Tchaikovski's Concerto AND Auer

June 7, 2006 at 07:41 PM · I was reading through wikipedia and found a section on Tchaikovski's violin concerto, which was originally supposed to be dedicated to Leopold Auer. However in the blurb it said that its premier was delayed, because Auer refused to perform it, I just was curious as to why that was so.


Replies (32)

June 7, 2006 at 09:42 PM · Hi, Pete: The usual story is that Auer considered it "unplayable." But Auer was one of the greatest violinists of his era. It is unlikely that he actually couldn't play it. I read someplace (I don't remember where) that he considered it "unviolinistic," which is a different story. In any case, it took Tchaikovsky a couple of years to find someone who would tackle it, and that was Adolph Brodsky who first performed it and championed it. Auer later changed is mind and decided it was "playable" after all. He even made the cuts that are used to this day. And, of course, he taught it to his star pupil, Jascha Heifetz, who made a speciality of it.

Cordially, Sandy

June 7, 2006 at 09:48 PM · Perhaps he said this concerto "unplayable" because he thought he would take a long time to learn it...

I think great violinists refuse to learn some pieces written for them because they are aware they'll take a long time to master them. It could affect their reputation.

June 7, 2006 at 10:05 PM · Menuhin curse himself for having asked Bartok a

solo violin sonata, when he got the score.

June 7, 2006 at 10:18 PM · I find it ironic that Auer called the Tchaikovsky "unplayable" while the much more difficult (at least to me) Glazunov violin concert bears a dedication to Auer.

Then again, Glazunov worked in the same building as Auer did.

June 8, 2006 at 12:25 AM · Well the Auer comment could have been just out of modesty and reverence towards Tchaikovsky. Much like when Kreisler proclaimed, "We might as well break our violins over our knees," after hearing Heifetz play. I'm sure Auer could have played it, especially since he was the dedicatee of the Glazunov Concerto and premiered it in 1908, after the Tchaikovsky Concerto was written. Auer was obviously known for his teaching more so than his playing. Nevertheless Auer, I think, made the piece better and less repetitive with his revisions, especially in the last movement where it sounds like a broken record to play the chromatic scale passages as they are written in the original version.

June 8, 2006 at 03:50 AM · I think Sander is pretty much correct.

There is a letter from Auer (written many years after the concerto was premiered - you may be able to find it on the internet) in which he tries to explain his position on the concerto. He seems to have felt that there were certain parts that simply could not be made to sound right. This seems consistent with many of his alternatives, which are largely less astringent. Of course, when he wrote this, he may have had an axe to grind, since the concerto was, by then, popular.

This was also Hanslick's view (though he seemed to have more problems with that) in his famous review of the premier. His argument seems to be primarily that the piece is ugly.

One would also assume that Auer found the piece repetitious, since he recommended assorted cuts and, occasionally, rewrote sections that repeated figures without variation. Nowadays, with there being a mania for completeness, it seems everyone is playing the piece without the cuts (though some of Auer's alternatives have survived). But last year, I saw Elmar Oliviera play it with the cuts and many of Auer's alternatives (thankfully not those gratuitous tenths in the first movement!). Ten years earlier, he played it as written.

It used also to be that one would often hear cuts in the orchestra parts of the first movement -- before the middle section. This was often needed to fit the concerto on one side an LP, which held about 33 minutes of music and slower performances would take longer than that. Mischa Elman, though, always had the orchestra cut part of this section becuase he felt the only purpose it served was to modulate keys.

Lastly, there are a few violinists who made cuts that I don't think Auer sanctioned in the last movment. This included cutting the big orchestra cliamx at the end. This always puzzled me. Milstien did it in his 1940 recording (the fastest last movment I've ever heard). I thought it was a recording issue but he did the same thing on an LP in 1954. I think Rabin did it and maybe Gitlis. Other violinists have made other cuts in the last movment, including Huberman and Tibor Varga. Huberman did it in a live performance as well as his studio version, so I guess it was not dictated by the problems of recording on 78s.


