The violin concerto is one of the most enduring orchestral forms. The earliest known examples come from Italian composer Giuseppe Torelli as part of his Concerti musicali a quattro, Op. 6, dated 1698. The most recent is being written right now.
Torelli was also a violinist, a contemporary of Arcangelo Correlli, and with him, credited with pioneering the Baroque version of the concerto. In general, it’s a piece that features a solo instrument or small group of instruments with the accompaniment of an ensemble. It’s an ideal piece to showcase the violin and all of its colours and range; perhaps that’s one of the keys to its enduring popularity. Many violin concerti have been written expressly for a specific performer.
Early Baroque concerti incorporated three movements. The first movement is often fast, followed by a slower movement, and finished by a faster paced movement. A cadenza, or solo improvised section, is thought to have been included as early as some Baroque compositions, and made its way into the Classical era. Many modern composers have expanded the concerto to four movements.
Here’s a sampling that will take you from the form’s beginnings to its current state.
JS Bach: Concerto for Two Violins in D minor, BWV 1043 (1730)
The Concerto for Two Violins in D minor is often simply called the Double Violin Concerto. The exact date of its composition is not known, but scholars believe it was written during his Leipzig period, when Bach served as the city’s civic director of music. The piece was originally scored for continuo (or bass part) and strings, along with the two solo violins. Both soloists and the orchestra are drawn into a web of contrapuntal melodies.
In the video: David Oistakh, violin and Yehudi Menuhin, violin, with the Orchestre Chambre de l’ORTF, Pierre Capdevielle conductor, recorded live in Paris in October 1958.
Joseph Bologne: Violin Concerto in A Major, Op. 5 (1770)
Because of Napoleon, we know few details about the works of Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint Georges. After reinstating slavery in the French colonies, Napoleon ordered all of his works to be destroyed. It’s believed Bologne wrote his Violin Concerto in A major, Op. 5 in about 1770, during his early days in Paris. As a virtuosic player in his own right, we can only guess that he wrote it to perform himself.
In the video: Violinist Itamar Zorman performs the Israeli premier of the work with the Israel Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Ariel Zuckerman at a live performance at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, February 2022.
Beethoven: Violin Concerto No. 1 in D Major, Op. 61 (1806)
Beethoven’s only violin concerto was something of a flop at its premiere in 1806, as performed by Franz Clement. Possibly, it stemmed from the fact Clement was sight-reading, since Beethoven had only delivered the score at the last minute. It wasn’t until 1844, with Felix Mendelssohn conducting the London Philharmonic Society, and 12-year-old prodigy Joseph Joachim performing, that it would begin to see its revival into the orchestral staple it has become today.
In the video: Augustin Hadelich, violin, performs with the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, Matthew Halls, Conductor, on May 13, 2022.
Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto in E Minor, Op. 64 (1838-1844)
Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto is the last concerto he composed. It’s been popular since its premiere. The composer wrote it for violinist Ferdinand David, a friend of Mendelssohn’s. It took six years from its inception until the first performance in 1845. Today, it’s considered part of the quintessential Romantic repertoire.
In the video: Ray Chen performs with the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra and Maestro Kent Nagano live on February 28, 2015
Max Bruch: Violin Concerto No. 1 in G minor, Op. 26 (1866)
Bruch’s Violin Concerto is one of his most popular works. Bruch conducted its premiere with soloist Otto von Königslow in 1866. Subsequently, he made some modifications in collaboration with violinist Joseph Joachim, and the form we know today was completed in 1867, and premiered with Joachim as the soloist in 1868.
In the video: Hilary Hahn performs with the Frankfurt Radio Symphony, Andrés Orozco-Estrada conducting, in Frankfurt December 9, 2016.
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto No. 1 in D Major, Op. 35 (1878)
Depressed by his unfortunate marriage to Antonina Miliukova, Tchaikovsky had retreated to Lake Geneva, Switzerland, to work on his next piano sonata. Iosif Kotek, a composition student of Tchaikovsky’s, joined him there. The composer was inspired to write his violin concerto, and wanted to dedicate it to Kotek, who had helped him with rewrites, but worried about the way it would be perceived. He offered it to Leopold Auer, who rejected it. Eventually, it was premiered by Adolph Brodsky in 1881, where critics panned it.
