Michail Glinka (1804 – 1857)
«Kamarinskaja», Fantasie für Orchester
Peter Tschaikowsky (1840 – 1893)
Konzert für Violine und Orchester D-Dur op. 35
Sinfonie Nr. 4 f-Moll op. 36
In 1996, I bought my 8-year old son the 3-CD set of the Beatles’ Anthology. Over the course of two days, he listened to all the songs that had been part of my own childhood and adolescence 30 years earlier. But instead of listening to them in the order of their composition, and appreciating how the Fab Four had evolved from a bunch of teenagers playing covers in a club in Liverpool into a sophisticated ensemble of songwriters, he heard the entire oeuvre as a goulash—some cheese mixed in with the meat.
But why should I have been horrified? How different was his introduction to the Beatles from the way we walk through a modern art museum mixing Picasso’s Cubism with his Blue Period, or blithely stroll through the Medieval and Renaissance galleries without realizing how astonishing the advent of Chinese Red must have been to 9th century Europeans, or Lapis Lazuli to their Renaissance heirs, not to mention oil painting.
Similarly, Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto and his Fourth Symphony have dug their roots so deeply into the classical repertoire, that it is difficult to appreciate how unusually they were received at their premieres. Tchaikovsky famously said that Mikhail Glinka’s Kamarinskaya was the acorn from which the oak tree of Russian classical music grew. But both these works were fertilized and watered by much more than the Glinka graft of Russian folk songs onto classical forms. The long oboe solo that opens the second movement of the symphony, the pizzicato third movement were fully inspirations that fell like airborne plants onto the hungry oak. And it was Swiss soil, in fact, that nurtured the concerto.
Tchaikovsky was in Clarens on the shore of Lake Geneva when the inspiration for the Violin Concerto visited him at a receptive moment. Recovering from the breakdown of his unfortunate marriage, he was trying unsuccessfully to write a piano sonata when a visitor arrived. The violinist Iosif Kotek was a young composition student of Tchaikovsky’s. His musical (and many scholars believe romantic) companionship playing through the violin canon—and most significantly Edouard Lalo’s Symphonie Espagnole—not only cured Tchaikovsky of his depression but quickly led to the development of the Violin Concerto.
The work that has become a cornerstone of the violin repertoire was initially a cause for yet another rejection. With great enthusiasm, Tchaikovsky brought the concerto, fully-printed and with a dedication to Leopold Auer, who was later known as the teacher of the great Russian violinists Jascha Heifetz, Nathan Milstein, and Mischa Elman. «I regretted that the great composer had not shown it to me before committing it to print,» Auer wrote thirty years later. «Much unpleasantness might then have been spared us both...» When the concerto was finally premiered in Vienna in 1881 by Adolph Brodsky, the critic Eduard Hanslick called it «odorously Russian,» and said that the violin «was not played but beaten black and blue.» Even Iosif Kotek broke with Tchaikovsky, refusing to play the concerto, concerned for his reputation. And yet, this mighty oak has been recorded by every major violinist—including Heifetz and Elman who played an edition prepared by none other than Leopold Auer.