June 8, 2006 at 07:26 AM · Sander, I like your explanation of Auer's famous remark. The Tchaik concerto is difficult, but not impossible, to play, but it is not very violinistic. In fact, I find that much of Tchaik's writing for violins in symphonies is not violin-friendly. I have read that Hanslick's review of the first performance of the Tchaik concerto included the statement "The violin is not played but rather beaten black and blue."

June 8, 2006 at 05:54 PM · Ironically Auer's revisions, in the piece, especially in the first movement, cadenza, and last movement cadenza made this piece actually more difficult.

June 9, 2006 at 01:19 PM · ...I believe that the refusal from Auer had more something to do with gossips about the sexual orientation of the composer than the technical challenges of the concerto... I agree that the Auer version is more difficult than the original( first movement).

June 9, 2006 at 05:08 PM · This may be slightly off the topic, but I am just starting this piece right now and seem to have hit a threshold in terms of getting some of the passagework up to full tempo. Done the rhythms, metronome work, slow work, all of it....any more tricks to get especially the 32nd-note passage work up to tempo? I seem to be stuck at just under tempo and can't break past it at the moment. hmm.

June 9, 2006 at 05:17 PM · Marc - interesting theory, but not very likely since he actully recorded the Tchaikovsky Melodie :)

June 9, 2006 at 05:43 PM · ...Mattias, it is not a theorie...The concerto was written in Switzerland a year after his desastrous marriage with one of his student...this is well featured by biographers and the gosseps at that time forced Tchaikovski to leave his country for a while...The fact that Auer recorded his Melodie 25 years later does not change anything...The concerto was written around 1878 and Tchaikovsky was severely juged by his entourage following his divorce...This is one of the reasons why maybe Auer refused to play the work...This was a huge scandal at the time...After, when the work became so famous, Auer was of course obliged to give a reasonable explanation...And his explanation does not make any sense to me...

June 9, 2006 at 06:13 PM · Read the PIANO PART, Jennifer Herrera.

The key to hitting the 32nd note runs in the Tchaikovsky concerto is to line them up properly with the orchestral "hits". If they do not line up, you're OFF (which is usually the case with modern day Tchaikovsky recordings).

Getting the rhythm correct is the first step toward doing the right speed. If violinists actually played proper rhythmic figures as written in the score, they'd be forced to slow their overall rhythms down to preserve the integrity of the meter.

June 9, 2006 at 06:21 PM · Marc: I'm not a Tchaikovsky scholar, but I've never heard that idea before. It does make sense, though.

It has always struck me as interesting that Adolph Brodsky chose Vienna for the premiere performance. He couldn't have picked a worse place. Hanslick and other German critics and musicians hated the Russian composers (and vice-versa). Hanslick especially disliked Tchaikovsky. There were as many boos as cheers at the premiere (from what I have read). When Tchaikovsky saw Hanslick's famous review ("beaten black and blue...stinks to the ear") a few days later he was mortified. I read that had that he never forgot every word of that review to the end of his life.

On the inspiring side, it took Tchaikovsky less than a month to write the concerto, his sunniest masterpiece. I can't even copy out all the notes in a month.

Cheers, Sandy

June 9, 2006 at 06:34 PM · Sander,

But later on, Brodsky and the concerto were a big big hit in London!And from then on, it became one of the audience's favorite!

June 9, 2006 at 08:47 PM · Marc: Yeah, he should have started in London.


June 9, 2006 at 09:08 PM · Marc, I find your theory very plausible and interesting. My question is, how was Tchaikovsky's 6th Symphony received? Was it premiered after his death or before? I recall reading this was his last composition, before he caught the epidemic going around. If the Pathetique was however well received from the very get go, I think perhaps that maybe might discount your theory about the concerto being not well liked due to his sexual practices. Auer's excuse to not play it just did not make sense, since later he made the piece harder with his revisions.

June 9, 2006 at 11:25 PM · Tchaikovski was the conductor of the premiere of his 6th symphony, but infortunately he was a bad one. The piece became popular not very long after his death.

