Friday, August 1, 2014

Dvořák - Violin Concerto In A Minor

Antonín Dvořák composed only three concertos for solo instrument and orchestra. The first was the Piano Concerto In G Minor composed in 1876, a work that has taken many years for any kind of regularity of performance and it is still rare to hear the work in concert. The last concerto was the Cello Concerto In B Minor written in 1894, the most popular of all three concertos. In between was the Violin Concerto In A Minor, a work that was finished in its first version in 1879.

Dvořák had met the violinist Joseph Joachim in early 1879 through their mutual friend Johannes Brahms. Joachim had played Dvořák's chamber music and commissioned him to write a concerto for violin.  Dvořák busied himself with the work and took the initial sketches of the concerto with him to Berlin when he visited Joachim. The violinist suggested some changes in the work, and Dvořák sent Joachim the revised work in November of 1879. No other correspondence between the two survives, but Dvořák was once again in Berlin in April 1880 and Joachim gave him his opinion of the concerto. Once again, Dvořák took Joachim's criticisms to heart and revised the work, which he sent to Joachim in late May of 1880.

It wasn't until 1882 that Joachim sent Dvořák a letter requesting more revisions and technical changes to the solo part to make it more performable. Joachim invited Dvořák once more to Berlin for a consultation, where in September of 1882 the composer and violinist played through the work. According to Dvořák:
I played the violin concerto with Joachim twice. He liked it very much, and Mr Keller, who was present as well, was delighted with it. I was very glad that the matter has finally been sorted out. The issue of revision lay at Joachim’s door for a full two years!! He very kindly revised the violin part himself; I just have to change something in the Finale and refine the instrumentation in a number of places.
Joseph Joachim
But that wasn't the end of the matter.  The Mr. Keller mentioned in the above quote was the musical advisor for Dvořák's publisher Simrock, and he suggested that changes be made to the structure of the concerto as well as advising cuts be made. Dvořák went along with some of the cuts but refused to change the structure of the concerto. In the end his publisher relented and published the score.

The premiere of the concerto took place in Prague in October of 1883, four years after Joachim had first encouraged Dvořák to write it, and the soloist at the premiere was not Joachim but František Ondříček, a young Czech violin virtuoso, who worked with the composer for two months on the work. And despite Joachim's interest, consultation and suggestions for the work, he never performed the piece.

The concerto is in three movements:

I. Allegro ma non troppo - The orchestra plays a short, powerful introduction, after which the soloist plays the first theme.  The orchestra modulates and repeats a few bars of the introduction before the soloist continues the first theme. The orchestra comments on the theme and expands it with different material until the violin again states the theme and begins to develop it. The soloist then plays the second theme in the key of C major, the parallel major key to the home key of A minor. This theme is also expanded upon, until hints of the first theme lead to the first theme's full return. There is then a short section that cuts off the theme and leads directly to the second movement. Dvořák essentially does away with the traditional sonata form of exposition, development, recapitulation by altering the exposition section and doing away with the development and recapitulation sections altogether and segues into the slow movement. This is one of the structural issues that Mr. Keller tried to change as he wanted the first and second movements to be separate.

II. Adagio ma non troppo - Written in F major, the first theme is played by the soloist and dominates  the movement. Dvořák writes music of a vocal quality for the soloist and the movement gives needed contrast from the passionate first movement. There is a more dramatic second theme that appears a few times, but it's interruptions are brief and are gently brushed aside by the return and expansion of the first theme. Dvořák's gift for melody shines in this movement that is relatively long but never lacking in interest or beauty, so much so that this movement was sometimes played without the first and last movements as a stand-alone piece. As the end approaches, horns play a fragment of the theme as an accompaniment to the soloist.

III. Finale: Allegro giocoso ma non troppo -  The movement is in A major and begins immediately with the main theme which sounds like something Mendelssohn may have written if he had been a Czech. Dvořák's fondness for the rhythms of his native dance the furiant is played throughout with tripping syncopations.  and 3 versus 2 cross rhythms characteristic of Czech folk music.  A contrasting section takes on a 2/4 time signature and a minor key as a dumka, another Czech folk dance, is played that is characterized by a very interesting part for soloist played over a 3 versus 2 cross rhythm. After the dumka plays out, the main theme reappears and takes the concerto to its conclusion.

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