In the video: An 18-year-old Maxim Vengerov performs the piece in Tokyo on June 30, 1993 with the Saint Petersburg Philharmonic and conductor Yuri Temirkanov.
Sibelius: Violin Concerto in D Minor, Op. 47 (1904)
The original version of Sibelius’ only violin concerto premiered in February 1904 in a performance by soloist Victor Novacek. The reviews were terrible, and the composer spent a year revising it. The original version was kept under wraps by Sibelius’ heirs until 1991, when it was first authorized for a single live performance, and a recorded version by Leonidas Kavakos and conductor Osmo Vänskä.
In the video: Soloist Elina Vähälä performs the original version of the concerto with conductor Hannu Lintu and the Finnish Radio Orchestra.
Alban Berg: Concerto for Violin (1935)
His violin concerto has become one of Berg’s best known and most performed works. It was commissioned by musician Louis Krasner, and Berg dedicated it to Manon Gropius, “to the memory of an angel”. Daughter of the architect Walter, and a muse of the composer, she had recently died of polio. It would be the last piece that Berg composed. Berg would die of blood poisoning from an insect bite in December of the same year. The piece premiered with Krasner as soloist in April 1936 in Barcelona.
In the video: Violinist Frank Peter Zimmermann with the Berliner Philharmoniker, Kirill Petrenko conductor.
Dmitri Shostakovich: Violin Concerto No. 1 in A minor, Op. 77 (1947-48)
As Shostakovich was working on his only violin concert in 1947 and 1948, he was also being denounced by the Soviet regime. Stalin himself had decried his opera Lady Macbeth back in 1936. However, the composer toiled on, even knowing that his work would not be performed in the foreseeable future. It was dedicated to violinist David Oistrakh, who worked with him and eventually premiered it in 1955 (after Stalin’s death).
In the video: Violinist David Oistrakh performs with the Staatskapelle Berlin, Heinz Fricke, conductor, in Berlin, 1967.
José Evangelista: Violinissimo (1992) Concerto for Violin & Orchestra (1992/1993)
Canadian composer José Evangelista’s Violinissimo was commissioned by the Valencia Music Institute for the Orchestra of Valencia. According to the composer’s own notes, he places the violin at the centre of the piece with a melody that underpins the harmonic structure, and is echoed by the orchestra. Evangelista uses the classic three-movement form consisting of: Acrobatic, Meditation and Vertiginoso.
In the video: Violinist Aaron Schwebel performs with the Esprit Orchestra, Alex Pauk, conductor, in November 2022 in Toronto.
Unsuk Chin: Violin Concerto (2001)
Unsuk Chin’s Violin Concerto is notoriously difficult. Chin was composer-in residence at the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester in Berlin when she wrote the piece. It was premiered by Viviane Hagner and the DSO in 2002 with music director Kent Nagano. Written in four movements, and with instrumentation that includes Javanese gong, marimbas and other percussive exotica, the concerto won the Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition in 2004.
In the video: Violinist Viviane Hagner performs with the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra, conductor Neil Thomson in May 2017.
Aaron Jay Kernis: Concerto for Violin (2017)
Pulitzer Prize- and Grammy Award-winning American composer Aaron Jay Kernis didn’t know who James Ehnes was when he was surprised by a commission from the BBC to write a recital piece for him. However, he was quickly won over by the Canadian violinist’s abilities. It led to an ongoing friendship, and the creation of his Concerto for Violin. He uses a traditional three-movement form, and in his notes, calls the last movement “fast, zippy, and hair- raisingly difficult.”
In the video: James Ehnes gives the world premiere of Aaron Jay Kernis’ Violin Concerto with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and conductor Peter Oundjian at Roy Thompson Hall on March 8, 2017.
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