June 10, 2006 at 03:43 AM · I've always thought it unfair that Auer be cast in the role of the bad guy for his "refusal" to play the concerto, as well as for his cuts and revisions, while Brodsky was the "hero". In Auer's autobiography, "My Long Life in Music" he says that he was most interested in tackling the new work, as well as submitting his ideas for revisions to the composer for his approval. But he was very busy with various commitments at that time, and had to put the concerto on the back burners. Earlier, Tchaikovsky's close friend, Kotek, bailed out on him, daunted by the concerto's technical difficulties. Later, Brodsky waited for two full years before making the commitment to perform it due to, in his own words - "laziness". Yet the busy Auer is the villain, and the lazy Brodsky, the "hero"!

As others have pointed out, Auer's revisions make the concerto harder, and I do like his cuts in the 3rd movement. I like the International edition, edited by Oistrakh, which clearly presents both versions. If circumstances had been different - if Auer had had time to revise the work immediately, and had Tchaikovsky not already engraved it, there would be only one version today - one in all likelihood much closer to the Auer version. Of course, in our urtext-driven age, God forbid that we play any piece that's not the original version - even in cases where the composer, himself, has done all the revising! (I wonder if the urtext scholars would feel the same way about their own first drafts being published.) Incidently, Kreisler made his own version of the Tchaik. with even more extensive revisions.

June 10, 2006 at 04:40 AM · i think we're all missing a point in that tchaikovsky wasn't always a thorough developmental composer and parts of the tchaik are repetitious. it may be that auer thought the music needed compositional work to hold it together (the same way joachim objected to the schumann) and edited the piece in order to spur tchaikovsky's imagination in certain directions of compositional unity as well as violinistic passagework.

June 10, 2006 at 02:17 PM · But, whether 2 years later or not, it WAS Brodsky - not Auer - who gave the first performance and continued to play it, undaunted by the initial severe criticisms. And it was Brodsky who while learning it wrote Tchaikovsky that the more he played it the more he liked it. And it was Brodsky who was responsible for popularizing it. That doesn't make Auer a total jerk, nor Brodsky a total hero.

As to Tchaikovsky's weaknesses as a composer, that you can write in one month a half-hour orchestral masterpiece that for 125 years has been one of the most popular concertos ever written certainly should count for something. So it wasn't perfect and needed some editing? In the grand scheme of things, so what!!

If that alone was all that put off Leopold Auer from performing it for so long a time, it doesn't say that much about Auer's musical judgment. Auer and his contemporaries certainly played a lot of music (a LOT of music) that you could say is not "great" or well composed. Compared to a lot of it, the Tchaikovsky is perfection itself, repetitions and all.

June 10, 2006 at 02:31 PM · Spot on, Sander Marcus.

June 10, 2006 at 08:38 PM · Marc - If you check some of Auer's concert programmes you will see that he never stopped playing Tchaikovsky's works in public.

So I won't buy your theory.

And If you check the original letters where Auer critizises Tchai for his his concerto one of his biggest argues is about the repetitions in the last mvmnt. And Auer never taught his students to play those, so I don't see how Auer would have changed his view.

June 11, 2006 at 04:17 AM · i admit that history is going to remember auer as being not too smart when it came to judging musical talent. however, he did have a point in mentioning the tchaik's repetitive passages.

to this day you'll hardly find two versions of the tchaik with the same cuts. violinists are forever taking parts out of that concerto and inserting alternate passagework.

let's put this practice into perspective. regarding the cuts , altered passages, and insertions, a violinist would be crucified if they did to the beethoven or mendelssohn what is regularly done to the tchaikovsky. so regardless of one's feelings for auer's artistic judgment he did have a valid point in bringing up the repetitions on structural grounds.

June 11, 2006 at 01:39 PM · Regarding Auer's 'judgement of talent', I assume this refers to composers, and not violin students - e.g Elman, Heifetz, Milstein, Seidel, etc., etc.

Auer, in his book, "Violin Masterworks and their Interpretation" speaks very highly of Tchaikovsky and re the last mvt. says: "I have - with Tchaikovsky's consent and approval - deleted a few repetions,"

Even some more self-confident and more 'sancrosanct' composers sought advice and made some changes in their violin concertos - Mendelssohn/David, Brahms/Joachim.

