2017 Blossom Music Festival
August 26 – Saturday at 8:00 p.m.
Violin Concerto in A minor, Opus 53
Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904)
At a Glance
Dvořák composed his Violin Concerto between July and September 1879, subsequently revising it over the next three years. The first performance was presented on October 14, 1883, in Prague, with violinist František Ondříček; Moric Anger conducted the Czech National Theater Orchestra. The score was published with a dedication to Joseph Joachim, who had suggested revisions to the work. The United States premiere was given by violinist Max Bendix and the newly-founded Chicago Orchestra under Theodore Thomas’s direction on October 30, 1891.
This concerto runs about 30 minutes in performance. Dvořák scored it for 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and strings, plus the solo violin.
The Cleveland Orchestra first performed Dvořák’s Violin Concerto in January 1937, with soloist Ernö Valasek and music director Artur Rodzinski. It has been presented occasionally since then, most recently in January 2015, when concertmaster William Preucil played the solo part.
About the Music
Antonín Dvořák became one of the 19th century’s most cosmopolitan composers, and yet his early ascent to international fame coincided with a surge in Czech artistic nationalism. This “Cultural Revival” was in full swing by the 1860s, yielding Prague’s first Czech-language theater and the beginnings of a national operatic tradition. The growth of a Czech-speaking middle class reinforced the role of music as an expression of localized identity.
Still, the movement toward palpable and popular feelings of Czech-ness arose in a world dominated by German convention. Bedřich Smetana, “father of Czech music,” had fallen under the spell of Richard Wagner and Franz Liszt, appropriating a Romantic notion of nationalism as he built the country’s own modern school.
Dvořák lived in a world dominated by Johannes Brahms, whose music — built in traditional forms and largely without storytelling within the music — was seen in opposition to the more passionate musical tales of Wagner and Liszt. To Brahms’s formalism, Dvořák added native folklore (storytelling), along with folk rhythms and scales, as a way of fostering a Czech tradition both independent and forward-looking.
The two — Brahms and Dvořák — became aware of each other’s music sometime in the 1870s. In fact, it was upon the recommendation of Brahms that Dvořák began his relationship with the German publisher Simrock, who accepted Dvořák’s Moravian Duets and commissioned the first set of Slavonic Dances.
Dvořák’s strong Czech identity continued to express itself in subsequent works, including the Slavonic Rhapsody, Czech Suite, and — as we will see — the Violin Concerto. He also had no qualms about expressing his allegiances in personal exchanges. When Simrock insisted on printing his first name as the Germanicized “Anton,” the composer was moved to reply: “May the nations never perish that possess art and represent it, however small they may be. . . . I simply wished to tell you that an artist also has a fatherland in which he must have a firm faith and for which he must have a warm heart.”
Shortly thereafter, in 1879, Dvořák began writing his Violin Concerto for Joseph Joachim, who had premiered Brahms’s Violin Concerto that same year. The violinist had also championed Dvořák’s String Sextet and E-flat String Quartet. Yet Joachim outright rejected the original score for the new concerto (the sketches for which were likely later destroyed).
“According to Mr. Joachim’s wish, I revised the whole concerto and did not leave a single bar untouched,” Dvořák wrote to his publisher in 1880. His efforts did little to convince Joachim, who responded to the composer two years later: “I still do not think the Violin Concerto in its present shape to be ripe for the public, especially because of its orchestral accompaniment, which is still rather heavy.” Although Joachim would later perform the work at the conservatory in Berlin where he served as director, it was Dvořák’s friend František Ondříček who gave the world premiere at the Prague National Theater in 1883.
While the concerto’s heroic nature speaks to the influence of Brahms, Dvořák openly flouts formal conventions, favoring rich, inventive lyricism and folk rhythms. The violin enters in the first movement’s opening Allegro without any orchestral exposition. The nearly improvisatory nature of its melody contrasts with the thunderous introduction by the full orchestra. Despite a hint of sonata form as the orchestra’s material returns as a kind of counter-theme, a free sense of melodic development dominates the musical structure, with the violin playing more or less non-stop. A second dance-like theme is introduced in major mode to counterpoint with the oboe — a moment of unusually light orchestration — but it isn’t long before the violin has launched into a variation of the orchestra’s furious opening theme.
After a brief cadenza-like passage scored against a distant horn, the soloist dips below the woodwinds in a bridge that leads directly to the slow second movement — one of the structural features Joachim criticized. The violin, having surreptitiously modulated into F-major, plays an elegiac line against atmospheric winds. A second, darker theme in D minor makes a brief appearance but dissolves into soothing arpeggios soon thereafter. The mood wavers in and out of profound melancholy as the violin carries out its plaintive song.
The lively finale third movement takes the form of a furiant dance in sonata-rondo form (a structure of variations) while incorporating folk melodies foreign to the triple meter. The main theme is accompanied by different orchestrations with each episode, from parallel high strings in its first appearance to violins and cellos imitating the Czech dudy, or bagpipes, with drone-like open fifths. A duple-time dumka in D minor, opened with the oboe playing in parallel thirds, creates a bridge into the recapitulation, only to return briefly after the flute’s eerie echo of the main theme to usher the orchestra toward a triumphant close of four resounding A-major chords. —Rebecca Schmid © 2017