This semester I have the opportunity to teach a really cool class at Oklahoma Baptist University; A class all about the violin! Last summer, as I was studying for my general exams I came up with the idea of teaching a class that focuses on some of the details of being a violinist that there just isn't time to discuss and talk about in lessons. There is so much fascinating information and beautiful music out there in this field and so little time to find it that I really feel an obligation to my students to pass on at least a small sliver of what I know. The more I studied for my exams the more I found this information coming up in my own lessons with my professor as well as lessons with my students. And truth be told I was kind of looking for an excuse to keep discussing the violin, researching it, listening to it, watching performances, reading about it, and absorbing it in any way possible. Talk about a violin nerd! I am confessing, right here, in print, to proposing a class purely so that I could continue to study something I love and maybe get a few others excited about it along the way.
This class is a whirlwind tour through some of the important stuff young violinists should know. Each month we focus on a different aspect of the field covering repertoire, composers, teachers, and performers. Given the chance, I could probably teach a class on each of these subjects because there is so much to discuss but I'll take what I can get.
During the month of February we are taking a look at (and a listen to) the incredible wealth of repertoire written for the violin. Granted, it is really hard to limit the information to just one hour a week so I thought I would just leave the leftover notes here for everyone to see (and for my students to hopefully read, listen, watch, take notes and eventually remember) and with any luck maybe someone else will find this stuff interesting too. The following are some general notes on the violin concerto throughout history.
The Concerto can loosely be defined as an instrumental work that maintains contrast between orchestral ensemble and a smaller group or solo instrument or among various groups of an undivided orchestra. Beginning in the 18th century the term was applied consistently to works in 3 movements, ordered fast-slow-fast, for soloist and orchestra, 2 or more soloists and orchestra (concerto grosso) or undivided orchestra. In the late 18th century and for most of the 19th century the solo concerto was a prominent form of virtuosic display. Before 1700 the term applied to pieces in a variety of forms for an even greater variety of performing media, voices and instruments. The violin was a popular choice in every era. It is highly virtuosic, projects well over an ensemble, is versatile and beautiful to watch and also to listen to. Yehudi Menuhin credits the popularity of the violin, and specifically the violin concerto, to its ability to still emotions in the listener and to tug at the heart strings of the audience. I completely agree! It is emotive yet technical simultaneously.
The concerto as a genre came into its own at the end of the 17th century. It was considered a progressive offshoot of the sonata, designed for performance with a string orchestra. It was around this time that the violin as we know it was born. Stradivarius, Guarneri, and several others were creating the impeccable instruments that we still admire and imitate today. Italy was alive with excitement for the violin and with the advent of such sublime instruments and a shifted focus, and attention to instrumental music the violin became immensely popular.
In Italy there were 2 primary centers when it came to composition. Rome and Venice. At the head of the Roman tradition sat Archangelo Corelli. In Venice Antonio Vivaldi was considered the master. The Roman approach to the early concerto, specifically credited to Corelli used a small group of soloists - typically 2 violins, cello or lute and continuo - accompanied by a larger string ensemble. This was known as a concerto grosso. Corelli's Op. 6 consists of 12 Concerto Grossi. They are beautiful and lush and still quite popular today. These pieces are accessible to performers of all abilities, as is much of Corelli's music and can be heard regularly on student recitals and in Baroque ensemble performances. It was actually Torelli, another composer from the Roman tradition, and not Corelli however, who is credited with writing the first solo violin concerto. Corelli and his fellow Roman composers used the movement order slow-fast-slow in trio sonatas, concerti grossi, and solo concerti and his style is not nearly as extravagant or showy as Vivaldi's.
