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Violin Concerto

Antonín Dvořák wrote his Violin Concerto in 1879 for Joseph Joachim at the suggestion of the publisher Simrock.

Composition and premiere: Antonín Dvořák wrote his Violin Concerto in 1879 for Joseph Joachim at the suggestion of the publisher Simrock. In the end it was the Czech violinist František Ondříček who premiered the piece on October 14, 1883, in Prague with the composer conducting. The first BSO performance, in November 1900, was led by Wilhelm Gericke and featured soloist Timothée Adamowski. Erich Leinsdorf led the BSO and Isaac Stern in the first Tanglewood performance on July 18, 1965; the most recent Tanglewood performance was given by Joshua Bell on August 2, 2019, with the BSO led by Ken-David Masur.

On January 1, 1879, Joseph Joachim gave the first performance of the Brahms Violin Concerto. Brahms was one of the most important influences on the career of Antonín Dvořák, and it was for Joachim that Dvořák wrote his own Violin Concerto six months later. The Austro-Hungarian Joachim (1831-1907) was a composer, conductor, and teacher, as well as one of the most important violinists of his day. He made his debut at 8, was sent to study in Vienna several months after that, and in 1843 went to Leipzig to learn from Mendelssohn at the new conservatory there, making his Gewandhaus debut that August. On May 27, 1844, Mendelssohn conducted the Beethoven Violin Concerto in London with the 13-year-old Joachim as soloist; the enthusiastic audience was so taken with the blond youngster’s performance that the first movement was several times interrupted by applause. Six years later, Joachim was concertmaster under Franz Liszt at Weimar for the first production of Wagner’s Lohengrin. He became an intimate of Robert and Clara Schumann, and in 1853 met Brahms, who benefited from Joachim’s advice on orchestration and from hearing Joachim’s quartet perform his early chamber music. It soon became typical for Brahms to seek Joachim’s suggestions regarding works-in-progress. It was Brahms who introduced Dvořák to Joachim, and Joachim got to know Dvořák’s A major string sextet, Opus 48, and E-flat string quartet, Opus 51, both of which were performed at Joachim’s house in Berlin on July 29, 1879, with the composer present.

By this time, and with encouragement from Joachim, who had recently given the first performance of Brahms’s Violin Concerto, Dvořák was at work on a violin concerto of his own. In January 1880 he reported that Joachim had promised to play the concerto as soon as it was published, and on May 9, 1880, after Joachim had suggested a thorough revision, the composer wrote to the publisher Simrock that he had reworked the entire score, “without missing a single bar.” Dvořák again gave the score to Joachim, who now took two years to respond, finally making alterations to the solo part in the summer of 1882 and suggesting that the composer lighten the instrumentation. In November the composer and Joachim read through the concerto with the orchestra of the Berlin Hochschule. The next month Dvořák held fast against criticism from Simrock’s adviser Robert Keller regarding the lack of a break before the Adagio: “…the first two movements can—or must—remain as they are.”

Simrock published the score in 1883, but the soloist for the first performance was the 23-year-old, Prague-born František Ondříček, who was already famous enough to be receiving invitations to play throughout Europe, in the United States, and in eastern Russia. As it turned out, Joachim himself never performed Dvořák’s concerto—though he almost did so in London during the composer’s first visit there in 1884—and it has been suggested that the violinist-composer may not have been able to reconcile his own conservatism as to musical form with respect to Dvořák’s bold experimentation in the first movement. Even today, this neglected masterpiece has had comparatively few advocates, but probably for yet another reason: it is fiendishly difficult.

In the first movement, Dvořák dispenses entirely with an orchestral exposition, thereby wasting no time alerting us that he will adhere to no prescribed formal scheme. Instead, a bold, unison forte with a suggestion of triple-time furiant rhythm serves to introduce the soloist before even five measures have gone by, the warmly melodic theme giving way to cadenza-like figuration (already!) before the orchestra reenters. As the movement proceeds, Dvořák invents material so constantly ripe for elaboration that applying the terms “exposition” and “development” to the movement is almost meaningless.

Ultimately, the “big” return to the main theme—the “recapitulation” if you must—has nowhere to go, and Dvořák accordingly cuts things short with the suggestion of a brief cadenza (over forceful horn calls that appear in varying guises throughout the concerto), after which a contemplative bridge passage for winds and low strings—the soloist giving out one of many variants of the main theme heard during the movement—leads directly to the wonderfully expansive and beautiful F major Adagio, whose length is supported not only by Dvořák’s ability to create long-breathed arcs of melody, but also by his skill in juxtaposing areas of contrasting key and character as the movement proceeds.

The rondo finale is unflaggingly energetic, tuneful, and Czech, exploiting the folk-dance rhythms of the furiant in its main theme and the duple-time dumka in the central episode. Dvořák is particularly inventive in his presentations of the main theme: it is heard first over high strings, with the second violins sustaining a tonic A; it returns against a crashing open fifth in the timpani and the simulation of Czech bagpipes in the open fifth of violins and cellos; and for its third appearance it sounds against a rush of upper-string activity with off-beat accents in the cellos and basses. Near the end, there is a striking change of color when the solo flute brings back the main theme beginning on A-flat, and then a brief reference to the dumka prepares the exuberant final pages, a sudden accelerando and four brilliantly boisterous chords bringing this marvelous movement to a close.

Marc Mandel

Marc Mandel joined the staff of the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1978 and managed the BSO’s program book from 1979 until his retirement as Director of Program Publications in 2020.