P. I. Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto in D Major, op. 35
This piece is a classic in the world violin repertoire and is one of the most-played violin concertos to date. In the eyes of classical music aficionados, this piece is among “the world’s four greatest violin concertos” along with those created by Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Brahms. The piece was written in 1878 when the composer ended an unfortunate marriage and was living in Switzerland. Inspired by French composer Édouard Lalo’s Symphonie Espagnole for violin and orchestra (“not seeking depth or being conventional”), Tchaikovsky finished creating this concerto with the assistance of his close friend and violinist Iosif Kotek. The composer initially dedicated the piece to the great violinist Leopold Auer and planned to invite him to give a solo performance at the premiere, but Auer declined, thinking that this concerto has many defects in terms of technical execution. The piece eventually premiered in Vienna in 1881 with a solo played by Adolph Brodsky.
This concerto demonstrates the composer’s exceptional melodic talent and ingenuity in artistically transforming Russian folk music language, and also poses a daunting technical challenge to solo violinists. The work takes the conventional concerto structure of three movements. In Tchaikovsky’s era, the first movement was no longer limited to the sonata form of double expositions as it was in a classical concerto, and the composer handled the beginning of this piece with more freedom and variety, especially in the introduction of the soloist. The concerto leads to the participation of the violin through a climax-building section of the orchestra that transitions from weak to strong dynamics, from bright to dark colours, and from placid to intense emotions, and the first and second subjects are characterised by the songfulness and lyricism typical of the Romantic Period. The entire piece is full of rousing fluctuations and contrasts, with the violin soloist given ample opportunity to showcase dazzling techniques. The second movement in G minor is relatively short and brimming with gloomy nostalgia. The movement was named “Canzonetta” by the composer, which was originally an Italian form of secular vocal music in the Renaissance and is used to represent the movement’s songful flavour and aria-like tone that are in stark contrast with the first and last movements. The music then uninterruptedly enters the exciting and splendid third movement which features the subject material of a strong Russian folk flavour, such as the joyful and fiery main subject that stems from Russian dance Trepak, and the stable and poised theme of the subsequent episode that reminds us of Ukrainian folk songs.
P. I. Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 1 in G minor, op. 13 (“Winter Daydreams”)
P. I. Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) was the most versatile composer in the 19th century. He created in a variety of genres, and timeless masterpieces can be found in each and every one of them. His music is closely connected with Russian folk music elements and, as one of the earliest professional Russian composers with a conservatory educational background, he fully absorbed the musical techniques of Western Europe, creating an original style that combines “international language” with Russian characteristics.
He wrote six symphonies throughout his life, in addition to the programme-based Manfred Symphony and the unfinished Symphony in E-flat Major. Symphony No. 1 in G minor was created in 1866 when the composer was serving as a professor at the Moscow Conservatory at the invitation of Nikolai Rubinstein shortly after he graduated from the St. Petersburg Conservatory and started his new life with the fraternal care and help from Rubinstein. This symphony met with great odds and sharp criticism from his former teachers Nikolay Zaremba and Anton Rubinstein (the elder brother of Nikolai Rubinstein). After completion, the piece was gradually introduced to the public: the third movement was performed in Moscow on 10 December 1866 and was met with a lukewarm response; the second and third movements were staged in St. Petersburg in February the following year and received acclaim for the first time; the piece was not performed in its entirety until its debut in February 1868 under the baton of Nikolai Rubinstein, which was hailed as a huge success. However, it is strange that this piece was not performed for the second time until 15 years later. In 1874, the composer published the work after adding some minor refinements and dedicated it to Nikolai Rubinstein. The final version eventually premiered in Moscow in 1883.
The composer named his maiden symphony “Winter Daydreams” and included similar titles for the first two movements. The first movement “Daydreams on a Winter Journey” represents not only the composer’s personal experience of traveling alone from St. Petersburg to Moscow in the bleak Russian winter, but also a typical Russian scene in its cultural and artistic imageries. In this sonata-based movement, the young composer vividly and delicately depicts the scene of a wagon galloping on a vast snow field with a fresh touch, where the silvery sounds blow in the wind amidst the melodious and plain folk songs sung by the coachman. The second movement “Land of Gloom, Land of Mist” (in E-flat Major) conveys the composer’s preference for the “ineffable gloomy weather”. Starting from an emotional and gloomy introduction based on the love theme of the composer’s symphonic fantasy The Storm (op. 80, 1865), the piece is then accomplished by the Russian-style loneliness rendered by oboes echoed and surrounded by bassoons and flutes – which subsequently became typical of Tchaikovsky’s mature style. The third movement (in C minor) was the first to be completed and was based on substantial changes to the third movement of the composer’s work during his schooldays – Piano Sonata in C-sharp minor, by replacing the original trio with a new waltz-style theme, and this is the first extraordinary orchestral waltz written by Tchaikovsky. The fourth movement is the longest and the most dramatic of all with the most fluctuations and the richest and grandest sounds. Both the introduction and the exposition make reference to the Russian folk song “Распашу ли я млада, младeшенка” (Raspashu li ya mlada, mladeshenka). Fugue-like counterpoints pervade this movement, especially in the development section. In the end, the piece concludes with a magnificent climax rendered by all instruments.
By Danni Liu
Translated from Chinese