In Venice, Vivaldi introduced an exciting and new musical language full of strong effects like orchestral unisons, virtuosic solo lines and lyrical moments that offset the high speed dexterity. The virtuosity of his solo lines set a new standard in violin repertoire as did his ordering of movements fast-slow-fast. As a teacher and performer he wrote hundreds of concerti for all types of occasions and instrumentation. The rise of the concerto also coincided exactly with music publishing in Europe. Therefore the influence of Vivaldi and Corelli was far reaching and their style and trends spread across Europe quickly. Venice was the center for commerce and printing at the time and Vivaldi, known as the 'Red Priest' was highly sought after during his lifetime. After his death his music waned in popularity and it was not the late 18th century that it garnered acclaim again. Now, The four seasons, is some of the most popular and most recorded violin music in history.
The concerto as a genre spread quickly across Europe. Many Italian composers and violinists moved around and worked in courts all across Europe. In Germany Vivaldi was highly imitated by the likes of J.S. Bach, Telemann, Pisendel and many others.
The Baroque concerto was extremely important for several reasons. It served as a massive stimulus for violin technique; There were huge virtuosic advancements in the repertoire and the conception of the instrument changed dramatically. It also served as a vehicle for new performers and consequently bridged the gap between amateur or 'rank and file' musicians and virtuosos offering them a stage to perform on together. And most importantly it raised the profile and reputation of instrumental music substantially so that it soon rivaled opera and in popularity.
By the mid 18th century the solo concerto had basically taken over and the concerto grosso fell out of favor. The solo concerto was widely cultivated all over Europe. Each region added their own particular traits. In France works for violin were immensely popular. Leclair, and Gaviniés wrote many, and Viotti (who wrote 19 violin concertos) became the most important figure of the later violin tradition. Very little of this repertoire is still performed or taught today. Gavinies études are taught regularly for their technical challenges but I have never heard one of his concertos performed. Concerto No. 23 in G major by Viotti however is taught regularly to intermediate students in preparation for the transition into more serious repertoire. In fact, Joseph Silverstein once said in a masterclass that students should always learn to play Viotti before they attempt Mozart because there are important violinistic skills to be learned in them and it is an excellent place for one to sharpen their teeth in preparation for the repertoire to come.
In the German tradition the Mannheim court really paved the way for virtuosic performing and composing with the abundance of highly skilled performers. Increasingly they made use of what is now known as sonata form, and often used a Rondo to organize the last movement. Johann Stamitz and his sons Carl and Anton were highly respected musicians and their music is still performed today - although admittedly more so on viola than on violin.
When we think of Classical music and specifically the classical concerto Mozart and Haydn immediately come to mind. Their music was instrumental in shaping the following generations. Mozart wrote five concertos for solo violin, three of them are still widely performed and are often requested at orchestral auditions because of the high technical level required to play them well. He also wrote sinfonia concertante for violin and viola, a spruced up version of a concerto grosso. In Mozart's music you can hear the influence of opera and the highly virtuosic solo lines are no longer accompanied by simple orchestral parts but instead the orchestra takes on a much more important role and the parts become more demanding. Rather than just accompanying the soloist the orchestra takes part in a growing dialogue. In class we talked specifically about the 5th concerto in order to highlight some of the 'Turkish' or Eastern trends that were beginning to seep into classical music. Mozart's last violin concerto is arguably his most popular and perhaps most interesting due to the shifts in meter, key and feel particularly in the last movement. You can hear the more central role of the orchestra as well as the interplay between major and minor in the last movement below.
In the 19th century the concerto was considered a pivotal and defining form in musical culture. By 1800 it was the synthesis of past traditions tracing back to the Baroque era and was also ideally situated to best express the ambitions inherent in early romanticism. Composers toyed with the dynamic of soloist versus ensemble. This is when it gets really interesting! There are so many fantastic pieces written in this era - the violin was so versatile and could express a whole range of emotions and the soloist was seen as a dramatic protagonist pitted against the orchestra. The concerto as a genre was also able to maintain the structural coherence that made it so successful. Due to the popularity of public concerts it was also an excellent arena for one to further their career as a soloist and virtuoso. Composer performers used the genre to highlight their abilities and flaunt their talent while showcasing the sonority and expressive range of the instrument. There were also conservatories, such as the Paris Conservatory where excellent violin faculty composed pieces for students as examinations and as technical exercises. And finally, composers who were not violinists by trade tried their hand at writing in the genre. Symphonists, and pianists who were never known as great violinists wrote highly technical and extremely demanding repertoire in this genre for the first time, and the performance of these pieces required a violinist of extreme ability to perform and premier their works. At this point I am tempted to just list off my favorite pieces, those still taught, ones I had never heard of and everything in between. Instead I will do my best to outline a few sub categories and explain which are the most beloved, wish me luck!
