Profiles of Joachim students: 1. Joseph Kotek
“It’s perfect now,” Kotek said. “It’s fine, it’s beautiful!”
“You played it beautifully,” Peter Ilych said, with his arm around Kotek’s shoulder. “You could play it in public at a moment’s notice, my friend.”
“Really, Peter Ilych? Do you really think so?” Kotek’s young sensitive face flushed almost scarlet with pride and gratitude. But presently he turned his face away. There was a silence before he said, in a strangely hoarse, strangled voice: “I’ll never play your concerto, Peter Ilych.”
–Klaus Mann, Pathetic Symphony: A Novel about Tchaikovsky (New York: Allen, Towne & Heath, Inc, 1948), 62-63.
What could be more romantic than being inspired by your beloved to write a concerto for them to play?
That is the story (with variants) that is told about the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto. Tchaikovsky was in love with/was infatuated with/was in a sexual relationship with the violinist Joseph Kotek, who had been his student at the Moscow Conservatory. He composed the work with Kotek’s help while vacationing/recuperating/hiding in Switzerland in 1878. (The holograph manuscript, available at IMSLP, shows that Kotek wrote out the solo violin part.) Kotek did not perform it, however, because it was too difficult/because he thought it would hurt his career/because he was offended that Tchaikovsky dedicated it to Leopold Auer. But Auer declined to premiere it because he thought it was too difficult/not idiomatic to the violin. Adolph Brodsky became the first to perform it in Vienna in 1881, and was made the dedicatee after the fact.
The narrative is thwarted here, since Kotek apparently did not perform the piece. But another familiar trope takes over: the concerto was first considered unplayable before winding up a perennial favorite.
How much of this is just a story? I consulted Alexander Poznansky’s article on Kotek on the website Tchaikovsky Research. He documents Kotek’s relationships with Tchaikovsky and Nadezda von Meck through their correspondence. I learned that Kotek knew Nadezhda von Meck first: he was employed by her as a violinist, and actually helped bring her and Tchaikovsky together. Kotek also served as a witness at Tchaikovsky’s wedding. Tchaikovsky’s thoughts about Kotek as expressed in the letters don’t reveal much about his playing or his career ambitions. He was mostly concerned with sorting out how he felt about the man. This involved recounting in detail what Kotek had told him about his many other sexual affairs.
By 1879 Tchaikovsky was so repelled by Kotek’s promiscuity and disappointed that Kotek did not play the Concerto that he avoided meeting him for years. It was only when Kotek’s worsening condition from tuberculosis sent him to Switzerland in the summer of 1884 that they saw each other again. Tchaikovsky spent a week with him in November before Kotek died about a month later, on 4 January 1885.
The cab drove across the gleaming expanse of the Pariser Platz. The triumphant Brandenburger Tor received it, and then it continued steadily on, over the crisp snow. And now the Tiergarten…!
“It was in this city that dear Kotek had his worst time,” thought Peter Ilych, and suddenly felt a lump in his throat. Why did he wait so long before he went to Davos? Why did he have to die? He was young; he was charming and talented. I was fond of him; for a long time he meant a great deal to me, and he might have meant a great deal more to me if he had wanted to and there had been more time. Why couldn’t I have died and he gone on living?”
–Klaus Mann, Pathetic Symphony, p. 86.
Time for a Rewrite!
Klaus Mann’s Symphonie Pathétique (1935) is called a novel, but it does little more than dramatize Tchaikovsky’s letters and published diary from his concert tour of 1888–if that’s what adding some wooden dialogue and inner monologue is called. But a closer look at the facts indicates that truth may be more interesting than semi-fiction. Kotek did perform the Concerto in Berlin the year after Brodsky’s premiere, on 27 November 1882. This is included in Peter Muck’s 1982 chronology of concerts with the Berlin Philharmonic, but I haven’t seen it mentioned in any of the secondary literature.1Peter Muck, Einhundert Jahre Berliner Philharmonisches Orchester: Bd. 1, Die Mitglieder des Orchesters, die Programme, die Konzertreisen, Erst- und Uraufführungen (Berlin: H. Schneider, 1982), 3.
Kotek's performance of the Tchaikovsky Concerto
The advertisement above is for the second concert of the opera singer Signora Erena Varesi, with the Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Professor Ludwig von Brenner, on 27 November 1882.
The program looks quite varied, with the main attraction–arias from the Barber of Seville, La Sonnambula, and Rigoletto–sandwiched between Beethoven’s Overture to Coriolan and the Wedding March from Lohengrin. In the midst of this is “Concerto No. 1 for the Violin Op. 35” by “Tschaikoffsky.” The ticket prices are very high, with 10 marks for the most expensive loge and 5 marks for a balcony seat.
There is a review by “G. C.” in the Vossische Zeitung of 29 November. It is very positive and could hardly contrast more with the disgust Hanslick expressed in his infamous review of Brodsky’s premiere in Vienna.2See Eduard Hanslick, Concerte, Componisten und Virtuosen der letzten fünfzehn Jahre, 1870-1885 (Berlin, 1886), 295-96.
