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Tschaikovsky's violin concerto op. 35:

The manuscript and other secrets

There is a good official edition of Tschaikovsky's violin concerto from the Sovjet times, made and commented by a comittee of eminent specialists: B.V. Asafiev, A.B. Goldenweiser, N.J.Myaskovsky, K.K.Sakva, G.N.Hubov as well as the notorious head of the composers association T.N.Chrennikov.

However I am fan of autographs. So much can be learnt from the character of the handwriting of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schumann. The autograph of the Tschaikovsky concerto is kept in Moscow in the Glinka state museum of music culture. The direction of the museum kindly provided a facsimile for us.

Studying the manuscript and the critical edition one finds that the solo-violin part is not written in Tschaikovsky's own hand. It probably was written by Kotek, the violinist who advised him during the composition. Also the metronome marks in the manuscript seem not to be written by Tschaikovsky. There are some deletions in the first movement (bars 123-126, 150-159, 300-303) but there is a handwritten note by Tschaikovsky saying that all these deletions are invalid. In bar 219 of the first movement the triplets of the first beat deviate from the former printed editions (b, c-sharp, d).

I often prepare repertoire and concerts with my amateur friends and sometimes I learn a lot from them. When I rehearsed the concerto at home with Dr. Magdalena Hamberger, a psychiatrist and astonishing piano player, she told me that the theme of the second movement “Canzonetta” has a striking similarity to the "Old French song", Nr. 16 in Tschaikovsky's childrens album op. 39 written shortly after the concerto. You can hear it on this link: . To find out more we consulted our friend Marc Hänsenberger from Musique Simili, a marvellous band specialising in French and Eastern European Folklore. Marc answered immediately, explaining that this is a traditional French song "Mes belles amourettes" and that it can be heard on Youtube sung by the sweet and charming Nana Mouskouri: . The text goes like this:

My beautiful love affairs

Where are you my beautiful love affairs?

Will you change location every day?

Since heaven so wills

That I regret my pain

I have to go to the woods

To speak about my loves

Where are you my beautiful love affairs?

Will you change location every day?

Will you change place a thousand times?

To whom shall I confess my torment

And my sorrows secret?

I have to go to the woods

Singing with a dying voice

Where are you my beautiful love affairs

Will you change place a thousand times?


Could Tschaikovsky have known this text? In fact from the age of four and a half he had a French Nanny: Fanny Dürbach, a 22-year-old governess originating from Montbeliard in Eastern France near Germany and Switzerland. She teached languages to Tschaikovsky and his siblings and by six he spoke French and German fluently. Tchaikovsky became very attached to this governess. Later they corresponded occasionally and he visited her in France towards the end of her life. So he might have heard this song from her and then could also have known the original text.

That this Canzonetta is indeed about secret longings is also mentioned in a letter of Mme. de Meck his friend and benefactor: "The Canzonetta is just wonderful. How much poetry and what longing is in these veiled and secretive sounds!" The sound is indeed veiled, because the solo violin plays con sordino and to bring out the character mentioned by Tschaikovsky one has to stay really in the piano, not blow it up to a nourishing mezzoforte as its so often heard.

A possible object of secretive longings could have been the violinist Josip Kotek (1855-1885) who had studied composition with Tschaikovsky in Moscow and to whom Tschaikovsky dedicated his famous Valse-Scherzo in 1876. As we know from Tschaikovskys letters from this time he was romantically but unsuccessfully attached to this young man. He used to call him Kotik (“kitten”). Yes, and as in todays Russia homosexual longings had to be kept very secret if one did not want to risk trouble.

The idea of a violin concerto was first mentioned by Kotek in a letter to Tschaikovsky. But when Tschaikovsky finally wrote it in 1878 his passion had already somewhat cooled down due to Koteks overwhelming interest in women and whores and the resulting Syphilis. The concerto was written while Tschaikovsky and Kotek both were guests in the house of Mme de Meck at Clarens near the lake of Geneva. Kotek certainly gave violinistic advice, he played the drafts and probably also wrote down the violin part in the manuscript.

Tschaikovsky considered to dedicate the work to his pupil, but then changed his mind maybe for fear of gossip or because of disappointed love. Be that as it may the dedication went to famous Leopold Auer, who however found the piece unplayable. The first performance was given 1881 in Vienna by Brodsky. Tschaikovsky dedicated the second printing to him and gave Brodsky his portrait with the inscription: "To the recreator of the violin concerto which has been considered impossible to play, from the grateful author".

However the influential Viennese critic Eduard Hanslick commented that this concerto "gives raise to the horrible idea that music can exist which stinks to the ear". Hanslick also wrote that "the violin was not played, but beaten black and blue", as well as labeling the last movement "odorously Russian"reminding of "the brutal and sad hilarity of a Russian parish fair“ full of "ugly and base faces“ and "raw curses“.

The aim of an authentic interpretation should of course be to recreate some of these first impressions.

And still a remark about vibrato: Dedicatee Leopold Auer, teacher of Jascha Heifetz, wrote in his book about violin teaching: “As a rule I forbid my students using the vibrato at all on notes which are not sustained, and I earnestly advise them not to abuse it even in the case of sustained notes which succeed each other in a phrase...” Therefore, if you want to play the Tschaikovsky in a historically informed way, you have to use the vibrato sparingly (Auer considered the concerto as unplayable, but anyway).

As for Kotek he reappeared in the life and work of Tschaikovsky: 1884 he fell ill with tuberculosis and went to a sanatorium in Davos in the Swiss alps. Upon Koteks wish Tschaikovsky visited him there shortly before his death in the same year. Under the impression of the menacing mountains and his dying friend he began to write his Manfred Symphony.

It would really make sense to assemble all the works inspired by Kotek in one concert: the Valse Scherzo, the violin concerto and the Manfred-Symphony, but curiously enough there was never a concert organiser interested in this idea!

It should be added that Kotek has played a decisive role in Tschaikovskys life because it was him who introduced him to Mme de Meck the generous benefactor who financed him for a long time until her own ruin.

I sometimes play this concerto in a costume honouring the memory of Tschaikovsky and Kotek (Design: Heinz Kohli).


Kotek with Tschaikovsky

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