Composition and premiere: Pyotr Tchaikovsky composed his Violin Concerto in Switzerland in 1878. Its premiere was given by violinist Adolf Brodsky under Hans Richter’s direction with the Vienna Philharmonic on December 4, 1881. The first BSO performances featured soloist Alexandre Petschnikoff with Wilhelm Gericke conducting in January 1900. The first Tanglewood performance was August 4, 1949; Serge Koussevitzky conducted the BSO with soloist Jascha Heifetz. Anne-Sophie Mutter gave the most recent Tanglewood performance on July 16, 2017, conducted by Andris Nelsons.
In his rich and perceptive four-volume biography of Tchaikovsky, David Brown devotes the entire second volume to a narrow span of four years in the composer’s life, as indicated by the volume’s subtitle: The Crisis Years, 1874-1878. The centerpiece of the crisis was the composer’s catastrophic marriage, a step taken in the hope of stopping supposition about his homosexuality. He and his bride had scarcely started off on their honeymoon before the composer recognized the folly of his action. In torment, he ran away to Switzerland; it was there that he composed the Violin Concerto.
The marriage was by no means Tchaikovsky’s only crisis during those years. At the beginning of the period in question, he had composed a piano concerto for his close friend Nikolai Rubinstein, only to have the pianist declare the work worthless and unplayable. Utterly dismayed, Tchaikovsky finally managed to arrange the premiere in far-away Boston—so that if it were a flop, he would not have to be present to hear it himself. Ironically that concerto quickly became one of the most popular of all piano concertos. Soon after, Tchaikovsky’s new ballet Swan Lake was a failure in its first production, and the composer went to his grave without ever knowing that the world would regard his work as a masterpiece. There were some assorted triumphs, though. The Fourth Symphony—deeply etched with his Slavic fatalism—was not only a success, but marked one of the first major works that he composed with the extraordinary patronage of Nadezhda von Meck, who sent him a regular stipend for a dozen years on the strict understanding that they were never to meet.
But in the aftermath of his marriage there was only his frantic determination to get away. His wife Antonina was staying with the composer’s sister and her husband. Letters passed back and forth among all the members of the family, with Antonina sometimes making wild charges (such as the one that Tchaikovsky’s valet had bewitched him into hating her), sometimes expressing hope for a reconciliation. Tchaikovsky spent some months in Italy, where several of his brothers joined him, but financial necessity forced him to find a cheaper place to stay, and in March 1878 he arrived in Clarens, Switzerland. His student, friend, and possible lover, the violinist Yosif Kotek, joined him there, and on March 17 Tchaikovsky began the violin concerto, discovering to his delight that it went easily. In just eleven days he sketched the entire piece. Though they expressed reservations about the slow movement, Kotek and the composer’s brother Modest were enthusiastic about the two outer movements. Upon consideration, Tchaikovsky agreed with them, and on April 5 he replaced the original slow movement with a new one. Tchaikovsky completed the orchestration by April 11.
Now, however, he was in for a repetition of his experience with the First Piano Concerto. He dedicated the new work to the eminent violinist Leopold Auer, hoping naturally that he would play the first performance, which was already advertised for March 22, 1879. The work had already been published, and Auer regretted (so he wrote thirty years later) that he had not been consulted before the work had been fixed in print. Auer is supposed to have declared the work to be “unplayable,” though he later defended himself by explaining that he meant only that, as written, some of the virtuoso passages would not sound as they should.
Tchaikovsky was deeply wounded. Kotek himself declined to play the work in Russia. Two years later Tchaikovsky learned from his publisher that Adolf Brodsky had learned the piece and was planning to play it in Vienna, where the powerful and conservative critic Eduard Hanslick savaged Tchaikovsky and the piece in his review. “The Russian composer Tchaikovsky is surely no ordinary talent, but rather, an inflated one, obsessed with posturing as a genius, lacking discrimination and taste.... The same can be said for his new, long, and ambitious Violin Concerto. For a while it proceeds soberly, musically, and not mindlessly, but soon vulgarity gains the upper hand…. The violin…is no tugged about, torn, beaten black and blue….”
Tchaikovsky never got over it; to the end of his life, he could quote it by heart. But for more than a century Tchaikovsky’s concerto has simply been one of the four or five most popular violin concertos in the literature, which is answer enough to Hanslick.