June 11, 2006 at 08:04 PM · I was assuming that Auer's artistic judgment was excellent. What I meant was that his reluctance to play the Tchaikovsky Concerto could not have been ONLY because he thought the Concerto needed editing. There had to be other reasons. Otherwise, his musical taste would have prevented him from playing (as well as teaching) a lot of music a heck of a lot less great than the Tchaikovsky, even with its repetitiousness.


June 12, 2006 at 02:15 PM · Mattias,

The concerto was written during the so called scandal period...Both Auer and Tchaikovsky were teachers at the Moscow conservatory at the time...Auer mentionned to the composer that "apart from nice melodies here and there, the concerto was impossible to play"...Considering his own revision( more difficult) and later comments, I believe that Auer did not want to be involved in a project with the composer at the time...Tchaikovsky suffered a lot from rejection...This is not a fiction and of course, it will never be mentionned anywhere.

June 12, 2006 at 02:57 PM · All good comments, but there is another possible interpretation of why Auer wouldn't play it. (I gleaned this mostly from the liner notes of about 20 different versions together, so no idea where I got which bits). All the liner notes for every version of the Tchaik mention two facts: Auer rejected it initially, and Hanslick mauled it. But most don't speculate for "why" for either of those (expect possibly Tchaik's failed marraige, inclinations towards Josef Kotek, etc).

The reason for Hanslick's panning has already been mentioned: he was a stunningly influential critic in Vienna, and disliked Russian-style Romanticism as a whole. What isn't always clear in the liner notes is that his word, at the time, was God - he pretty much killed the piece for decades by panning it so badly due to his perceived authority. While he may have accurately described how the concerto sounded to contemporaries, he probably would have panned anything written remotely close to Tchaik's style.

But nobody every really discusses _why_ Auer panned the concerto. I think it is quite simple: it is unviolinistic, but there's something more: it was customary for composers to seek the advice and approval of soloists when they wrote for them. Tchaik did not - he got advice from Josef Kotek, then published it with a dedication to Auer...essentially, almost requiring Auer to perform in public something he had never seen or approved, or else lose face. Since it was somewhat unviolinistic (gah! high sixths on the fifth page...anybody got tips?), Auer had to either perform it or lose face, and Tchaik's publishing of it with Auer's name on it without asking his advice probably seemed incredibly rude.

Thus, Auer refused to spend the time mastering it. Obviously, he later realized his mistake in judging it harshly musically-speaking, and tried to save face (?) by publishing a version which was (supposedly) more violinistic but generally harder (again, saving face). Also, I believe he never performed it himself, though Elman (his student) made it famous, perhaps closing the circle.

Great discussion! :-)

June 12, 2006 at 05:08 PM · Hi Keith--

Just to clarify--Tschaikowsky's death was not from cholera but from poisoning. The story is well circulated in the old soviet union. A major scandal was about to break because of his involvement with a member of the nobility. His old law school class met and decided that the best thing for him to quash the scandal would be to die so he took a slow acting poison that would allow a cover story of cholera. If he had cholera it would be hard to explain why every major composer in Europe tried to get to Moscow to say farewell--he was that respected by his peers. To everyone else he was just one more inconvenient homosexual for them to deride and in this case, destroy.

June 12, 2006 at 07:48 PM · the last two posts pretty much sum up what sound to me like the real reasons auer rejected the tchaik. in light of that information, auer's complaints about the piece's musical shortcomings seem like a professional exercise in spin doctoring.

June 14, 2006 at 12:45 PM · It's only human nature to be self-serving, and we may never know what was really in Auer's mind. That said, considering how much maligned Auer has always been on this issue, I thought it only fair - at least as a starting point - to quote or paraphrase what he, himself said in his writings, as I tried to do in my previous posts. To get more specific: "...I was eager to undertake the work as soon as possible, but a great deal happened to prevent my getting to it...I had just been offered the directorship of the symphonic concerts of the Russian Musical Society...this new position, in addition to all my other work, preempted all my time and energy." - "My Long Life in Music"

June 17, 2006 at 03:14 AM · I just got Ilya's recording and I have to say I like all the "repetitions" in the third movement. They don't sound like a broken record at all in his hands, but rather intrinsic to the character of the movement and integral to building drama. Now, in comparison, the standard edited version seems lacking.

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