Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D Major: A Western Form of the Russian Music


While speaking about the musical heritage of the nineteenth century, composers, musicians, researchers, and critics usually refer to the figure of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky as one of the most acknowledged representatives of the Russian music tradition. This prominent person is an author of many remarkable compositions, operas, and symphonies. However, the discussion of Tchaikovsky’s works composed for the violin often results in references to the Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 35. This Violin Concerto is viewed as a unique work that allows researchers to examine Tchaikovsky’s heritage in terms of the national identity, as well as in terms of the composer’s focus on the Western music tradition (Newmarch 182). It is important to note that, on the one hand, this piece is usually discussed as having notable “Russian markers” or specific features typical of Russian folk music (Keefe 129). On the other hand, the Violin Concerto is composed while following the model of Mendelssohn’s concerto (Brown 179). From this point, Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D major can be viewed as a blend of the authentic Russian nature and the best traditions of the Western School of Music, and even though the piece does not have the well-defined national identification, the abundance of Russian elements in this work provides valuable insights into the phenomenon of the Russian music of the nineteenth century.

The Specificity of the Russian Music in the Nineteenth Century

In 1859, Anton Rubinstein, the famous Russian pianist, and composer, and the Grand Duchess Elena Pavlovna founded the Russian Musical Society. The purpose of the Society was to draw the wide public’s attention to the Russian music tradition and develop the Russian school of music (Taruskin 194). The ideas of the Russian Musical Society were spread actively, and a significant interest in developing the national music culture was also associated with the activities of the so-called “Mighty Handful” or the Five. It was a group of composers that united such prominent figures as Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov, César Cui, Modest Mussorgsky, Mily Balakirev, and Aleksandr Borodin (Wintle 87). These composers tried to develop the Russian School of Composition with the focus on promoting the Russian vision of music instead of following the European standards (Johnson 3). Still, the international community considered the style of these authors as rather vulgar due to its aggressive nationalistic features and implications. Helmers paid attention to the fact that the Russian music of the nineteenth century was regarded by European critics as excessively nationalistic in contrast to the cosmopolite character of the Western School of Composition (125). In this context, music experts and critics noted that the Russian instrumental pieces were excessively complicated and folkloristic.

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However, it is necessary to note that the role of Tchaikovsky in the Russian music paradigm of the nineteenth century differed significantly from the roles of Rimsky-Korsakov, Cui, Mussorgsky, Balakirev, and Borodin, as well as other famous composers of that period. Tchaikovsky did not join the “Mighty Handful,” and he did not participate in the development of the “New Slavic School” (Johnson 3). While referring to this aspect, Cui stated that Tchaikovsky was an “enemy” of the New Slavic School due to his attempts to follow both national and Western traditions (Johnson 3). Even though the composer used elements of traditional Russian music in his pieces, he usually combined them with features typical of the European tradition.

In this context, Johnson notes that “labeling Tchaikovsky’s music as solely Russian or Western is difficult because his composing style was caught between the two worlds” (3). Moreover, while focusing on this problem in his work, Taruskin claims, “Poor Chaikovsky! He is implicitly denigrated for not being as “national” as his “kuchkist” rivals but all the same is ghettoized along with them in the inevitable chapter on nationalism” (30). From this point, Tchaikovsky succeeded in presenting the unique combination of Russian and Western elements in a form that seemed to be interesting and attractive to him. However, those Russian critics, who were oriented to see only traditional elements in Tchaikovsky’s music, or those experts, who wanted to observe the features inspired by the progress of nationalistic ideas, were not satisfied. Nevertheless, it is an interesting fact that the European critics were not as radical in their evaluation of Tchaikovsky’s pieces as the representatives or supporters of the “Mighty Handful.”

