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Tchaikovsky’s “unplayable” violin concerto

I’m trying to sort through my disappointment at a performance of Tchaikovsky’s Concerto in D Major for Violin and Orchestra I attended last week here in Atlanta.  If you’ve heard it and have even a modest level of appreciation for classical music it’s likely you have connected to the work at some point.  In certain contexts the piece is a show stopper, a work that showcases the world’s leading violinists.  Robert McDuffie, who heads a strings program at Mercer University of which they and the state of Georgia are rightly proud and who will soon world premiere a Philip Glass work written just for him, was the featured soloist and I admire his playing.  The concerto is one of my favorites and so I rushed around to purchase what turned out to be a perfect ticket – fourteen rows back and right in the middle.  But the performance was a letdown.

Part of my reaction was the context:  I was there alone, sitting next to a man who kept falling asleep throughout the entire evening’s program, and that takes its toll (on the other hand, the woman sitting on my right side seemed to have been transported into a state of pure rapture).  The concerto was followed by a performance of Tchaikovsky’s first symphony, which he wrote at a young age and is rather undistinguished compared to the more frequently played later works.

As I’ve thought about it, though, I’ve decided my unease with the performance reflects a more substantial underlying feature of the work itself, which relates to its historical reputation as essentially “unplayable.”  As I was leaving the symphony hall, my first reaction was to rationalize my disappointment as resulting from the heightened expectations I had for the concerto that were based in part on the fact that I regularly listen to it loudly through headphones, which create a major contrast effect to my sense that evening that the playing was swallowed up by the larger space of the hall.  The orchestral setting for the concerto is a little small, scored for fifteen plus strings, and my impression, admittedly anecdotal, is that it would have worked a lot better in a more intimate space.

The more I’ve read about this composition the more my original suspicion has been confirmed, in the very specific sense that for the Concerto to succeed requires the continuing conveyance of its central wild impossibility.  At some of the most important moments of its reception, Tchaikovsky’s involvement with the Concerto connects most vividly with the sense of total immersion and uncontrolled abandon he was trying to induce.  Writing in the spring of 1878 to his patron, Nadeshda von Meck, Tchaikovsky noted that

From the first moment that the right frame of mind came to me it has never left me.  With one’s inner life in this condition composing ceases altogether to be work:  it becomes unalloyed pleasure.  While you are writing you do not notice how time passes and if no one came to interrupt you you would sit there and never leave your work all day.  (Qtd. in Meltzer).

Tchaikovsky and the violinist with whom he consulted, Iosif Kotek, were both dissatisfied with the slow first movement, and replaced it with one whose tempo was faster and pulsatingly driven.  The renowned soloist whom Tchaikovsky intended would premier the piece, Leopold Auer (the teacher of Heifetz and Milstein), refused, and it was Auer who pronounced the work unplayable.  The circumstances for first performance were still friendly:  the Vienna Philharmonic played it, led by one of the world’s most highly regarded conductors.  Still, the famously hostile reaction of Eduard Hanslick, who was present at the premier, illustrates the flip side of abandon, which Hanslick heard as blasphemous screeching.  Tchaikovsky could recite these words until he died:

The Russian composer Tchaikovsky is surely not an ordinary talent, but rather an inflated one, with a genius-like obsession without discrimination or taste.  Such is also his latest, long and pretentious Violin Concerto….  The violin is no longer played; it is pulled, torn, drubbed.   The Adagio… soon breaks off to make way for a finale that transfers us to a brutal and wretched jolity of a Russian holiday.  We see plainly the savage vulgar faces, we hear curses, we smell vodka…  Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto gives us for the first time the hideous notion that there can be music that stinks to the ear.

What I hear as the grand triumphalism of emotion in the first movement, Hanslick heard as pretention.  What strikes me as a wild abandonment that stretches the limits of the instrument Hanslick understood as a form of violin torture.  And the simple but exuberant excess that makes the main melody so compelling is read by Hanslick in ugly racial terms that for him simply evoke the crudest stereotypes of Russian life:  savagery, ugliness, coarseness, drunkenness.  Music capable of transporting me to another and more sublime place is for Hanslick nauseating, in part reflective of the wider nativism that shaped the European reception to Russian musical professionalization during the late nineteenth century.

It is, of course, these starkly opposed reactions that simultaneously illustrate the power of the Concerto, which presses against the limits of respectability and the compositional discipline.  The soloist is left free to interpellate, to improvise, to riff in sometimes jarring ways.  The range of the notes played run up and off the scale, at times bringing the finger and the bow within what seems like barely a half inch.  And these flights of abandon are transposed onto the orchestra itself, which overwhelms the force of the soloist though only for a moment, as it asserts the main theme.  The shifting boundaries between melody and harmony, navigated sometimes in partnership and sometimes in dialectical opposition between violinist and orchestra, overtake the norms of musical propriety; even the lines separating movements are erased as the two final movements blur one into the other.

