Program Notes: Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto

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Program Notes: Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto

Jacksonville Symphony 2022/23 Florida Blue Classical Series

Claude Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun

  • Debussy is generally categorized as an Impressionist composer.
  • Literate and well-educated, he composed dozens of songs and set poetry by France’s symbolist poets.
  • For the most part, Debussy avoided traditional forms like symphony, sonata and concerto.
  • Far-Eastern music, particularly Javanese Gamelan, fascinated him.
  • Mood and expressivity are more important in his music than thematic development or traditional harmony.

Many composers are drawn to outside sources for their inspiration. In the case of Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, the catalyst was a symbolist poem by Stéphane Mallarmé that evokes both the beauty of nature and the enchantment of ancient mythology. “Faun” is the Roman name for satyr, a mythical creature that was half man and half goat. Debussy’s music has a dreamy quality where we are not quite sure whether the faun is asleep or awake. Both tempo and meter are flexible and change frequently. The flute that opens the music is the main character, but it is important to listen for solo comments from clarinet, oboe and English horn as well.

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto

  • Tchaikovsky was a quintessential composer of the Romantic Era.
  • The most important woman in his life was a long-distance patron who he never met.
  • An excellent correspondent, Tchaikovsky wrote hundreds of letters to family and friends.
  • His letters and diaries yield profound insight into his complex personality.
  • His most enduring works are symphonies, concertos and ballets.

One of the most popular concertos in classical literature, Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto combines ravishing melodies, bristling excitement and plenty of virtuosity in its outer movements. Ironically, it dates from a time in the composer’s life when Tchaikovsky wrestled with his sexuality in an intolerant society. His Violin Concerto dates from the year after his complicated marriage to a young woman. He fled the marriage and found solace in Switzerland’s alpine beauty. It was there that he composed this magnificent, inspired concerto. His central Canzonetta balances tenderness and intimacy while the exuberant finale dazzles from beginning to end.

Jean Sibelius’ Symphony No. 2

  • Sibelius was fiercely nationalist and sought to capture the spirit of Finland in his music.
  • His native language was Swedish, but he learned Finnish in primary school.
  • He is considered Finland’s greatest composer and a national symbol of cultural pride.
  • His works often evoke an image of the frozen tundra and the beauty of sunshine on a snowscape.
  • Fire and ice commingle in Sibelius’ expressive compositions.

A perennial audience favorite, Sibelius’ Symphony No. 2 is the best known of his seven symphonies. It may well be his most popular work other than Finlandia. Despite its origin in the frigid Nordic climate of Finland, this symphony pulses with the warmth of the brief, sub-arctic summer. Listening to the Second Symphony, one senses the composer’s love of nature as well as his love for Finland. A frankly nationalistic work, the Second Symphony is also unusually positive in its musical message. Although Sibelius had a more serious side to his personality, this symphony is essentially an affirmative, steadfast and patriotic hymn that grips the listener even on the first hearing. Triumphant and majestic, the finale is a thrilling close to this powerful work.


Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun)

Claude Debussy

Born August 22, 1862, in St-Germain-en-Laye, France | Died March 25, 1918, in Paris

“L’après-midi d’un faune” (Afternoon of a Faun) is a poem by the French symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé (1842-1898). Debussy’s orchestral piece, though often mistakenly referred to by the name of the poem, is actually a Prelude to the poem. The composer intended his music to be “a very free illustration and in no way a synthesis of the poem.”

Written between 1865 and 1876, Mallarmé’s poem is subtitled “Eclogue.” He conceived it for the stage, intending that it be recited by an actor as a monologue. One of its early titles was “Monologue d’un faune.” In it, a faun dreams about the conquest of nymphs on a dreamy summer afternoon.

Debussy was a highly literate musician and an excellent writer. By 1890, he had become a member of Mallarmé’s inner circle. When the piece was announced in March of 1894, it consisted of a Prelude, Interlude and Paraphrase finale. Debussy either abandoned the later movements or compressed his ideas into the single ten-minute work that has survived. In that form, it received its first performance on December 22, 1894, which was two years after he began work on it.