Many, many concerti were written for all sorts of reasons but by 1880 there were 3 distinct types of concertos found. Many had elements from all three. They were the virtuoso concerto, the symphonic concerto and the narrative concerto.
the virtuoso concerto - this subgenre flourished in the 1820s and onwards. It was the preferred vehicle for displaying the full range of the instrument. The orchestral writing was minimal and served only to provide a helpful framework to the soloist. A 3 movement form ensured that the performer would have ample time to display the velocity, dexterity, grace, accuracy, intimacy of expression and power and profundity available on the violin. Paganini's 6 concertos serve as an outstanding example of every technical feat the violin had to offer although the output of Vieuxtemps and Wieniawski certainly cannot be ignored. The Paganini concertos are impressive to hear and also to watch. One can't help but react to the firework displays captured on the violin. You can also hear the influence of Bel Canto opera in his musical style - the ever so flashy vocal style adored all over Europe. This video is great because you see some impressive close ups. I certainly watch and exclaim 'Wow!' when I see Paganini played well!
the symphonic concerto - this genre developed as a reaction to all of the flashy showmanship of the virtuosic concertos. It progressed on the same lines as symphonies did and the orchestra played a major role in these pieces. They are often very long, dense and musically demanding by all involved. The Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Saint-Saëns, and Brahms violin concertos are all examples of this genre. They are formally progressive, highly expressive and virtuosically demanding but specifically to serve the music rather than showcase the performer. They tend to be very long, melodically driven and harmonically interesting. Usually I prefer to watch a great performer on youtube rather than the notes of the score, but below you can see the Saint-Saëns violin part and get a feel for the musicality and virtuosity involved in these 'anti virtuoso' concertos.
the narrative concerto - by means of Liszt's innovations and the early romantic pursuit of instrumental music as a medium through which the poetic, epic and dramatic could be expressed these concertos often had a very specific agenda. Sometimes they were just one movement long, others were trying to capture a certain flavor or even tell a story. Lalo's 'Symphonie Espagnole' falls in this category (incidentally this piece was highly influential on Tchaikovsky when he wrote his own violin concerto a short while later). You can really hear the spanish flair he was trying to capture on the violin. It becomes the central feature of the piece - each of the 5 movements is full of character.
obviously this does not come close to covering all of the fantastic repertoire out there. But, again, to prevent myself from just writing lists of music and inserting a plethora of videos this is my brief overview.
The Big 5
There are five violin concertos considered to be the pinnacle of the genre; the most mature and difficult to perform, interpret and endure. They are masterpieces, adored not just by violinists but by the whole world. They are used in movies and appear on orchestra season programs regularly. I adore each of them and for many years they were the pieces I aspired (and still do) to play. The technical demand one must have on their instrument is cause for celebration itself let alone the musicianship and endurance, focus and concentration. So enjoy them and appreciate the years or work and dedication that you hear when one of these is performed. They are:
Beethoven Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D major, Op.61 (1806)
This one might be the very pinnacle of violin playing. If you can play this, and do it well you are most likely a professional with years of training....or you are insanely talented and either have a blossoming career or will have one soon. Everyone wants to play this one, and few want to teach it. It is almost religious to hear some violinists talk about this piece. So clean, pure and challenging. The fact that it is an hour long means you have to eat some protein before you even get started! To keep your head in the game for that long is exhausting. Not to mention the technical feats to be accomplished along the way It was premiered and then forgotten for many years and from what I have read the premier was absolutely dreadful. The soloist sightread portions of the work onstage, the orchestration is often dense and again it is LONG! The concerto was not met with wide success or interest for many years until Joseph Joachim discovered it and popularized it. There are now numerous cadenzas written for it - the most popular being the one written by Fritz Kreisler (heard in this video).
Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in E minor Op. 64 (1845)
I love this piece! Ok, I love them all but this one I have studied intensely and just can't seem to get enough. Mendelssohn does a few unusual things formally - the soloist starts the piece. He does away with the orchestral introduction, he also composes the cadenza rather than letting the performer use it as an excuse to show off he uses it structurally to return to the primary material of the first movement. He also composes all movements to act as one long piece, each movement moves directly into the next. Mendelssohn consulted with his good friend Ferdinand David about performing this piece, editing it, and the expressive markings and Ferdinand David gave the premier of this piece. One of my teachers referred to this piece as 'Mozart on drugs' and I definitely see where she is coming from. It has all of the clean, classical, refinement of a Mozart concerto with all of the demands of a romantic, significant concerto of the 19th century.
Brahms Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 77 (1878)
When I was in high school I bought a recording of Hilary Hahn playing this concerto and listened to it at least once per day for a full semester. The fire and flair that the violinist bursts on the scene with is so exciting! The energy is right there, tangible even through a recording! The second movement is such a gorgeous melody, and cleverly Brahms gives a massive solo to the oboe. This was borderline scandalous but extremely successful. It was dedicated to and premiered by Brahms' dear friend Joseph Joachim who insisted on performing the Beethoven Concerto alongside it at the premier - talk about a marathon! The last movement is used in the film There will be Blood at the very end (I believe when the credits role).
Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 35 (1878).
Written in Switzerland while Tchaikovsky was on vacation. He is said to have been charmed by Lalo's Symphonie Espagnole which was all the rage in Europe at the time. He wrote it rather quickly and intended for Leopold Auer to premier it, but instead Adolf Brodsky did the honors. It was not met with positive reviews. Auer was apparently not fond of it from the beginning and declined the offer and the dedication. He never really changed his song on this but he has feigned regret for not honoring Tchaikovsky's request. Comments from the premier include remarks regarding the violin being beat black and blue, others said it was long and pretentious but it has clearly grown in popularity since the premier and is now one of the most loved concertos in the repertoire. You can hear Tchaikovsky's style everywhere - the combination of grace and drama from his work in ballet is completely tangible throughout.
Sibelius Violin Concerto in D minor Op. 47 (1904)
This is the only concerto Sibelius ever wrote. The beginning always makes me think of a cold, snowy ride through the woods in a carriage with snow falling all around you. There were 2 premiers of this piece and it exists in 2 editions. The second edition is the most popular and most played. The first edition was considered too difficult and was heavily revised. Recently, Leonidas Kavakos was granted permission to record it, and I really would like to hear them played back to back. It was premiered originally by Nováček in Helsinki and later in Berlin with Richard Strauss conducting and William Burmeister performing. It is another great concerto where the soloist makes their entrance almost immediately in. In high school I used to say 'I can't stop playing the violin until I can play the sibelius violin concerto'.....and I still haven't learned this beast yet. But I still do love it just as much!
In the 20th century the violin concerto tended to serve this musical needs and requirements of the composer in a different way. Berg wrote a fantastic concerto, but it is difficult and wonderful because of its use of the 12-tone system. Similarly minimalist composers used the genre as another outlet for their aesthetics or it was often only written when commissioned or requested by particular performers. Nevertheless, the violin concerto is still incredible to witness in performance, to study in school and listen to ALL OF THE TIME.
A few of my favorites from the 20th century include -
The Khachaturian violin concerto in D minor (1940) - Premiered by Oistrakh
The Korngold violin concerto in D major (1945) Premiered by Heifetz.
Shostakovich Violin concerto No. 1 in A minor Op. 99 (1967) Premiered by Oistrakh
This was a lengthy post - but I hope at least a little bit interesting. Leave some comments! What are your favorites?