It is important to note that Tchaikovsky’s contemporaries pointed out the composer’s individuality and the lack of nationalistic aggression in pieces that contributed to his unique style. However, on the other hand, the elements of critique were also typical of those foreign experts who discussed Tchaikovsky’s works (Karthas 78). According to the words of Alfred Bruneau, the prominent composer of that period, Tchaikovsky was “devoid of the Russian character,” and he “developed to hollow and empty excess in a bloated and faceless style,” therefore, “his works astonish without overly interesting us” (qtd. in Johnson 3). Thus, Tchaikovsky used the elements of traditional Russian music, but he applied them in a specific way, and these differences in interpreting the Russian material could annoy the representatives of traditional views, but they were also regarded as interesting by many critics because experts also found the elements of the German academic style in the composer’s pieces. As a result, according to Knapp, Tchaikovsky was often viewed as the “Russian nationalist working within Germanic forms” (234). Furthermore, in many cases, Tchaikovsky’s pieces were regarded as “universal” rather than Westernized and nationalistic (Johnson 4). The combination of two musical traditions, the Russian and German ones, made Tchaikovsky take a special position in the paradigm of Russian instrumental music in the nineteenth century.

Background of the Violin Concerto in D Major

Tchaikovsky composed the Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 35, in 1878, during his European tour. In 1877, Tchaikovsky started his tour, and he visited such countries as Switzerland, Austria, France, and Italy. The purpose of traveling was to cope with his depression after aborting the marriage with Antonina Miliukova (Poznansky 29). Tchaikovsky chose the self-exile in order to concentrate on his work and reconsider his life in terms of his homosexuality and relationships with women. While recovering from his failed marriage, Tchaikovsky chose to stay in Switzerland where he composed the Violin Concerto (Johnson 4). Tchaikovsky had never written concertos for the violin before that experience, and it was the only music piece of that type among Tchaikovsky’s compositions (Poznansky 30). Johnson pays attention to the fact that the experience was rather “cathartic” for Tchaikovsky, and the work on this piece “helped him heal from his short but disastrous marriage” (5). In addition to the Violin Concerto, Tchaikovsky also focused on composing his Fourth Symphony and the opera Eugene Onegin.

It is necessary to note that, by the time of creating the Violin Concerto, Tchaikovsky had gained world recognition due to composing such pieces as the First Suite, the Italian Crissio, and Variations on a Rococo Theme. These pieces were inspired by certain cultural traditions, and they contained folk implications and links to German and Italian music standards (Maes 156). In the Violin Concerto, the cultural reference was to both German and Russian traditions. However, it is possible to assume that the creation of the Concerto, Fourth Symphony, and Eugene Onegin marked a new period in Tchaikovsky’s life. Critics note that the composer was satisfied with the Violin Concerto in spite of his depressive state (Poznansky 30). Tchaikovsky was ready to spend hours while improving and revising the piece (Wiley 22). In his letter to Madame von Meck, Tchaikovsky stated that he was “pleased to see” that he was “making progress along the path of improvement,” and he desired “to attain the highest point of that perfection” (qtd. in Johnson 5). However, it is also important to note that the composer had the great inspiration to work more and produce other pieces associated with the period of his self-exile.

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Thus, some experts suggest that the creation of the Violin Concerto in D major was inspired by Tchaikovsky’s relationships with Iosif Kotek, the composer’s friend and student (Sciannameo 87). The modern critics also note that there could be a romantic component in the composer’s relationships with this young violinist (Johnson 5). However, having rather objective reasons and hoping to gain public recognition, Tchaikovsky dedicated the piece to Leopold Auer, the famous virtuoso violinist. Still, Auer refused to perform the Concerto while stating that the piece was “unplayable” (Dubal 161). As a result, the premiere of the Concerto was in Vienna only in 1881, when Adolf Brodsky agreed to perform the piece (Newmarch 182; Wiley 25). Auer’s reaction was unexpected for Tchaikovsky who regarded his piece as interesting and expressive.

