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Composed: 1936
Length: c. 32 minutes
Orchestration: 3 flutes (3rd = piccolo), 3 oboes, clarinet, bass clarinet, E-flat clarinet, 3 bassoons (3rd = contrabassoon), 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum cymbals, glockenspiel, military drum, tam tam, tambourine, triangle, xylophone), strings, and solo violin

First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: December 12, 1974, James Levine conducting, with soloist Zvi Zeitlin

In May of 1933 the Prussian Academy of Arts in Berlin began its Hitler-mandated purge of Jews from the institute, where Schoenberg had taught since 1925. Vacationing in France at the time, he decided to move with his family to the U.S., finally settling in Los Angeles, teaching privately, briefly at the University of Southern California, then at UCLA until his retirement in 1944 at age 70.

The first works he completed in his new homeland were his Fourth String Quartet and Violin Concerto, the latter dedicated to his pupil Anton von Webern, both dating from 1936. Otto Klemperer indicated to the composer that he would premiere the Concerto with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, of which he was Music Director. Schoenberg was elated and recommended Rudolf Kolisch, an old friend and leader of the Kolisch Quartet, as soloist. But Klemperer did not follow up – and indeed never conducted the Concerto in the many years remaining to him. The honor of leading the premiere, in 1940, went to Leopold Stokowski with his Philadelphia Orchestra and as soloist Russian-born Louis Krasner (1903-1995). Krasner had five years earlier commissioned and presented the world premiere of the Violin Concerto by Alban Berg, the third, with Schoenberg and Webern, of the masters of the so-called Second Viennese School.

There is valuable and engaging source material regarding the Schoenberg Concerto in the essay written by Krasner – a portion of which is reproduced here – for the program book of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, for performances given in November 1973 with soloist Joseph Silverstein and Seiji Ozawa conducting. Copyright © Boston Symphony Orchestra, Inc. Reprinted by permission; all rights reserved.

 “It is a matter of historical record that almost all first performances of Schoenberg’s music were carried out... in an atmosphere of belligerence, scandal, even sabotage... The first performance of the Concerto, auspiciously scheduled by the Philadelphia Orchestra under Leopold Stokowski, also had to endure its share of problems... Indeed, the event was marked by ongoing opposition and controversy between the orchestra’s management and its Music Director. Efforts were exerted repeatedly to thwart the performance and to effect its cancellation. Stokowski’s determination to perform the Concerto could not be shaken, however, and his persistence finally overcame all obstacles...

“The orchestra players were at first hesitant in their attitude and interest, but for the most part they worked seriously and attentively – prodded on perhaps by a handful of colleagues who were personally involved in composition and avant-garde music. Among these was Benar Heifetz, solo cellist of the orchestra and former member of the famous Kolisch Quartet, which had premiered most of Schoenberg’s chamber music. On the evening following the first orchestra rehearsal, Mr. Heifetz invited the orchestra to his home for a preview performance of the Concerto. In his crowded music room, my wife Adrienne played the orchestra reduction on the piano and I played the solo part – demonstrating and explaining, engaging the musicians in extended discussions of the structure, musical content, and melodic outline of the work...

“The Schoenberg Concerto is a very complex work, magnificent in its scope – the ultimate, I would say, in design and conception of the solo part. The musical responsibilities it imposes on both fingerboard and bowing techniques carry the player to the very edge of instrumental brinksmanship...

“With Stokowski’s masterful control... together with the growing interest of the orchestra musicians, rehearsals progressed very satisfactorily. At some point along the way Stokowski spoke to me of his difficulties with the management. He explained that because they had refused to budget a soloist’s fee, he would personally pay my honorarium. This of course troubled me greatly and I... begged him to let me participate without remuneration...

“[At the final rehearsal] all went smoothly and upon leaving the stage, I sensed a mood of satisfaction among all the participants. When I returned to my hotel room... the clerk handed me an envelope. In it I found a check together with a note written over Stokowski’s large-lettered signature. It read: ‘This is your honorarium for our concerts. If you will not accept it, please do not come to this afternoon’s performance.’

“Both concerts were performed as scheduled. Many musicians from distant areas attended, and the audience reaction was of course mixed...

“Nearly 34 years have passed and I am still convinced that the Schoenberg Violin Concerto is a monumental work of historic significance. I have now found several distinguished musicians who agree.”

- Herbert Glass