Given Tchaikovsky's own sexual inclinations, it is unsurprising that the marriage was a complete disaster. After only a few weeks, finding his situation unbearable, he arranged to send his wife to Moscow while he traveled to several other cities to get away from her, remaining distant for over a month. But a reunion was inevitable, and after only a few days in Moscow he became so depressed that he waded into the icy river, hoping to catch pneumonia. When this failed, he prevailed upon his brother Anatoly to forge a telegram summoning him to St.Petersburg, where a doctor recommended divorce and a change of surroundings as the only solution. Less than two weeks later, Pyotr Ilyich departed on an extended journey to Berlin, Switzerland, and eventually Italy.
It was after he had returned to Switzerland in March of 1878 (just under a century after Mozart composed the ``Paris'' symphony) that Tchaikovsky began writing his violin concerto. He must have been full of ideas, for he wrote to von Meck that ``For the first time in my life I have begun to work at a new piece before finishing the one on hand... I could not resist the pleasure of sketching out the concerto, and allowed myself to be so carried away that the sonata has been set aside.''
At this point, however, the concerto encountered the obstacle that has faced so many virtuoso showpieces throughout history: it exceeded the abilities of the intended soloist, Leopold Auer. A second soloist, Yosif Kotek, attempted to learn it but dropped the project. After three years, Adolf Brodsky finally decided to play it with the famed Vienna Philharmonic. As was (and is) all too common, the reaction of public and critics alike was decidedly mixed, with enthusiastic applause eventually drowned out by boos. Naturally, the most passionately eloquent comments were reserved for the ``anti'' crowd. Most vicious of all was the famed and influential Eduard Hanslick, demolisher of many a career, who wrote:
The violin is no longer played, but torn apart, pounded black and blue... Friedrich Fischer... once said that there existed pictures one could see stink. Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto brings us face to face for the first time with the revolting thought: may there not also exist musical compositions that we can hear stink?
Such harsh criticism was very painful to the composer, and he never forgot the bad review, rereading it so often that he eventually memorized it. But even Hanslick could not stop the progress of music, and Brodsky soon repeated the work in London to great success. In subsequent years he and others championed it throughout the world, and today it is, with good reason, one of the most loved violin concertos ever written.
© 1998, Geoff Kuenning
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