The Violin Concerto and Its National Implications

The Violin Concerto is regarded by critics as having many distinguishing features. According to Johnson, it is “a landmark in the genre’s evolution” despite being “too transgressive” about musical norms (3). In addition, Maes states that the Violin Concerto’s pattern differs from the classical one because of the dominating violin solo (157). While comparing this solo to the orchestra’s role in the piece, it is possible to observe the intentional imbalance (Maes 157). Thus, while focusing on the Concerto’s structure, it is important to note that it includes several parts: a brief orchestral introduction that is followed by a long violin solo in the first movement, the “simple canzonetta” in the second movement, and the dynamic solo part in the third movement that is followed by a powerful folk-colored finale (Maes 157). These movements are presented in the following forms: Allegro moderato (D major), Canzonetta: Andante (G minor), and Finale: Allegro Vivacissimo (D major) (Joseph 118). In addition to the solo violin, Tchaikovsky also focused on the orchestral part and concentrated on the roles of flutes, oboes, bassoons, trumpets, horns, basses, cellos, timpani, and strings to support the main violin part (Popovic 21).

The variety of selected forms has influenced the musical character of the piece. It is important to note that, according to Brown, the Violin Concerto is “one of the least sophisticated of Tchaikovsky’s symphonic pieces, and it certainly contains none of the novel structural adventures” (178). Thus, Brown accentuated the fact that the standard structural pattern of the piece could be discussed as being rather ordinary and lacking specific features. Still, the composer’s manipulation of forms allowed for coloring the traditional pattern of a violin concerto. In the first movement, Tchaikovsky has concentrated on the application of a sonata form in order to add vividness to the melody. While playing the violin, performers can change the tone and color of the sound similarly to tones of a human voice (Dubal 33). Therefore, the form of a sonata was selected by the composer as most effective to demonstrate the variation in the sound colors. As a result, in the first movement, the violin seems to play the leading role while “eloquently delivering the melodies” (Brown 179). The only moment when the orchestra is allowed to take the central role is the part with tutti remarks that were made by Tchaikovsky. It is possible to note that the introduction based on Allegro moderato is played in such a manner to accentuate the graceful mood of the first part of the piece (Example 1).

Tchaikovsky, Violin Concerto in D Major, Allegro moderato, mm. 28-31
Example 1. Tchaikovsky, Violin Concerto in D Major, Allegro moderato, mm. 28-31 (Roeder 297).

In the first movement, the composer also chooses to play with cadenza and tutti parts. As a result, the double exposition is not observed in this piece (Maes 156). However, discussing the specific style of the Concerto, Brown notes that Tchaikovsky has followed “the precedent of another of the most famous violin concertos, that of Mendelssohn,” and he chose to insert “cadenza not near the movement’s end, but before the recapitulation” (179). Sciannameo also discusses this specific feature in his work, and he states that “cadenza is not followed by the traditional concluding orchestral tutti,” but it seems to lead to “a reprise of the main theme and another series of soloist versus orchestra developments including the second theme” (89). It is also important to note that, following the pattern of Mendelssohn, Tchaikovsky focuses on the “extended cadenza” and develops the “linking harmonic transitions between the three movements” (Keefe 128). Thus, in his Violin Concerto, Tchaikovsky tried to vary the melody and patterns of the piece as much as possible while following the German models that contributed to his intention.

The second movement of the piece, Canzonetta, is often discussed as unexpectedly slow and lyrical. Sciannameo also pays attention to this aspect in his work: “After such a grand show of force, the second movement, Canzonetta (Andante), is a charming bon-bon played con sordino and sensually proposed by the solo violin in amorous complicity with the woodwinds” (89). From this point, it is important to emphasize lyricism and sensuality accentuated in this part of the Concerto. However, in spite of its lyrical character, this movement includes the first implications related to the Russian tradition in music. As it is stated by Brown, the Russian voice “is suddenly in evidence” in this and following movements (179). In this part of the piece, Tchaikovsky chose to use the “Slavonic G minor melody” that was adapted from Souvenir de lieu cher, Op. 42, and this work was also composed by the author (Keefe 128). Although the first implications of the Russian tradition are observed in the second movement, it is possible to state that they flourish in the final part of the piece. Therefore, it is important to note that the third movement has two themes: the dynamic first theme and the rustic second theme (Example 2).

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Tchaikovsky, Violin Concerto in D Major, Allegro Vivacissimo, the first theme, mm. 55-78
Example 2. Tchaikovsky, Violin Concerto in D Major, Allegro Vivacissimo, the first theme, mm. 55-78 (Popovic 53).

