Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Music History Monday: Unplayable

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) in 1888
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) in 1888, looking rather older than his 48 years

We mark the premiere on December 4, 1881 – 142 years ago today – of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s one-and-only violin concerto, his Violin Concerto in D major.  It received its premiere in Vienna, where it was performed by the violinist Adolf Brodsky and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Hans Richter.

The concerto is, in my humble opinion, Tchaikovsky’s single greatest work and one of a handful of greatest concerti ever composed.   Yet its premiere in Vienna elicited one of the most vicious reviews of all time.

Unfortunately for him, Tchaikovsky was indeed one of the most over-criticized composers in the history of Western music.

(Just asking: do any of us like being criticized?  I think not, and please, let’s not dignify that oxymoronic phrase, “constructive criticism” by considering it seriously. I don’t mean to sound over-sensitive, but after a certain age – say, 25 – criticism of any sort, even if it is deserved [we’re talking to you, George Santos] is simply infuriating.)

Tchaikovsky was also one of the most over-sensitive people ever to become a major composer, which meant that the sometimes brutal criticism he received drove him to near madness.  (Regarding Tchaikovsky’s sensitivity, as a youngster, his governess called him “a porcelain child” so easily was his spirit chipped and cracked.)  Given Tchaikovsky’s emotional nature, and the fact that he was additionally – as a homosexual in Tsarist Russia – leading virtually a double life, well, we’ve got a prescription for a challenging emotional life.

Tchaikovsky and his “wife”, Antonina Milyukova, on their “honeymoon,” July 1877; Tchaikovsky appears genuinely shell-shocked, which in fact he was
Tchaikovsky and his “wife”, Antonina Milyukova, on their “honeymoon,” July 1877; Tchaikovsky appears genuinely shell-shocked, which in fact he was

Who Will Play My Concerto?

The actual composition of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto went smoothly.  However, the drama surrounding its first performance drove the poor, hysteria-prone dude to despair.  

Background.  In late February of 1878, Tchaikovsky arrived in Clarens, on Lake Geneva in Switzerland, where he and his “entourage” took up lodging at the Villa Richelieu.  Tchaikovsky was on the mend from his epically disastrous marriage to a frankly crazed former student of his named Antonina Milyukova. The marriage had lasted less than three months, from July 18 to October 7, 1877, at which time Tchaikovsky had a complete nervous breakdown and was spirited out of Moscow by his brothers.  

One of Tchaikovsky’s visitors there at Clarens was the violinist Yosif Kotek (1855-1885), a bi-sexual lover of Tchaikovsky’s.  Tchaikovsky and Kotek engaged in all sorts of activities there in Clarens – some of them even musical – and Tchaikovsky, feeling rejuvenated and inspired, sketched and orchestrated his entire violin concerto in under a month.

Tchaikovsky wanted to dedicate the concerto to Kotek – he really did – but he didn’t dare because he was terrified by the gossip he believed the dedication would inspire.  So instead, he dedicated it to a faculty colleague at the Moscow Conservatory, the then world-famous violinist Leopold Auer (1845-1930).  Politically, it was a savvy choice: Tchaikovsky knew that Auer’s fame would give the concerto the sort of caché that would ensure its success.

Leopold Auer (1845-1930)
Leopold Auer (1845-1930)

Sadly, Tchaikovsky’s plan blew up in his face when Auer pronounced that the solo part was “unplayable.” A mortified Tchaikovsky later wrote in his diary:

“Auer pronounced it impossible to play, and this verdict, coming from such an authority, had the effect of casting this unfortunate child of my imagination into the limbo of hopelessly forgotten things.” 

Hesitantly (sheepishly?), Tchaikovsky went back to Kotek and offered him the dedication and the premiere performance.  But Kotek, peeved that Tchaikovsky had approached Auer, not only told Tchaikovsky to make like a tree and leave but then also pronounced the piece to be unplayable (and this from someone who had played through every single note of it while it was being composed!).  

Truly, hell hath no fury like a violinist spurned.…

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