Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto, Op. 35, Méditation, Op. 42

Tchaikovsky, a musician of true European sensitivity

“ I was saeventeen years old when I made the acquaintance of an Italian voice master called Piccioli. He was the first person to take an interest in my musical talent. The influence which he acquired over me was enormous: even to this day I have not yet entirely outgrown his sphere of influence.”
These were the words of Tchaikovsky in his autobiographical essay of 1889, published by the German periodical Nord und Süd. He continued: “Consequently I became an enthusiastic admirer of Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti”. A few years later, in an interview to the New York Herald: he repeated: “ Up to this day I hear the melodies of Bellini with tears in my eyes”.
Shortly after, again in the autobiography, he describes his first encounter with Mozart: “ One beautiful day, very much without intention, I chanced to hear Mozart’s Don Giovanni. It came as a pure revelation to me. It is impossible for me to describe the enthusiasm, the delight, the inebriation which I was seized by. For several weeks I did nothing but play the opera through from the piano score; even as I fell asleep I could not part with this divine music, which followed me into my blissful dreams. As I said earlier, my love for Italian music still continues today, albeit with a much weakened intensity; I would compare this love to a beloved youthful memory. With Mozart, on the other hand, it is something quite different. Among the great masters, Mozart is the one to whom I feel most attracted; it has been so ever since that day and it will always remain like that.”
Tchaikovsky himself used these words to describe the musical imprinting he received when young, revealing his intense emotional response when encountering the music of other composers.
Another interesting and revealing side to his sensitivity shows through when he writes, just a little further on, of Beethoven: “From time to time, however, I would set about studying a Beethoven symphony. How strange! This music would make me feel sad each time and made me an unhappy man for weeks. From then on I was filled with a fervent desire to write a Symphony […]. However, I would then feel simply too much my ignorance, my complete inability to deal with the technique of composition, and this feeling brought me close to despair.”
All this happened before Tchaikovsky began to attend the Conservatory at St Petersburg and left his post as a government official at the Ministry of Justice. He recalls his relations with Anton Rubinstein, then Director of the Conservatory, as follows: “I felt profound veneration for him, and indeed it is quite difficult to escape the magical force of attraction which this brilliant artist and noble and generous man exerts on everyone who has the fortune of coming close to him. With all his energy, he encouraged me in my vocation, on the other hand this certainly did not prevent him from taking me to task now and then for my sympathy for the new tendencies and for my attempts to follow in the footsteps of Berlioz and Wagner.” Averse to any form of classification, Rubinstein wrote in his Gedankenkorb: “Russians call me German, Germans call me Russian, Jews call me a Christian, Christians a Jew. Pianists call me a composer, composers call me a pianist. The classicists think me a futurist, and the futurists call me a reactionary.”
This last sentence recalls the words of Tchaikovsky himself during an interview for the Peterburgskaja Žizn in 1892, when speaking of classification and of the contrast between the “New Russian School” (the ‘Mighty Handful’) and the “Conservative” faction (to which, according to certain sections of the press, he belonged): ” This division into parties is the result of a grotesque mixture of ideas and notions; it is an enormous hotchpotch which should now be consigned to the past once and for all”.
In his letter of August 1 1880 to Taneyev, who aspired to create an original Russian musical language to set against that of Western Europe, Tchaikovsky unequivocally clarified his feelings and convictions: “[…] It is impossible to undo history, and so if, thanks to Peter the Great, we fatally find ourselves at the tail-end of Europe, then we shall always remain in that position”. Again, referring to old Russian folk songs, he added: “I really appreciate the richness of the (musical) material aggregated by the muddy and suffering people, but we, that is those of us who make use of this material, will always process it in forms that have been borrowed from Europe, because, though we are Russian by birth, we are at the same time Europeans to a far greater extent, and we have assimilated their forms so greatly and deeply that, in order to tear ourselves away from them, we would have to force and constrain ourselves, and from such violence and constraint there cannot arise anything artistic.”
Tchaikovsky had now become the famed composer of memorable works, and these reflections were not abstract speculations. His maturity and awareness were never to impair his deep emotional involvement and enthusiasm for the music of other great composers; more than twenty years had passed since he had first listened to Don Giovanni, when he wrote, again to Taneyev: “The other day I played through one of my favourite works, Bizet’s Carmen, and I was once again inflamed with admiration. If I were able of writing anything serious, I would be charmed to undertake an article in which I would prove that Carmen, in spite of the author’s modest claims (he wrote it for the Opéra Comique, not for the Grand Opéra), is one of the most outstanding lyric works of our age.”
Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto is striking in its affinity with that of Mendelssohn, which seems to be the ideal model of such a work: as in Mendelssohn’s work, the soloist’s cadenza in the first movement comes just before the recapitulation, the second movement is linked to the third, and even the rhythmic pattern of the beginning of the finale is identical. Forty years later, Tchaikovsky also succeeded in maintaining the ideal magical equilibrium between the orchestral ensemble and the solo instrument which permeates Mendelssohn’s concerto.
We know that “Méditation”, published for violin and piano as Op. 42 no. 1, was conceived as the second movement of the concerto, but Tchaikovsky decided almost immediately to replace it with an Andante, which was more suited to the general proportions of the composition and which he called “Canzonetta”. This was a peculiar term, a highly unusual insertion in a work of such scope and, although it again evokes the link with Italy, it intrigues us and supplies valuable information on how we should best interpret it. Following this lead, we also find a movement entitled “Canzonetta” in a work by Mendelssohn, the quartet Op. 12, and, what is even more surprising, composed with exactly the same notes!
Both Mendelssohn and Tchaikovsky used the theme of a late 16th-century song known as “La Mantovana”, by Giuseppe Cenci, who also went by the name of Giuseppino del Biado. This song had become extraordinarily popular throughout Europe, and was not only quoted in cultivated works but also and above all it became a mainstay of popular music, accompanying very different texts (“My mistress is prettie” in Scotland, “Virgen de la Cueva “ in Spain, “El Canto de los Pajaros” in Catalonia, “Pod Krakowem” in Poland, “Fuchs, du hast die Gans gestohlen” in Germany, “Kocka leze dirou” in Bohemia, “ Kateryna Kucheryava” in Ucraine, and “Cucuruz cu frunza-n sus” in Moldavia). In the most remote corners of Europe, this melody was played and replayed, and was felt to be the most genuine expression of many national characters. Indeed, Smetana made it the main theme of “Moldava” in “Ma Vlast” (“My Country”) and Samuel Cohen adapted the Rumanian version in order to compose “Hatikvah”, which was later to become the national anthem of Israel.
Exalting by means of his genius this “Canzonetta” in the most intimate and meditative moment of his violin concerto, Tchaikovsky ideally embraced - in time and space, in passions and sentiments – that Europe towards which he felt filial gratitude, without for this reason feeling any less Russian.