The Prélude represents the poem’s lyrical spirit rather than a narrative representation. Debussy’s music has two principal themes. The first, stated by the flute, is lyrical and free flowing. The second, which belongs primarily to the other winds, is more concrete. Throughout the Prélude, Debussy’s effect is fragmented. No real development of the themes occurs. With muted strings and horns, he captures the shimmering beauty of the summer’s day. Mellow French horns mirror the subtle delicacy of the orchestration whose rainbow of pastels charms our ears so well.

Instrumentation: Debussy’s score calls for three flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, four horns, two harps and strings.


Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 35

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

Born May 7, 1840, in Votkinsk, Viatka District, Russia | Died November 6, 1893, in St. Petersburg, Russia

Three Romantic Era violin concertos with a secure lock in the permanent, classical repertoire are those by Felix Mendelssohn, Johannes Brahms and Tchaikovsky. All of them are war horses, but Tchaikovsky’s concerto is arguably the most popular of all. Violinists love to play this piece, and audiences love to hear it.  

Part of what makes a composition great is that no matter how familiar the music is, something fresh remains to be discovered each time we hear it. Sometimes it is a general observation like realizing that Tchaikovsky was probably more influenced by the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto than any other predecessors’ work. More likely, one notices a special moment, such as the grand polonaise that launches the first movement or the passage in the slow movement where Tchaikovsky combines solo clarinet with the violin soloist.  

 Escape From a Short-lived Marriage 

Tchaikovsky composed his Violin Concerto in March and April of 1878. He had fled to Clarens, Switzerland, on the heels of his brief marriage. He worked on the concerto with the young Russian violinist Josef Kotek, but it was intended for the Hungarian violinist Leopold Auer (1845-1930) who spent 50 years of his career in St. Petersburg. Unfortunately, Auer rejected the concerto, claiming it was unplayable. Tchaikovsky had to wait until December 4, 1881, for the premiere. Adolf Brodsky was the soloist, and Hans Richter conducted the Vienna Philharmonic.  

 A Triumph of Classical Repertoire  

This ebullient, heartfelt concerto rapidly became one of the most popular works in classical literature. We regard it as a masterpiece because of its innate lyricism and direct emotional appeal. Its themes flow so organically from one into the next that it becomes difficult to pinpoint their boundaries. Tchaikovsky benefitted from his collaboration with Kotek, producing music that is “user-friendly” both for the soloist and for the listener. That is not to say the concerto is without its difficulties! Despite its largely lyrical cast, the first movement is crowned by an extremely challenging cadenza that prickles with an array of technical fireworks. 

The mood relaxes for the Canzonetta, as Italianate in flavor as its title implies. Simple, heart-on-the-sleeve music and a splendid transition leads to the rondo-finale. As a finale, it has everything: unforgettable melodies, drama, tenderness and flashy brilliance. 

 The Background: A Passionate Love Letter  

In mid-May of 1877, Tchaikovsky received a letter from a young woman named Antonina Miliukova who declared that she had loved the composer. Tchaikovsky replied kindly but cautiously, intimating that she had poured her heart out with excessive emotion. Two more letters from Antonina followed within days making clear that her infatuation was undiminished. Tchaikovsky was torn. He was a gay man in a society where same-sex activity was illegal. One of his close friends had married earlier that year, and Tchaikovsky was considering marriage, but to whom? Antonina’s appearance in his life solved that conundrum but ultimately presented many more problems.  

 A Hasty and Doomed Marriage  

First, he called on Antonina in her home. “It seemed to me now as though some force of fate was driving me to this girl,” he wrote to Baroness Nadezhda von Meck, who had just become his patron and pen pal.  

My decision [to marry] was supported by the fact that the sole dream of my 82-year-old father and all my relatives is that I should marry. And so, one beautiful evening, I went to my future wife, told her openly that I did not love her but that, whatever befell, I would be a staunch and grateful friendHaving lived 37 years with an innate aversion to marriage, it is very distressing to be drawn through force of circumstances into the position of a bridegroom who, moreover, is not in the least attracted to his bride.

He proposed in May, and they married on July 18, 1877. Not surprisingly, the marriage was a disaster, and the honeymoon short-lived.  

