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Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto

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Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 35
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
“Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto raises for the first time the ghastly idea that there are pieces of music that one can hear stinking… [the finale] transports us into the brutish grim jollity of a Russian church festival. In our mind’s eye we see nothing but common, ravaged faces, hear rough oaths and smell cheap liquor.” This politically incorrect assessment comes from the pen of the dean of nineteenth century music critics, Eduard Hanslick, reviewing the Concerto’s Vienna premiere.
Why did the first performance take place in Vienna and not St. Petersburg? It is difficult to believe that this Concerto, probably the most popular in the literature, was declared to contain passages that were “almost impossible to play” by its first dedicatee, the famed violinist and violin teacher Leopold Auer, concertmaster of the Imperial Orchestra in St. Petersburg. Completed in 1878, it had to wait for three years for its premiere in Vienna where Hanslick was not alone in his opinion.
What Hanslick and the other critics disliked most is what makes the Concerto so appealing today: its athletic energy, unabashed romanticism and rousing Slavic finale. Without diminishing our own enjoyment of the Concerto, attempting to hear it with the ears of its first audience is a fascinating exercise in cultural relativity. First of all, consider the sheer difficulty of the piece. What defeated Russia’s leading violin virtuoso is the stuff teenage prodigies cut their teeth on at Juilliard and Curtis, practicing the killer bits ad nauseam until they get it right or find some other career.
At the time of the Concerto’s inception, Tchaikovsky was just emerging from under the black cloud of a disastrous marriage to an emotionally unstable woman who had threatened suicide if he refused to marry. The marriage was also undertaken to quash rumors about his homosexuality; it ended two weeks later with his attempted suicide, although they were never legally divorced. The vibrant energy of the Concerto, however, seems to have been inspired by the visit of Josif Kotek, a young violinist, pupil and protégé who managed to raise the composer’s spirits. He helped him with the Concerto, giving advice on technical matters.
The Concerto opens with a brief, gentle introduction, paving the way for the lyrical first theme. After some virtuosic fireworks, the emerging second theme is surprisingly similar in mood to the first. The development, full of technical acrobatics, leads into the very difficult cadenza that the composer wrote himself.
The current slow movement was Tchaikovsky’s second try; he discarded his first attempt, eventually publishing it separately as a violin and piano piece, Méditation, Op. 42, No. 3. The second version opens with a gentle melancholy song on the woodwinds that pervades the movement, serving as sharp contrast to the raucous Finale that follows without pause. Hanslick’s appraisal: “The adagio with its gentle Slav melancholy [note the stereotyping] is well on its way to reconciling us and winning us over.”
The unabashed use of Russian peasant dance rhythms in the third movement that so upset Vienna’s critics was, even at the time, becoming a signature of much Russian orchestral music and a symbol of Russian nationalism. Another peculiar divergence from tradition that must have raised a few Viennese eyebrows is the spectacular cadenza at the beginning of the movement that follows immediately on the fiery orchestral introduction and leads right into the main theme. Now, if these had been German or Hungarian dances, Vienna’s attitude might have been different.
Prélude a l’après-midi d’un faune
(Afternoon of a Faun)
Claude Debussy
The publication in 1876 of symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé’s subtly sensual poem, L’après-midi d’un faune, created a furor in the cultural circles of Paris with its hints of bisexuality and lesbianism. The figure of the youthful, erotic faun appealed to Debussy, who in 1892 planned a three-part composition, Prélude, interludes et paraphrase finale pour l’après-midi d’un faune, to serve as background music to readings of the poem. In the course of the composition, however, he was, sidetracked by his work on the opera Pelléas et Mélisande. As a result, only the Prélude was ever written.
The poem depicts a sensuous faun, a rural deity represented as a man with the ears, horns, tail and hind legs of a goat, silently contemplating cavorting nymphs and other forest creatures on a warm sunny afternoon. The suggestive music captures the erotic atmosphere of the poem with consummate skill and is one of the first and most evocative examples of musical Impressionism. The Prélude was first performed in Paris in December 1894 and was an instant triumph, the only work of Debussy ever to receive an encore at its premiere. Mallarmé himself praised the music, saying that it extended the emotion of his poem and provided it with a warmer background. Debussy regarded the music as “a very free illustration and in no way as a synthesis of the poem.”
The Prélude requires a full orchestra, but with a touch as light and evanescent as the poem; often the pauses in the music are as dramatic as the music itself, which relies mostly on the woodwinds and the harp to create the dreamy atmosphere and imagery. In 1912, however, Sergey Diaghilev, the impresario of the Ballets Russes, urged the dancer Vaclav Nijinsky to choreograph and dance the role of the faun in a ballet based on Mallarmé’s poem and Debussy’s music. Nijinsky’s interpretation of the role turned out to be much more literal than Mallarmé’s symbolist poetry. His openly erotic interpretation of the faun provoked a major scandal, primarily because of the final scene in which the faun, frustrated and saddened by the inability to seduce his nymph playmates, consoles himself by sensuously fondling a scarf that one of the nymphs has dropped in her escape.
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