Sadness. The feeling of being deeply hurt. Tragedy. The violin says it with a single, beautiful weeping melody. The violin – Julia Fischer. The piece – Dvorak’s Violin Concerto in A minor, Op. 53. The outlook seems bleak, no hope, only desolation and despair. And yet… sadness can be overcome. Towards the middle of the first movement, there seems to be a spark of light, a ray, a beam. The violin no longer cries or moans, but sings a sweet, consoling, a comforting tune…
Life is good, definitely, if I can listen to Julia Fischer – I venerate her, see my earlier post on Pablo Sarasate – and the orchestra of the Tonhalle Zürich playing this marvelous piece. If the third movement is the essence of the piece, we will find exuberant joy reminding me of Mozart’s “Exsultate, Jubilate” and a splendid triumph in the end even though the way to get there was a stony one.
A slow career start
Dvorak was a Czech composer (1841-1904) and wrote this piece within a few weeks between July and September 1879. His career was slow to start. He was born into an unsophisticated family, he was taught to play the piano, the organ and the violin at local schools and started to perform as a musician in 1857. At the same time he started advanced musical studies at the Prague Organ School, which he finished two years later. To earn his living he gave music lessons and performed as a viola player in different ensembles.
Secretly, he started to write songs and to compose an opera called “King and Charcoal Burner”. Unfortunately, during rehearsals the solo parts proved to be too difficult for the musicians and the performance was cancelled. It took several initiatives to obtain grants and a recommendation from the composer Johannes Brahms in 1877 to set Dvorak back on track. His works were now being published and performed. Dvorak wrote the violin concerto upon a suggestion by his publisher Nikolaus Simrock.
The long road to the final version
Dvorak switched composing styles several times and in 1879 he was largely inspired by Brahms and two fellow Czech composers we have already met, Bedrich Smetana and Leos Janacek. Oxford Music Online notes that he “turned to a new classicism, elements of Slavonic folklore begin to permeate his musical language”.
His Op. 53 was first performed in Prague on October 14, 1883. Dvorak intended to dedicate the concerto to Joseph Joachim, one of the most distinguished violinists at the time and the director of the Hochschule für Musik in Berlin. Dvorak and Joachim initially worked together on the piece, but Joachim did not like at all the first draft and insisted on major changes. Further changes were imposed by Simrock. Still, it is almost certain that Joachim never played the piece.
Besides the recording by Julia Fischer, there is an older recording by David Oistrakh and the State Orchestra of the USSR and if you like the muffled sound of old recordings, this Soviet record is one for your collection. I prefer the one with that fantastic lady from Germany!
© Charles Thibo