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In October 1877 Tchaikovsky fled from his home and from a disastrous marriage that had lasted little over two months. It threw him into a deep depression, but it was a curious part of his psychological make-up that a crisis that would have silenced most creative minds worked in his case in a positive direction. He never lost his will to compose even when he felt besieged by the world’s tormenting army. Always a wanderer, he left Russia and resumed work on two of his most masterly pieces, the opera Eugene Onegin and the Fourth Symphony. In March 1878, when he moved on from his refuge in Italy to Clarens in Switzerland, still troubled in spirit but rich in inspiration, he composed the Violin Concerto with remarkable speed.

His pupil Josef Kotek, a violinist of considerable ability, was one of the few people who had been aware of Tchaikovsky’s unhappiness in the first days of his marriage, and it is tempting to read an acknowledgment of confidence in the affectionate solo part of the Concerto. Kotek came to Clarens and they played a great deal of music together, including Lalo’s very recent Symphonie espagnole, which Tchaikovsky adored. The Concerto was quickly written: the first movement in a week and the full draft in less than two weeks. Kotek was delighted with it, although both felt uneasy about the slow movement. No problem: Tchaikovsky immediately wrote another, the lovely Canzonetta.

Fearing the gossip of a dedication to Kotek, Tchaikovsky dedicated it instead to the great Hungarian violinist Leopold Auer, then principal violin teacher at the Moscow Conservatoire. Auer began to revise the solo part, but amid much prevarication neither Auer nor Kotek came to give its first performance. Rumor held the work to be unplayable, a familiar judgment on works subsequently accepted in the everyday repertoire. In the end it was Adolf Brodsky who took up the challenge, playing it to a stormy reception in Vienna in 1881. Hanslick, a critic by no means hostile to Tchaikovsky, considered that it “gave off a bad smell.” Auer did not play it until 1893, a few months before the composer’s sudden death. His revisions of the solo part have been widely accepted and are frequently heard today.

At the other end of the Alps and only a few months after Tchaikovsky, Brahms too wrote a Violin Concerto in D, borrowing the key from Beethoven’s concerto. Tchaikovsky had the additional model of Lalo’s work, also in D. The key has an inescapable magic and brilliance on the violin that all these composers fully appreciated. The course of Tchaikovsky’s Concerto is not hard to follow, although the only real puzzle comes at the very beginning: the first eight bars, so affecting and so innocent, are never heard again. The first subject proper is left until the soloist’s entry and when it has generated a lively rush of notes, the second subject seems to continue in precisely the same mood. It too develops in pace and complexity until the full orchestra gives out the main theme, like a grand ceremonial procession. The development follows, and a cadenza of great brilliance brings back the opening material. In the coda the contest between violin and orchestra becomes more and more strident.

In the Canzonetta a brief introductory passage for the wind gives place to a melody of enchanting simplicity for the soloist. Nowhere in the movement is the writing the least bit showy; it contrasts and neatly dovetails with the rousing, brilliant Finale, where the composer’s Russian origin is much more evident. It is abruptly sectional, the second tune being slower and even more folksy, over a drone bass on the cellos and a counterpoint in the bassoon. The third tune dialogues between solo winds (and later the soloist) like one of the more melancholy scenes in Eugene Onegin. All the tunes return and the orchestra incites the soloist to a crackling display of fireworks to crown the concerto.

- Hugh Macdonald