Tchaikovsky took refuge in travel. After several months of wandering, in March of 1878, he settled for some months in Clarens, a favorite spot in Switzerland. He had been amusing himself by working daily on a new piano sonata and sometimes breaking from that task to take lighter musical exercise in a solo piano miniature. 

 Inspiration From a Visiting Violinist Friend 

Then from Berlin came a visitor: his good friend the Russian violinist Josef Kotek (1855-1885). Eager to explore new repertoire, Kotek brought with him to Clarens a stack of piano/violin works. Among them was a reduction of Edouard Lalo’s Symphonie Espagnole. Tchaikovsky was quite impressed with the Lalo, writing glowingly to Madame von Meck of it. His biographer David Brown has suggested that the French piece may have directly inspired Tchaikovsky to turn to a major violin work of his own. 

At any rate, he clearly wished to take full advantage of Kotek’s violin expertise and set aside work on the unfinished piano sonata to pursue a new project. Sketches for a violin concerto were complete by the end of March in 1878. Tchaikovsky orchestrated with lightning speed, completing the manuscript on April 11. Eventually, he redid the slow movement altogether at the joint suggestion of his brother Modest and Kotek. The rejected slow movement was later salvaged as Meditation and incorporated into the Op. 42 pieces for violin and piano. 

More than one scholar has lamented the adverse impact of the marriage and its aftermath on Tchaikovsky’s creativity. Posterity owes a debt to Kotek that he was able to provide the necessary spark in this period. It is clear that due to this creative spark and Tchaikovsky’s feverish pace in composing the Violin Concerto, the composer was able to produce one clear masterpiece from his time of travel.  

 Instrumentation: woodwinds in pairs, four horns, two trumpets, timpani, solo violin and strings. 


Symphony No. 2 in D, Op. 43

Jean Sibelius

Born December 8, 1865, in Tavastehus, Finland | Died September 20, 1957, in Järvenpää, Finland

The Finnish composer has been variously described as late Romantic, Expressionist, nationalist, spiritual mythologist and futurist. Partly because he enjoyed such a long life and fruitful career, his style evolved and altered, lending some credence to all the aforementioned categories.  

Sibelius’ reputation rests primarily on his seven symphonies and a series of orchestral tone poems. Many of the second group are based on the Finnish national epic, the Kalevala–a series of legends and folk tales.  

Early in Sibelius’ career, particular composers influenced him more than others including Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Ludwig van Beethoven. From Alexander Borodin and Tchaikovsky, his style derives a sense of fantasy from one and a sense of emotional openness from the other. Orchestral expansiveness came from both of them.  

The Second Symphony, which was composed in 1901 and 1902, is the most popular symphony by Sibelius perhaps because of its frankly nationalistic stance. He had a remarkable ability to observe nature and translate his observations into music. He succeeded admirably in the Second Symphony, which overflows with pastoral elements that celebrate his native land. The opening triplets of the first movement are pastoral, and so is the second theme. An oboe solo in the scherzo with its famous repeated B-flat is an obvious reference to a bird call. 

However, the success of the Second Symphony does not hinge solely on its joyous, expansive mood. In fact, Finnish conductor and composer Simon Parmet refers to Sibelius in this work as being “in one of those rare moods in which he is in complete harmony with the external world.” Sibelius forged a healthy balance of pastoral elements with intense drama, the latter particularly in the second and fourth movements. 

Another fine stroke is his transition from the third to fourth movements. He fuses scherzo and finale together by repeating the trio section and letting it unfold gradually into his finale. The transition is ingenious, organic and thoroughly convincing. Music scholar Burnett James has written: 

The finale is a fine paean of praise and strength, a sturdy affirmation of life and vitality…The force of nature is given full rein. The winds howl and roar; the tuba emits prodigies of elemental energy; strings scurry and swirl; and once again, the great ostinato pedal points in the orchestra hold the foundations firm. 

 Instrumentation: the score calls for two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, bassoon, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones (third doubling bass trombone), tuba, timpani and strings.  


Program Notes by Laurie Shulman ©2022

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