On Friday 19 January, Gothenburg Symphony live streams its performance of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D major with violinist Daniel Lozakovich. In this instalment of the At Home Guide, we look at the story of the piece and the composer’s relationship with its inspiration, the violinist Josef Kotek.  

© Public domain | Wikimedia Commons
© Public domain | Wikimedia Commons
18 July 1877 is a date which Tchaikovsky would rue for the rest of his life. It was then that, in St George’s Church in Moscow, he embarked on his ill-fated marriage to Antonina Miliukova, a woman with whom he shared very little in common and who he would shortly come to detest. But there was another person there, an official witness to the marriage, with whom the composer felt a much keener sense of kinship, and who would inspire one of the best-known violin concertos in the repertoire.

Tchaikovsky had first met Iosif (or Josef) Kotek when he had tutored the young violinist in composition and music theory at the Moscow Conservatory. An early admirer of Tchaikovsky’s work, it was Kotek who, in 1877, recommended his teacher to the wealthy arts patron Nadezhda von Meck, a move that would have a profound effect on his career as a composer. Kotek was employed as a violin tutor in von Meck’s household at the time, and it was partly as a result of the musician’s enthusiastic reports that the influential businesswoman commissioned Tchaikovsky for a set of violin pieces, striking up a working relationship that would last for 14 years. Indeed, Von Meck’s patronage allowed the composer to leave his hated position at the Conservatory, leaving him free to develop his voice.

Nadezhda von Meck © Public domain | Wikimedia Commond
Nadezhda von Meck
© Public domain | Wikimedia Commond

At the same time, Tchaikovsky’s artistic connection with Kotek was deepening. When the composer completed his Valse-Scherzo for violin and orchestra in February 1877, the dedication bore Kotek’s name, and it’s likely that the young man had a hand in the work’s orchestration. But there was also something more personal going on – Tchaikovsky had fallen in love with the violinist. His letters from the period are remarkable for the candidness in regard to Kotek. In a letter to his brother Modest from January 1877, for example, Tchaikovsky professes his feelings for the violinist: “I cannot say that my love is completely pure. When he caresses me with his hand, when he lies with his head on my chest and I play with his hair and secretly kiss it… passion rages with me with unimaginable force.” In the same letter, however, the composer insists that he would never act on these impulses, claiming, “I would feel disgusted if this wonderful youth stooped to sex with an aged and fat-bellied man.”

A new concerto

By May that year, Tchaikovsky’s attraction to Kotek had waned. He had been receiving love letters from Antonina Miliukova – also an ex-student. But when the pair’s marriage broke down acrimoniously after a mere six weeks, Kotek was there to provide emotional support, meeting with the composer in Vienna in autumn 1877. Moreover, when Tchaikovsky was recuperating from the trauma in Clarens, Switzerland, the following spring, it was Kotek who arrived with a case full of scores, including Lalo’s Symphonie espagnole, a concertante work for violin and orchestra. This, along with Kotek’s encouragement, gave Tchaikovsky the idea to work on a new violin concerto. “Do not think that he is a burden to me,” wrote the composer to his brother Anatoly in March. “In the first place, I enjoy making music with him; in the second, he is essential for my violin concerto; in the third, I love him very, very much.” Tchaikovsky and Kotek worked closely together on the piece over a short, concentrated period, with Kotek advising on the solo part throughout the process, learning the piece as it was composed and contributing to the orchestration. Within a few weeks, the piece was complete, but by now the violinist had begun to lose interest in the work. As a result, and also in an attempt to avoid gossip, Tchaikovsky dedicated the work to another violinist, the Hungarian Leopold Auer. Yet Auer would not première the work – some reports say he deemed the violin part unplayable, but in a later interview he said he’d merely suggested some edits – and the piece sat on the shelf for three years.

Adolph Brodsky © Wikimedia Commons
Adolph Brodsky
© Wikimedia Commons
Eventually, in late 1881, the concerto was picked up by the young violinist Adolph Brodsky, who organised to give the work its belated première with the Vienna Philharmonic. Having only had one rehearsal with the orchestra, the performance was shaky and the piece was poorly received, the notorious critic Eduard Hanslick, for example, gave the work a characteristically caustic appraisal: “In our mind’s eye we see nothing but common, ravaged faces, hear rough oaths and smell cheap liquor.” Over the years, however, audiences came to appreciate the work, particularly the slow movement, the Canzonetta. So named for its songlike qualities, its air of plaintive melancholy contrasts with the boisterous third movement, in which furious folk rhythms propel the soloist on into ever greater feats of dexterity.

The decline of Kotek

Though Tchaikovsky and Kotek’s relationship soured somewhat through the course of 1878, partly due to the latter’s increasingly womanising ways, Tchaikovsky nevertheless remained a staunch defender of his former student when he fell out of favour with von Meck (this turn was sparked by the patron having learned that the musician had contracted syphilis). Still, Tchaikovsky passed on the opportunity to visit Kotek at his new home in Berlin in 1883, perhaps due to the violinist’s previous unwillingness to perform the Violin Concerto in St Petersburg around the time of the 1881 Vienna première.

Such grievances were set aside in 1884, however, when Tchaikovsky learned that his old student had fallen deathly ill with tuberculosis and seemed unlikely to recover. He rushed to visit Kotek at the health resort in Davos, Switzerland, where the violinist was attempting to convalesce from his illness, but not before the composer Mily Balakirev had implanted in him the idea to compose a symphony based on Byron’s poem Manfred. With its depiction of a nobleman wandering through the Alpine heights, haunted by the memory of his dead lover, Tchaikovsky could barely have missed the parallels with his own situation as he travelled for days through the Alps to come to Kotek’s aid (see Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony performed by the Rotterdam Philharmonic). When he got there, he gave the stricken musician extra money (he had often given financial support throughout their friendship) and secretly organised with Kotek’s doctor to have him moved to another location should he not take to his lodgings. On returning to Moscow, however, Tchaikovsky received word that Kotek’s health had only declined. This time, the thought of making the arduous journey only to see his young friend die before him was too much, and the composer stayed put. Such was Tchaikovsky’s importance to Kotek’s life, however, that when he was informed of the violinist’s death on the morning of Christmas Eve, 1884, it was he rather than any closer family relation that had to break the news to the young musician’s parents.

Though it’s clear that romantic infatuation played a major part during the early phase of Tchaikovsky’s relationship with Kotek, his artistic inspiration is the most abiding influence, leaving us with the well-loved Violin Concerto.

Gothenburg Symphony's stream begins at 18:00 CET. 

Hat tip to the biographer Alexander Poznansky whose work on the Tchaikovsky Research website was especially helpful in writing this article.