Even given the emergence of romanticism, this kind of musicality was still rather alien to the 19th-century symphonic oeuvre, a small evidence for which was recently defended in a short essay by Sir Roger Norrington, who called attention to the fact that until the 1930’s major European orchestras did not even overlay the score with vibrato.  Tchaikovsky, Brahms, Wagner, Bruckner and others wrote mainly with the expectation that notes would be played as written, evoking a pure warm tone from the orchestra; anything else would have been considered a gratuitous and even cheap emotional and tremulous overlay.  In such an aural universe, where even vibrato was only to be used sparingly to evoke emotion, the extremism of the Violin Concerto would have been jarring.

Tchaikovsky wrote the Violin Concerto at a moment of personal crisis and it had apparently redemptive force as he worked through the depression caused by the dissolution of his foolish marriage to Antonina Miliukova.  It was the only piece for the violin he ever wrote.  The negative circumstances of reception were vastly different from the much more favorable critical reception for the Piano Concerto, which remains one of the most beloved pieces of music ever written, or for Swan Lake, which he had written just a year prior to the violin piece.  The total immersion that Tchaikovsky reported to his patron resulted in an extraordinarily quick compositional pace – the first and most compelling movement was completed in only two weeks.

Raymond Knapp has called attention to the strange development of the first movement, where the triumphant main theme I’ve referenced gives way to a sort of writhing incoherence.  He writes:

…immediately after its majestic statement, the orchestra seems to founder, writhing impotently through a series of seemingly random chromatic shifts, unable to escape a particularly uninspired motivic groove until finally, after an agonizingly nineteen measures, it manages a semblance of directional force – at which point it yields to the violin variation of the majestic theme.  The importance of this second event – which we might term a failed development – registers quite differently than the first, for it is generally not even heard in its entirety; most performances cut the passage by nearly half.  When this traditional cut is taken, we hear what seems to be only the briefest failure of inspiration before the orchestra lurches back into purposeful motion with a somewhat artificial quickening of energy.

Knapp sees this awkward transition as evidence of an internal incoherence in the piece barely stitched over by the violin solo; but however one reads it, the manner by which the movement shifts back and forth further illustrates its hyperemotive force.

The singular exuberance of the music – is it joy we hear or the ravings of a tortured soul? – has a certain consistency with the mythologies that have arisen around the life of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, including the manner by which the Soviet state came to embrace him as a hero of the working class (which was something of a factual absurdity) and by which the West read his work as excessively sentimental and typical of the stereotypical “mad Russian.”  Today the biographers have a tendency to read him as tormented, mainly on account of his barely suppressed homosexuality (the idea still circulates in some circles that, contrary to evidence clearly indicating he died of cholera, Tchaikovsky committed suicide; reflecting the contrary accounts, at one point the BBC ran a documentary called Who Killed Tchaikovsky?).  Some, contrarily, see him as utterly conventional, and explain his musical excesses as a sign of boredom with his mundane life.

Kotek, the man who worked with Tchaikovsky to compose a concerto that would test the limits of violin performance, ironically never publicly performed it.  Rather, in a cruel twist, he died in Switzerland before reaching thirty.   One of his last visitors was Tchaikovsky.  Kotek died of consumption, a metaphor perhaps for the totality of his compositional investment in the Concerto.

All of this combines, it seems to me, to produce a work of astonishing virtuosity that for many reasons succeeds only when its over-the-top exuberance is manifest at all levels:  especially in the magnificence of its extreme solos and in the manner by which this tiny instrument manages to effectively overwhelm the orchestra and the audience both.  Dwarfed by a large hall, an otherwise impressive performance fell short not because it lacked technical virtuosity, but because it proved finally unable to overwhelm the senses.

SOURCES:  Ken Meltzer, “Notes on the Program:  Tchaikovsky’s Concerto in D Major for Violin and Orchestra,” Encore, October 2008, pgs. 31-33; Richard Freed, Kennedy Center Notes on the Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 35; Lynn Sargeant, “A New Class of People:  The Conservatoire and Musical Professionalization in Russia, 1861-1917,” Music & Letters 85.1 (2004): 41-61; Sir Roger Norrington, “The Sound Orchestras Make,” Early Music (February 2004): 2-5; Alexander Poznansky, “Tchaikovsky:  The Man Behind the Myth,” Musical Times 136.1826 (April 1995): 175-182; Raymond Knapp, “Passing – and Failing – in Late-Nineteenth-Century Russia; or Why We Should Care About the Cuts in Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto,” 19th Century Music 26.3 (2003): 195-234.


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