Therefore, the third movement is the most discussed part of this Violin Concerto. According to Brown, the third movement of the piece has the “hauntingly Russian flavor of the violin melody” that produces an effect of “a gentle melancholy” that is also observed in the first and second movements of the Concerto (180). Furthermore, according to the researcher, the finale seems to demonstrate the “tremendous vitality” that is typical of “some rural folk scene” (Brown180). In his turn, Roeder also discusses the finale of the work as “fiery” and having “a rustic folk quality” (297). From this perspective, the second and third movements attract the listeners’ attention and make them speak about the real features of the Russian tradition in this composition.

As a result, it is possible to state that the Violin Concerto reflects the composer’s national identity with the help of using folkloristic elements and in a form that is adopted by the composer as the most effective one (Dubal 161). In this context, the final part of the piece is most remarkable. According to Sciannameo, the finale includes an interesting theme that can be discussed as “a typical Russian Hopak,” and a violinist needs to use almost “magical, staccato bow strokes” (89). Keefe defines this final part of the piece as a trepak that, according to Tchaikovsky’s interpretation, “occasionally approaches in its scurrying solo figuration the fleet-footed Mendelssohnian scherzo style” (128). In addition, according to Dubal, this part presents “a Russian holiday romp, wild and colorful” (161). As a result, the imitation of repetitive Russian melodies in the Concerto made critics discuss the piece as Russian in its character. Moreover, Keefe has identified the elements and qualities of the Russian style in all parts of the Concerto. Thus, in the first movement of the composition, it is possible to observe the development of the melody that “begins with a pompous orchestral faux-polonaise, a marker of the composer’s imperial Russian style” (Keefe 129). The second movement includes repetitive parts that were composed in a manner that was typical of many Russian musical pieces of the past (Keefe 129). From this point, the first marker of the Russian tradition that is reflected in the piece is the use of a faux-polonaise.

The second marker of the Russian style is observed in the finale with a focus on the rustic theme. Furthermore, the researcher also pays attention to octatonic formations in the piece, “an additional Russian marker that segregates the composition from its European models” (Keefe 129). Thus, the researcher has distinguished three important markers of the Russian tradition that can be easily found in the Violin Concerto with the focus on its melody and style. These markers are discussed today as characteristic features of the piece. It is also important to note that the composer admitted that the Concerto had a strong national implication as he tried to accentuate the Russian tone in his work (Orlova 114). The composer wrote in his letters: “I am passionately fond of the national element in all its varied expressions. In a word, I am Russian in the fullest sense of the word” (Tchaikovsky 282). From this point, Tchaikovsky was not afraid of demonstrating his national identity while presenting the Violin Concerto. However, the critics’ reception of the piece was rather hostile, and there could be many reasons that were not associated with the character of the presented work directly.

Critics’ Evaluation of the Violin Concerto

While discussing the reception of the Violin Concerto in detail, it is possible to point out the major paradox that is in discrepancies between the evaluation of the Concerto by the composer’s contemporaries and the modern critics’ vision. Although Tchaikovsky was satisfied with the piece, and he realized its uniqueness, the reception of musicians and critics was rather antagonistic. Russian composers were disappointed to find the Western techniques and features in the work, whereas Western colleagues stated that the piece showed rather nationalistic ideas (Orlova 177). Additionally, the Concerto was criticized for being too traditional and “least sophisticated” (Brown 178) than other concertos of such type, as well as too complicated because of the use of complex techniques that could not be performed by all violinists.

