The violin concerto as a form of music has endured for some 300 years and remains, alongside the piano concerto, the most popular type of concerto played in modern concert halls and committed to recording. The genre was first developed during the Baroque era, when the concerto was conceived as a tripartite structure, running about fifteen minutes in length. Two of the masters of that era—Johann Sebastian Bach and Antonio Vivaldi—gave us supreme examples of this form; the former’s solo concertos, BWV 1041 and 1042, and double concerto, BWV 1043, boast more than 150 available recordings each, and the latter’s Four Seasons, a series of four concertos, ranks as one of the most popular classical pieces of all time. The masters of the classical period, Franz Josef Haydn and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, also composed in the form, the genre remaining throughout the Classical Period a pleasing diversion for concertgoers and party-goers, with concertos running about twenty to twenty-five minutes in length and being somewhat lighthearted in character.
It was Beethoven who transformed the violin concerto in the first years of the nineteenth century—as he did the symphony—into a grand orchestral work, a profound and elongated statement that plumbed emotional depths left untouched by his predecessors. Such is the monumental nature of Beethoven’s work that it stands alone in this genre among his oeuvre; he seemed to think that it could not be rivaled by another attempt.
Beethoven’s example was followed by the composers of the Romantic Period, who saw the violin concerto as conducive not only to pyrotechnic displays of skill by the soloist but also as ripe for the expression of personal testimonies of great emotion. The concerto now stretched to some forty minutes or more. The likes of Johannes Brahms, Pyotr Tchaikovsky, Felix Mendelssohn, Antonin Dvorak, and Jean Sibelius each completed one piece in the genre (an early, simple concerto for violin and strings by Mendelssohn excluded), and their compositions today are known simply as “The Brahms,” “The Tchaikovsky,” etc. The violin concerto continued to flourish into the twentieth century, with the Americans Erich Wolfgang Korngold and Samuel Barber providing two of its greatest post-Romantic incarnations, though returning its length to that of the Classical Period.
Though it has been three-quarters of a century since the last great violin concerto was composed, the genre will survive for time immemorial because of the great incarnations of the form listed below, which are listed in order of greatness from ten to one.
10. Samuel Barber: Violin Concerto, op. 14 (composed in 1939)
A melting main theme in the first movement, a pensive slow movement, and dancing pyrotechnics in the finale. The Pennsylvanian-born Barber follows the Romantic formula for the violin concerto and creates a work of remarkable loveliness.
9. Erich Wolfgang Korngold: Violin Concerto, Op. 35 (composed in 1945)
Score another one for the Americans! A Jewish refugee from Austria, Korngold made America his home and made his fame in Hollywood as a film composer, yet he also produced “serious” classical works in traditional forms. None of these is greater than his Violin Concerto, perhaps the most underrated example in this genre ever composed.
8. Antonin Dvorak: Violin Concerto in A Minor, Op. 53 (composed in 1879)
Famed for his New World Symphony, Dvorak’s Violin Concerto is strangely neglected in the concert hall and on record. It launches boldly, reaches a meditative middle, concludes with a dance-like finale, and is filled with first-rate melodies, as are all of this composer’s best works.
7. Max Bruch: Concerto No. 1 in G Minor, Op. 26 (composed in 1866)
Bruch officially wrote three violin concertos, but this one is clearly his greatest achievement in the genre. Opening mysteriously, the first movement alternates between song and storm; the concerto reaches its true climax in the heart-achingly beautiful middle movement, sometimes described as an aria for violin.
6. Felix Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto in E Minor, Op. 64 (composed in 1845)
One of the best-known violin concertos ever written, Mendelssohn unusually has the soloist enter almost immediately, as we are launched into an amazing first movement that combines pyrotechnics with deep pathos and mystery. There is a gorgeous slow movement and then a rip-roaring finale. Mendelssohn is often accused of being “light,” but his violin concerto possesses a depth and mystery that should make critics reevaluate their opinion of this composer.
5. Ludwig van Beethoven: Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 61 (composed in 1806)
From the opening timpani strokes of its brooding and titanic first movement, to its hushed and poignant slow movement, to its celebratory finale, Beethoven’s Violin Concerto is one of the composer’s greatest masterpieces. When playing this concerto, some soloists use cadenzas (the solo parts of a concerto traditionally improvised by the player) based on those that Beethoven himself wrote for the piano version of his piece. In the already-massive first movement, Beethoven’s long cadenza adds both a severity and jauntiness to the generally contemplative atmosphere. Readers/listeners may hear the three Beethoven cadenzas played in the video below.
4. Johannes Brahms: Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 77 (composed in 1878)
Much of Brahms’ work is derivative of his idol Beethoven—and that includes the Violin Concerto, perhaps Brahms’ greatest work. He clearly uses Beethoven as his model in terms of the character and length of the three movements, but here he may even outdo his idol, plumbing the depths of the soul in the lyrical first and second movements, and using a jaunty Hungarian folk tune as the basis of the rousing finale.
3. Camille Saint-Saëns: Violin Concerto No. 3 in B Minor, O. 61 (composed in 1880)
Camille Saint-Saëns has unfairly earned a reputation as a composer of merely pleasant, even if sometimes technically challenging, music (his famous “Carnival of the Animals” comes to mind). But Saint-Saëns composed many pieces of great profundity, including his Requiem and this, his last of three violin concertos. A searching first movement is followed by an absolutely exquisite and mysterious slow movement, and then a turbulent finale. In many ways this concerto seems to have inspired the Sibelius Violin Concerto below.
2. Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 35 (composed in 1878)
The Tchaikovsky concerto divides critics, some of whom see it as clichéd and derivative. Others, like the present author, view it as a masterpiece, characteristic of the composer in its orchestral command and use of melody. Indeed, Tchaikovsky has no superior when it comes to melody, and he gives us one of his most beguiling in the first movement here.
1. Jean Sibelius: Violin Concerto in D Minor, Op. 47 (composed in 1904)
Jean Sibelius is perhaps the most underrated of the great composers. A Finn who was known for his musical conservatism in drawing on the central European tradition of Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven, his Violin Concerto is a towering masterpiece, its opening transporting us to an otherworldly realm of haunting memory and unnamed drama. The tension is sustained throughout the three joined movements of this astounding composition, where fire always lurks just beneath the icy, Nordic surface.
Playlist of the concertos (Spotify subscription required):
This essay first appeared here in December 2014.
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