How the piece came about
1877 was a year of crisis for Tchaikovsky. In order to conceal his homosexuality, he had married one of his pupils, Antonina Milyukova. Psychologically, this was a disastrous move. The marriage lasted only weeks (although was never officially dissolved), and over the following months and years, Tchaikovsky made numerous extended foreign trips in order to regain his psychological balance.
Many works of this period bear witness to the turmoil. The issue of fate comes into focus for the first time in his 4th Symphony (1877/8), and the ironies of mismatched love are explored at length in the opera Eugene Onegin (completed January 1878). But the Violin Concerto is different. On first impressions, it seems unencumbered by any feelings of angst or remorse. The work is light in texture, at least by Tchaikovsky’s standards, and carried by long, seemingly carefree melodies in the solo violin.
It was written on one of the composer’s extended foreign trips, to Clarens in Switzerland. There he was joined by the young Russian violinist Yosef Kotek. Together they played through Lalo’s Symphonie espagnole, which had been written just three years earlier in 1874, and which was to have a significant influence on the concerto.
Tchaikovsky and Kotek may have embarked on a passionate relationship over these months in Switzerland. There is little to confirm or deny this beyond the character of the music that resulted (the passionate 2nd theme of the concerto’s 2nd movement (bar 40) has been used as evidence). Significantly though, Tchaikovsky set aside the piece he had been working on, the Piano Sonata in G major, Op. 37, in order to write the concerto. This is one of the only times in Tchaikovsky’s career that he did this, suggesting the project was close to his heart. The work took around two weeks to sketch out. That’s not a speed record for Tchaikovsky, but it does give an idea of how the long, carefree melodies came into existence.
The concerto originally had a different slow movement, but after playing through the work with Kotek, Tchaikovsky decided to replace it. The original slow movement went on to become the Méditation movement in Souvenir d’un lieu cher Op.42 No.2.
- Gavin Dixon 2011