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Talking about what he called his “whole Earth theory of music,” pianist Christopher O’Riley once described  the movements of a classical sonata or concerto as “head, heart, and dancing feet.” The typical opening movement is in the so-called ‘sonata form’ — exposition, development, recapitulation — of tonal dialectics and motivic dissection. The lyrical slow movement represents the emotional core of the work, and the finale is usually a sprightly rondo, witty and nimble.

This “head, heart, and dancing feet” characterization works well enough for Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto, as it does for his similarly constructed and equally beloved B-flat-minor Piano Concerto. Both begin with a teasing anomaly – a striking tune that never returns, but otherwise generally proceed along these established lines.

The realization of the form,  of  course, is pure Tchaikovsky, endlessly graceful in melody and passionate in expression. The immediate inspiration was Édouard Lalo’s Symphonie espagnole, a vivid manifestation of similar traits (and a violin concerto in all but name). The composer was at Clarens, in Switzerland, after months of travel recuperating from the self-inflicted trauma of his marriage the year before.

His brother Modest and a group of friends, including the young violinist Yosif Kotek, were with him. For communal entertainment they played through new music, including Lalo’s concerto, which had generated a huge stir when the great Spanish virtuoso Pablo de Sarasate had given the premiere in Paris in 1875.

What Tchaikovsky found in the Symphonie espagnole was “freshness, piquant rhythms, [and] beautifully harmonized melodies,” from a composer who “studiously avoids all commonplace routine, seeks new forms without wishing  to appear profound, and, unlike the Germans, cares more for musical beauty than for mere respect for the old traditions,” as Tchaikovsky wrote to his new patroness, Nadezhda von Meck.

For her part, Madame von Meck found Tchaikovsky’s first movement, the brainy head, too “cerebral.” Tchaikovsky wrote back: “I must defend a little the first movement. Of course it houses, as does every piece that serves virtuoso purposes, much that appeals chiefly to the mind; nevertheless, the themes are not painfully evolved. The plan of this movement sprang suddenly in my head, and quickly ran into its mold. I shall not give up hope that in time the piece will give you greater pleasure.”

This movement is one of sweeping melodies, decorated with virtuoso flourishes of great technical brilliance covering the full range of the instrument. The cadenza is Tchaikovsky’s own, and further develops the material.

Madame von Meck was not the only one to have problems with this piece. Tchaikovsky dedicated it to Leopold Auer, the Hungarian violinist teaching in Saint Petersburg and concertmaster of the Imperial Orchestra, as something of a fait accompli in the already printed piano score. Auer considered some of the solo part unidiomatic and declined to play it, as did – much to the composer’s chagrin – Kotek.

Everyone, however, was in agree- ment about the heart of the concerto, the Canzonetta. Auer remarked on the “charm of the sorrowfully inflected second movement,” and even the  celebrated critic Eduard Hanslick found the work “not without genius” at its Vienna premiere.

That assignment had fallen  to Adolf Brodsky, who prepared his part well, but found himself tremulously accompanied by the usually reliable Hans Richter and the Vienna Philharmonic on the wan  strength of a single rehearsal.

The Canzonetta, Hanslick wrote, “is well on the way to reconciling  us  and winning us over when, all too soon, it breaks off to make way for a finale that transports us to the brutal and wretched jollity of a Russian church festival.”

That would be those dancing feet which so offended Hanslick. Tchaikovsky does indeed quote Russian folk material there, but with joyous revelry,  not wretched jollity. The finale exults in sheer physicality, in sudden shifts  of mood and meter,  and in a gleeful fiddling essence unfettered by “mere respect for the old traditions” of proper Germanic concerto writing.

— John Henken