as not to enter with a crashing miscue. Brodsky deserves the appreciation of the music world for standing pat in his belief in the Concerto amid all these adversities. When the performance was done, the audience felt that way as well, and applauded him. The piece itself, however, was roundly hissed. The critical barrage was led by that powerful doyen of Viennese conservatism, Eduard Hanslick, whose tasteless summation (“Music that stinks in the ear”) irritated Tchaikovsky until the day he died. Despite its initial reception, Brodsky remained devoted to the Concerto, and he played it throughout Europe. The work soon began to gain in popularity, as did the music of Tchaikovsky generally, and it has become one of the most famous concertos in the literature. It is a revealing side-note that Leopold Auer, who had initially shunned the work, eventually came to include it in his repertory, and even taught it to his students, some of whom — Seidel, Zimbalist, Elman, Heifetz, Milstein — became its greatest exponents in the 20th century.

The Concerto opens quietly with a tentative introductory tune. A foretaste of the main theme soon appears in the violins, around which a quick crescendo is mounted to usher in the soloist. After a few unaccompanied measures, the violin presents the movement’s lovely main theme above a simple string background. After an elaborated repetition of this melody, a transition follows that eventually involves the entire orchestra and gives the soloist the first of many opportunities for pyrotechnical display. The second theme is the beginning of a long dynamic and rhythmic buildup that leads into the development with a sweeping, balletic presentation of the main theme by the full orchestra. The soloist soon steals back the attention with breathtaking leaps and double stops. The grand balletic mood returns, giving way to a brilliant cadenza as a link to the recapitulation. The flute sings the main theme for four measures before the violin takes it over, and all then follows the order of the exposition. An exhilarating coda asks for no fewer than four tempo increases, and the movement ends in a brilliant whirl of rhythmic energy.

The slow middle movement begins with a chorale for woodwinds that is heard again at the end of the movement to serve as a frame around the musical picture inside. On the canvas of this scene is displayed a soulful melody intoned by the violin with the plaintive suggestion of a Gypsy fiddler. The finale is joined to the slow movement without a break. With the propulsive spirit of a dashing Cossack trepak, the finale flies by amid the soloist’s dizzying show of agility and speed. Like the first movement, this one also races toward its final climax, almost daring listeners to try to sit still in their seats. After playing the Concerto’s premiere, Adolf Brodsky wrote to Tchaikovsky that the work was “wonderfully beautiful.” He was right.

Ludwig van Beehtoven

Symphony No. 3 in E-flat major, Opus 55, “Eroica”
Ludwig van Beethoven
(b. Bonn, 1770; d. Vienna, 1827)

Composed in 1803-1804.
Premiered in December 1804 in Vienna.
Instrumentation: woodwinds and trumpets in pairs, three horns,
timpani and strings.

The year 1804 — when Beethoven finished his Third Symphony — was crucial in the modern political history of Europe. Napoleon Bonaparte had begun his meteoric rise to power only a decade earlier, after playing a significant part in the recapture in 1793 of Toulon, a Mediterranean port that had been surrendered to the British by French royalists. Britain, along with Austria, Prussia, Holland and Spain, was a member of the First Coalition, an alliance that had been formed by these monarchial nations in the wake of the execution of Louis XVI to thwart the French National Convention’s ambition to spread revolution (and royal overthrow) throughout Europe. In 1796, Carnot entrusted the campaign against northern Italy, then dominated by Austria, to the young General Bonaparte, who won a stunning series of victories with an army that he had transformed from a demoralized, starving band into a military juggernaut. He returned to France in 1799 as First Consul of the newly established Consulate, and put in place measures to halt inflation, instituted a new legal code, and repaired relations with the Church. It was to this man, this great leader and potential saviour of the masses from centuries of tyrannical political, social and economic oppression, that Beethoven intended to pay tribute in his majestic E-flat Symphony, begun in 1803. The name “Bonaparte” appears above that of the composer on the original title page.

Napoleon proclaimed himself Emperor of France in 1804, and was crowned, with the new Empress Josephine, at Notre Dame Cathedral on December 2nd, an event forever frozen in time by David’s magnificent canvas in the Louvre. Beethoven, enraged and feeling betrayed by this usurpation of power, roared at his student Ferdinand Ries, who brought him the news, “Then is he, too, only an ordinary human being?” The ragged hole in the title page of the score now in the library of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Vienna bears mute testimony to the violent manner in which Beethoven erased Napoleon from this Symphony. He later inscribed it, undoubtedly with much sorrow, “To celebrate the memory of a great man.”

The “Eroica” (“Heroic”) is a work that changed the course of musical history. There was much sentiment at the turn of the 19th century that the expressive and technical possibilities of the symphonic genre had been exhausted by Haydn, Mozart, C.P.E. Bach and their contemporaries. It was Beethoven, and specifically this majestic Symphony, that threw wide the gates on the unprecedented artistic vistas that were to be explored for the rest of the century. In a single giant leap, he invested the genre with the breadth and richness of emotional and architectonic expression that established the grand sweep that the word “symphonic” now connotes. For the first time, with this music, the master composer was recognized as an individual responding to a higher calling. No longer could the creative musician be considered a mere artisan in tones, producing pieces within the confines of the court or the church for specific occasions, much as a talented chef would dispense a hearty roast or a succulent torte. After Beethoven, the composer was regarded as a visionary — a special being lifted above mundane experience — who could guide benighted listeners to loftier planes of existence through his valued gifts. The modern conception of an artist — what he is, his place in society, what he can do for those who experience his work — stems from Beethoven. Romanticism began with the “Eroica.”

The Symphony’s first movement, by far the largest sonata design composed to that time, opens with a brief summons of two mighty chords. At least four thematic ideas are presented in the exposition, and one of the wonders of the Symphony is the way in which Beethoven made these melodies succeed each other in a seemingly inevitable manner, as though this music could have been composed in no other way. The development section is a massive essay progressing through many moods which are all united by an almost titanic sense of struggle. It is in this central portion of the movement and in the lengthy coda that Beethoven broke through the boundaries of the 18th-century symphony to create a work not only longer in duration but also more profound in meaning. The composer’s own words are reflected in this awe-inspiring movement: “Music is the electric soil in which the spirit lives, thinks and invents.”

The beginning of the second movement — “Marcia funebre” (“Funeral March”) — with its plaintive, simple themes intoned over a mock drum-roll in the basses, is the touchstone for the expression of tragedy in instrumental music. The mournful C minor of the opening gives way to the brighter C major of the oboe’s melody in a stroke of genius that George Bernard Shaw, during his early days as a music critic in London, admitted “ruins me,” as only the expression of deepest emotion can. A development-like section, full of remarkable contrapuntal complexities, is followed by a return of the simple opening threnody, which itself eventually expires amid sobs and silences at the close of this eloquent movement.

The third movement is a scherzo, the lusty successor to the graceful minuet. The central section is a rousing trio for horns, one of the earliest examples (Haydn’s “Horn Call” Symphony is an exception) of the use of more than two horns in an orchestral work.

The finale is a large set of variations on two themes, one of which (the first one heard) forms the bass line to the other. The second theme, introduced by the oboe, is a melody which appears in three other of Beethoven’s works: the finale of the ballet The Creatures of Prometheus, the Contradanse No. 7 and the Variations and Fugue, Op. 35 for piano. The variations accumulate energy as they go, and, just as it seems the movement is whirling toward its final climax, the music comes to a full stop before launching into an extended Andante section which explores first the tender and then the majestic possibilities of the themes. A brilliant Presto led by the horns concludes this epochal work.

©2012 Dr. Richard E. Rodda