The ‘Big Five’ Violin Concertos: what makes them so famous?
Everyone has their own favorites, but these big five romantic violin concertos are most played and listened to over the world
Why are these five violin concertos so special?
Over the past four hundred years, dozens if not hundreds of violin concertos have been written. Some have been forgotten, their manuscripts lost or destroyed. Others are never played because they are by obscure composers, are difficult to find, or are not considered “flashy” enough. Even so, there are still plenty of options to choose from. Everyone has their own favorites, but certain pieces always float to the top of the pile no matter what. In this article, we’ll talk about the five most famous romantic violin concertos.
#1 Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1 in G Minor
This concerto has long been a favorite among audiences. In fact, Bruch was envied and insulted by fellow composers during his life because of this work’s popularity. His detractors were ultimately ignored, however, as it still remains a concert hall staple and mandatory repertoire for serious students.
Max Bruch was a German composer who began composing when he was nine. His parents encouraged his talent, helping him to find teachers. Bruch started his first violin concerto when he was twenty-six, but completely rescinded the original version to rework it. With the help of the great violinist Joseph Joachim, he eventually created the masterpiece that we know today.
The concerto is in three movements, but the first movement segues directly into the second. This concerto is challenging but still doable for most advanced students, often being one of the first major concertos they learn.
After the concerto’s debut in 1868, all the great violinists began playing it, so much so that it eclipsed essentially all of Bruch’s other compositions. He did not appreciate that very much, and other composers became very jealous of his success. To make it worse, he had completely sold the concerto to his publisher, so he did not make money from it himself.
#2 Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E Minor
Classical music lovers can debate endlessly about what the five greatest violin concertos are, but you can be sure Mendelssohn’s will be on the list. Written in 1844, it incorporates the best of both traditional classical styles and Mendelssohn’s budding romanticism. And in case you were wondering, Mendelssohn also wrote a little-known Violin Concerto in D Minor earlier that is also worth a listen.
Mendelssohn wrote the concerto for his friend Ferdinand David, who was concertmaster of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. Over the next several years, David gave Mendelssohn many suggestions and premiered it in 1845.
Contrary to the classical style of the time where the orchestra would state the main themes, the violin solo begins almost immediately The movements lead directly into one another without any pauses, which is also unusual. It is considered one of the earliest Romantic violin concertos, and still uses a standard classical orchestra of strings, two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns, two trumpets, and timpani. It is perhaps fitting that Mendelssohn’s most famous concerto is the last one he ever wrote.
#3 Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D Major
Clocking in at a cool 45 minutes long, the Beethoven Concerto is considered one of the most challenging in the repertoire, and a major accomplishment for anyone who learns it. The orchestra plays an intro lasting over two minutes, which gives the soloist plenty of time to stand there in front of the audience wondering if his or her entrance will sound good.
After writing two beautiful Romances for violin and orchestra, Beethoven completed his one and only violin concerto in 1806. Its premier was not successful, and it did not become popular until a young Joseph Joachim brought it back to life decades later. (Interestingly, Mendelssohn was the conductor for that performance.)
Beethoven’s concerto is greatly influenced by the French style of the time. It is exceptionally long, and the third movement is particularly difficult to memorize because it is in rondo form. A rondo is when the main theme alternates with different contrasting themes, which can get very confusing. There are very few rests for the soloist. The instrumentation is the same as that of the Mendelssohn concerto.
Now that it is considered one of the top violin concertos, dozens of soloists have written their own cadenzas for the piece, including Joshua Bell, Fritz Kreisler, Nathan Milstein, and Maxim Vengerov.
#4 Brahms’ Violin Concerto in D Major
Like the Beethoven Concerto, the opening of this piece sounds as though Brahms started writing a symphony and then suddenly remembered he was supposed to be writing a violin concerto. When the soloist finally does come in, he does it in style with some fiery runs and perfectly tuned double-stops (playing more than one string at once). It may not be as melodic or violin-centered as Beethoven’s but the sheer amount of energy in the work is breathtaking.
As you can probably tell by now, Joseph Joachim was the towering violinist of his day. He was so respected by his colleagues that several—including Schumann, Dvorak, Bruch, and Brahms—wrote concertos for him, although he never played the ones by Schumann and Dvorak. Joachim actively helped Brahms develop his concerto, premiering it in 1879.
Incredibly grand and rich, this concerto weaves together elements from Joachim’s Hungarian roots. One unusual thing is the gorgeous two-minute oboe solo in the second movement. Pablo de Sarasate was so offended by it that he wouldn’t play the concerto, but Joachim welcomed it as a complement to the tone of the violin.
#5 Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D Major
Okay, I know you’re wondering at this point why so many violin concertos are in the key of D, but maybe that’s a subject for another article. Tchaikovsky wrote this concerto while trying to recover from depression, and it is heart-on-your-sleeve, alternating between deep reflection and unrestrained joy.
Tchaikovsky wrote the concerto while recovering from depression at a villa on Lake Geneva. He was deeply inspired by Lalo’s Symphonie Espagnole, as Spanish influence was very big at the time. He became so excited by his new idea that he wrote the whole thing in a month. He completely rewrote the middle movement, and the original movement he later used for Souvenir d’un Lieu Cher.
Tchaikovsky wanted Leopold Auer to premier the piece, but he refused. According to Auer, certain passages needed to be rewritten in order to be both more beautiful and more playable. A hurt Tchaikovsky instead gave the concerto to another violinist to premier. Auer later edited the concerto so he and his students could perform it. He ultimately regretted not taking Tchaikovsky’s initial offer and asked his forgiveness.
These are the five most famous romantic concertos, in no particular order. Would you change anything or add one to the list? Let me know in the comments!