Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto:
Pyotr Iyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) was extraordinarily lucky in his depression. For years he’d been pondering marriage as a way to prevent the news of his homosexuality from spreading to his sponsors among the Russian nobility. When a female college student, a stranger, wrote to him expressing her overpowering love, he decided his prayers had been answered. But in spite of being a full-time music student, she had never heard a note of Tchaikovsky’s music, which was odd, because he was already a star, as well as a teacher at the Moscow Conservatoire; she had developed a crush on him entirely from glimpsing him at school. Within days of a hasty arranged wedding (he proposed the day after they met), he felt he could no longer hide his exploding antipathy toward her, of which she remained clueless. In Moscow he met her family and despised them on sight. IN these situations, when he was unhappy and uncomfortable, his usual recourse was to ask a friend in another city to send a telegram stating that he was urgently needed elsewhere. He was soon on his way out of Russia, never to see her again, though he always supported her financially.
Despondent over the entire affair, which he now viewed as one colossal mistake (no biographer seems to care about the feelings of Tchaikovsky’s wife), he wondered what to do with himself and how to force his mind back into composing. Nadezhda von Meek, who had recently made herself his benefactress and was the wife of a wealthy railroad magnate, came to Tchaikovsky’s rescue. She had always been in love with Tchaikovsky’s music but had refused to meet him, afraid that the man in the flesh might puncture the picture that his music had conjured in her mind. During the following decade of her support, they kept up a voluminous correspondence with each other, revealing intimate details of their lives and feelings. (When her fortune finally dried up, so did his letters.) Tchaikovsky had hardly been doing poorly before this van Meek fairy godmother came into the picture. He already had one servant, who was able to cook only one dish, cabbage-soup and groats. But Tchaikovsky was well satisfied with this, needing no more stimulation than his own talent. Von Meek was a luxury.
In his postnuptial mood of dejection, Tchaikovsky asked von Meek for money to travel. While his salary at the Moscow Conservatoire continued, Tchaikovsky played hooky and fled to Berlin, then Paris. (He sent is wife to his sister’s house to be supervised, to make she didn’t spill the beans over what kind of man her husband was.) He continued on to Lake Geneva; after his brother joined him there, he decided Italy was the place to be. He visited Florence for two days, then Rome. After a couple of weeks, and having had his full of the statues, he arrived in Venice. Nince days later came Vienna. What a wonderful way to buck one’s spirits back up! Five weeks more in San Remo, Italy, then Pisa, back to Florence, finally settling in the small Swiss village of Clarens, where Stravinsky would write his Rite of Spring, 35 years later. To support all these travels, Tchaikovsky needed numerous infusions of money, and von Meek obliged with each request. If only all suffers of depression could be so lucky! Von Meek could not really afford these extra subsides, but when she was told that Tchaikovsky had rejected his wife and the marriage was a sham, she was overjoyed-she would remain the only woman that Tchaikovsky would ever be loyal to.
In Switzerland, Tchaikovsky played through Lalo’s new violin concerto, Symphonie Espagnole, with his visiting friend and pupil (and possibly lover), violinist Josif Kotek. Kotek had been studying in Berlin with Joseph Joachim, the violinist who lent a helping hand to nearly every composer of great violin works during the latter half of the nineteenth century.
Written 1878, Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto burst out of him at lightning speed-the first movement in five days, the last in three. Tchaikovsky and Kotek parted ways when Kotek refused to premiere it. Tchaikovsky then rededicated it to Leopold Auer, a violinist who was as much a mentor to composer’s violin music in Russia as Joachim was to the rest of Europe. But Auer rejected it when he first saw the score, so it was rededicated once again, this time to the violinist Adolf Brodsky, who premiered it in Vienna. Auer eventually changed his mind about the concerto; especially after he arranged his own version, and he went on to make the concerto a great success, teaching it to his two pupils, Jascha Heifetz and Nathan Milstein. In his later years, Auer moved to America, to spend his twilight years (after 1927) teaching at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, where Antonello studied.
At its premiere in Vienna, Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto was poorly received by the leading critic of the day, Eduard Hanslick: “The violin is no longer played; it is tugged about, torn, beaten black and blue… We see a host of gross and savage faces, hear crude curses, and smell the booze…Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto confronts us for the first time with the hideous idea that there may be musical compositions whose stink one can hear.” Hanslick was known, however, for his bias against Slavic music.
The American composer Edward McDowellsaid: “Tchaikovsky’s music always sounds better than it is; the music of Brahms is often better than it sounds.” By which he may have meant, Brahms is more fun to play, Tchaikovsky more enjoyable to hear.
Glazunov Violin Concerto:
Glazunov’s violin concerto was written in 1904, and, like the Tchaikovsky concerto, was also written for and dedicated to Leopold Auer. Alexander Glazunov (1865-1936), whose principal teacher was the great Russian orchestrator, Rimsky-Korsakov, is now mainly remembered as a teacher of Shostakovich, who greatly admired his teaching, even though Glazunov spent many of their lessons sitting behind a desk, sipping through a long straw from a bottle of vodka hidden in a partially open drawer. Glazunov was much beloved and known for going out of his way to help students at the St. Petersburg Conservatory (where Tchaikovsky had studied.) When the authorities of the Russian government offered to increase his salary, he cleverly arranged that the money instead be spent on firewood for the suffering students. He made himself a firewall between Jewish students and the powers that be, enabling violinist Jascha Heifetz, Nathan Milstein, and Mischa Elman, who would go on to become the leading violinist of their time, to enroll at the conservatory.
Although Glazunov’s violin concerto is often listed as being in three movements, it is, in fact, unique in the violin concerto repertoire for being in one long, extended movement. (The Chausson Poeme is one movement, but it much shorter and more analogous to one movement of a standard concerto.) Other violin concertos such as the Mendelssohn have links between the movements but these can be easily cut if the performer wishes to perform only one movement at a time; in any case, the movements do not share any motivic material, the way the various sections of the Glazunov do. The Glazunov thus has more in common with Liszt’s piano sonata, which is often talked about as if it had spate movements, when, in fact, the music never pauses or loses intensity from beginning to end, and cannot be cut in any way.
Notes by Peter Arnstein