Note on the orchestration of “Méditation”,
from “Souvenir d’un lieu cher”, Op.42
In composing his violin concerto, Tchaikovsky had written a first draft for violin and piano, and it was only after replacing the original second movement (Andante) with the “Canzonetta” that he started writing out the orchestral score. Thus, only the first version of the Andante for piano has remained. Two years later, Tchaikovsky decided to publish it under the title “Méditation”, the first of the three Pieces for Violin and Piano which make up “Souvenir d’un lieu cher” Op. 42.
It was therefore more than reasonable to propose this “Méditation” in a version for violin and orchestra, as this was the composer’s original intention.
Glazunov, a composer whom Tchaikovsky greatly appreciated and esteemed, published an orchestration of “Méditation” three years after Tchaikovsky’s death. Although this version must have seemed the most logical choice, a comparison with the original piano part shows that Glazunov’s work was not limited to an orchestral version, but was actually substantially rewritten in some – the evident result of a taste which was gaining ground. In Tchaikovsky’s method of composing and in general in his style, the classic musical phrasing involved alternating moments of greater and lesser tension, always reinforced or even defined by the harmony. Instead, Glazunov, who belonged to a later generation of musicians, followed a different concept and preferred to prolong the harmonic tension, almost unconsciously abandoning the moment of repose: an example may be found already at the fourth bar of the first phrase played by the soloist.
Whereas the original text shows that the violin alone plays the strong beat (a device already used extensively in the concerto), Glazunov fills up the pauses left by Tchaikovsky in the accompaniment, and even creates a new counter-melody by the horn. That is, he prefers to place - we could even say to confine - the soloist’s melody to a single context with the orchestra, although at the expense of its rhythmic, agogic vivacity.
Glazunov generally detaches himself from that orchestral transparency which we find in the concerto, favouring instead an almost dense instrumental texture, even when the function of the orchestra is simply that of harmonic support, or when the musical significance would require some kind of rarefaction of the sound. Instead, some interesting timbre solutions appear, recalling the characteristic orchestral writing used by Tchaikovsky in his symphonic poems and ballets.
These considerations prompted me to propose a new orchestration of the piano part of “Méditation” which, without relinquishing Glazunov’s valuable references to the orchestral style of Tchaikovsky’s works, aims at searching out and enhancing the precious expressive significance of his metric and harmonic conception by means of greater faithfulness to the original score.
Giovanni Angeleri