In April, I will be performing Dvorak’s violin concerto with the San Francisco Civic Symphony. I’ve had a strange relationship with the work, though my current study of the concerto has solidified my care for it.
When I was a tot, I listened to Dvorak on the car tape player as I was driven to music lessons a couple hours away from home, in Canada. I would always request the Dvorak tape, with many to choose from in a series we had of ‘Classical music for dummies.’
I wonder how many hundreds of hours I heard Dvorak’s works? I can vividly recall the excerpts of his overtures and the ‘From the New World’ Symphony, in particular.
I came to the violin concerto quite late in life. In fact, it was the last in the twelve or so major concerti that I would learn.
If memory serves correct, I chose to learn it for the Thibaud violin competition some time in the mid 2000s, but I never got far enough in that match to present it. I think I resented the work for ten years because of that — or free-associated it with something sour, at least.
So, with some dismay, when it was chosen over other works for the upcoming concerto performance, I was unjustly dreading it, but after an hour with the piece in the practice room, I fell in love with it.
About the piece
There’s little known about Dvorak’s violin concerto, the only one he wrote for the instrument. His 10th string quartet, the ‘Slavonic,’ was composed around the same time in 1878/79, so it’s a helpful piece to accompany the concerto when considering it.
We do know the concerto was written with the eminent violinist Joseph Joachim in mind. Dvorak’s hero & mentor, Johannes Brahms, probably facilitated the two to eventually meet, and a back-n-forth exchange between composer and violinist lead to its current state, which Dvorak was eternally grateful.
Joachim had a reading of the concerto with orchestra, but never premiered it. There are criticisms Joachim held which may have shortened his dedication with it, though nobody knows the exact reason for not championing it like he did other concerti. What we do know is Joachim found the work’s structure to be too unorthodox for his tastes, claiming that it didn’t adhere to the strict classical concerto form.
It could be said that with such a truncated 1st movement — having no tutti offering of neither exposition nor recapitulation — the lack of cadenzi, etc., Joachim was justified in his critique.
But compared to other concerti that would come out of Europe around the same time, Dvorak’s work is fairly in step with what we can expect from a classical concerto.
Memories like perfume
If you spend enough time with a piece, you get a vague sense for the composer. When I consider Dvorak, I like to think of him coming to America, settling in New York City for a spell: not unlike what I did. I spent a good deal of my life around his old lower-eastside neighborhood, in fact. But so it goes in NYC where history can be found everywhere.
Antonin hails from Bohemia, and my time in the Czech Republic is a fond memory. I was obsessed with taking a prize at a European music competition, and it was in the Czech Republic where I finally had the stars align for me.
How I came into my current fiddle, is yet another Czech story. I got wind of a family in Prague who made exceptional violins: I should seek them out, I was told. And so I did. After a lifetime of borrowing violins, I would finally own my first fiddle; a violin from Jan Špidlen of Prague.
There are many threads of Bohemia that I hold dear to my heart. From that cassette of Dvorak looping all through my early years, to the Bohemian violin I play on every day. It’s impossible to suppress my sentiments for Antonin Dvorak or his homeland when I play his music.