In addition, after the premiere in Vienna in December of 1881, Eduard Hanslick, the famous music critic, said that the Violin Concerto “brings to us for the first time the horrid idea that there may be music that stinks in the ear” (qtd. in Dubal 161). It is important to note that Tchaikovsky remembered all comments that were provided by critics regarding this piece, and he also mentioned the comments in letters to his friends. After receiving Hanslick’s commentaries, Tchaikovsky wrote: “the composer can never be the judge of his works” (qtd. in Johnson 6). Thus, the composer was extremely disappointed because of the critics’ reception that was opposite to his own vision of the piece. Furthermore, while describing his successes and failures to Pyotr Jurgenson in 1882, the composer noted: “This season I have no luck. The Maid of Orleans will not be given again; Oniegin ditto; Auer intrigues against the Violin Concerto” (Tchaikovsky 417). According to Johnson, there were no chances for Tchaikovsky to win the public’s recognition immediately after performing the piece in Vienna (4). The problem was in the fact that the Concerto was both ‘too Russian’ and ‘too Western’ in its nature.

Despite the negative reviews of contemporaries, it is important to note that modern critics agree that the Concerto should be discussed as one of the most touching and emotionally deep music pieces that were created for the violin. Still, in the nineteenth century, the piece was criticized because of its vulgarity, as well as a brutal and savage character typical of the Russian soul (Joseph 118; Stowell 78). From this point, Tchaikovsky’s finale not only attracted the public’s attention but also provoked debates and an expressive reaction of critics and musicians who did not understand how to perform the piece. Therefore, “folk-inspired melody” made the piece become a barrier for the perception of Tchaikovsky as a follower of Russian or European traditions. However, according to Johnson, the reception of the piece could be explained concerning the nature of Tchaikovsky’s relationships with other composers (9). Thus, relationships between Tchaikovsky and Brahms were not good, and Hanslick was a friend of Brahms. This fact can explain Hanslick’s aggressive critique. Furthermore, relationships of the composer with representatives of the “Mighty Handful” were also problematic (Sargeant 24). However, the modern perception of the Violin Concerto is different, and both performers and critics are inclined to accentuate the unique melodic pattern of the piece while focusing on the required virtuosity in playing the Concerto.

Conclusion

While discussing the place of the Violin Concerto in D major in the Russian music of the nineteenth century, it is important to state that this piece that was composed by Tchaikovsky in Switzerland demonstrated how it was possible to follow the Russian traditions without rejecting the Western ones. As a result, it is possible to assume that the unique piece was created to support the national identity of the composer and accentuate the music traditions in Russian culture. Still, the effective use of Russian markers along with the German patterns in the piece was a unique mixture that could not be accepted by critics immediately. Therefore, it is possible to state that the Concerto’s phenomenon is in this combination of models and forms that were used to emphasize the folkloristic elements in the framework created by the European composers. Even though critics and experts in music failed to accept the unique nature of the Violin Concerto in the nineteenth century, today, this piece is discussed as one of the most prominent works that were composed for the violin. The dynamism of the work and its focus on the virtuosic performance allow for speaking about the Violin Concerto in D major as one of the most impressive concertos that can accentuate the talent of the composer and performers.

Works Cited

Brown, David. Tchaikovsky: The Man and His Music. Pegasus Books, 2007.

Dubal, David. The Essential Canon of Classical Music. Macmillan, 2004.

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Johnson, Caitlin. “Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto: The Composer’s Original, Auer’s Edition, and the Performer’s Dilemma.” The Journal of Enquiry, vol. 9, no. 1, 2015, pp. 3-14.

Joseph, Romel. The Miracle of Music. Friends of Music for Haiti, 2010.

Karthas, Ilyana. When Ballet Became French: Modern Ballet and the Cultural Politics of France, 1909-1958. McGill-Queen’s Press, 2015.

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Maes, Francis. A History of Russian Music: From Kamarinskaya to Babi Yar. University of California Press, 2002.

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Poznansky, Alexander. “Tchaikovsky: A Life Reconsidered.” Tchaikovsky and His World, edited by Leslie Kearney, Princeton University Press, 2014, pp. 3-59.

Roeder, Michael Thomas. A History of the Concerto. Hal Leonard Corporation, 1994.

Sargeant, Lynn. Harmony and Discord: Music and the Transformation of Russian Cultural Life. Oxford University Press, 2011.

Sciannameo, Franco. Experiencing the Violin Concerto: A Listener’s Companion. Rowman & Littlefield, 2016.

Stowell, Robin. The Cambridge Companion to the Violin. Cambridge University Press, 1992.

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