…The concert had the assistance of Mr. Kotek, who performed a new concerto by Tchaikovsky. This work is a vivid testimony to the talent of the Russian composer, whose excellent orchestral suite we reported on only a fortnight ago. The first movement, with its calm and measured layout, may testify to a desire to remain faithful to the laws of classical style, but almost makes one wish for greater subjectivity. The Andante captivates with its atmospheric melody, tending toward melancholy and at the same time pleasingly rounded off and the last movement, finally, which has the most individuality, stands out most significantly through piquancy, humor and the full development of the virtuoso element. Herr Kotek made the new work stand out in an effective way by means of beautiful tone, excellent technique, and lively performance.”3 “Unterstützt wurde das Concert durch Herrn Kotek, der ein uns neues Concert von Tschaikowski zum Vortrag brachte. Auch dieses Werk nimmt für die Begabung des russischen Komponisten, über dessen vortreffliche Orchester-Suite wir erst vor vierzehn Tagen berichteten, lebhaft ein. Wenn der erste Satz durch seine ruhige und gemessene Anlage von dem Streben zeugt, den klassischen Stilgesetzen treu zu bleiben, aber fast eine größere Subjectivität wünschen läßt, so fesselt das Andante durch seine stimmungsvolle, etwas zum Wehmüthigen neigende und zugleich gefällig sich abrundende Melodik, und der letzte Satz endlich, der die meiste Eigenart hat, tritt durch Pikanterie, Humor und durch die volle Entfaltung des virtuosen Elements am bedeutsamsten hervor. Herr Kotek machte die Novität durch schönen Ton, treffliche Technik und lebendiger Vortrag in wirksamer Weise zur Geltung.” Vossische Zeitung 29 November 1882, p.6.
A critic for the Neue Berliner Musik-Zeitung, who seems to have had a score, also reported favorably on the concerto:
“…he performed Tchaikovsky’s first violin concerto op. 35 in Berlin for the first time, the same concerto with which he achieved such great success in Moscow only recently. The work consists of three movements, the first of which, Allegro moderato and Moderato assai in D major, is more of a fantasy than a symphonic piece, and would lull the listener by its length, if it were not for the solo violin in a capable virtuoso’s hands keeping one awake. This is the case with Mr. Kotek to say the least, and rousing applause rewarded him for his brilliant playing. A short, characteristic canzonetta in G minor leads into the final movement, Allegro vivacissimo in D major, a quite strict rondo form that gives the soloist the opportunity to unleash all the fluency of the fingers and the bow. For such a courageous performance, which always involves a certain amount of risk, Mr. Kotek deserves the gratitude of all music lovers, just as much as was so generously given to him by the audience that evening.“4“..er das erste Violinconcert op. 35 von Tschaikowski in Berlin zum ersten Male vorführte, dasselbe, mit welchem er erst kürzlich in Moskau so grossen Erfolg erzielte. Das Werk besteht aus drei Sätze, deren erster, Allegro moderato und Moderato assai D-dur, mehr eine Phantasie, als ein symphonisch gearbeitetes Stück ist, das den Hörer durch seine übergrosse Länge abspannen würde, wenn nicht die Sologeige so in den Vordergrund träte, das ein tüchtiger Virtuos dennoch das Interesse wach zu halten verstände. Das ist bei Hrn. Kotek in ausreichendstem Maasse der Fall, und stürmischer Beifall belohnte ihn für sein brillantes Spiel. Eine kurze, recht charakteristische Canzonetta in G moll leitet in den Schlusssatz, Allegro vivacisskimo D-dur, über, das ziemlich streng in Rondoform gehalten ist und dem Solisten Gelegenheit bietet, die ganze Geläufigkeit der Finger und des Bogens zu entfalten. Herr Kotek verdient für die mutige Vorführung eine solchen Novität, die ja immer ein gewisses Wagnis in sich schliesst, den Dank aller Musikfreunde in demselben Masse, wie er ihm an jenem Abende vom Publikum so reichlich dargebracht wurde. Neue Berliner Musik-Zeitung 36 no 49 (7 Dec 1882): 388.
Furthermore, Kotek also played the work that same month in Moscow, on November 11th on a Russian Musical Society concert conducted by Max Erdmannsdörfer, with the soloists Kotek, pianist Fräulein Kalinofska, and the singer Frau Verni.5Neue Zeitschrift für Musik (1882): 534. Also see p. 545 where it is reported: “Kotek spielte in Moskau unter Leitung Erdmannsdörfer’s ein neues Violinkonzert von Tschaikowsky mit schönen Erfolge.” A telegram from Tchaikovsky to Kotek indicates he was aware of this performance. Tchaikovsky must have known about this performance, which was reported on in various publications–for instance in the London Musical World:6Musical World, 2 December 1882, p. 750. It was also mentioned in the Musikalisches Wochenblatt 13 (1882): 598. Why didn’t Tchaikovsky acknowledge that Kotek did premiere the Concerto in Russia?7Modest Tchaikovsky’s biography castigates both Kotek and Auer for not performing the Concerto, even though both did play it. And it was only when Auer’s students Mischa Elman and Efrem Zimbalist starting performing it that it became a staple of the repertoire.
The early performance and reception history of the Concerto is not easy to trace. In Berlin, at least, it was over five years before there was a second performance. Karl Halir performed it twice in 1888, and received Tchaikovsky’s heartfelt thanks in his published diary of the 1888 tour. 8Rosa Newmarch, Tchaikovsky: his life and works, with extracts from his writings, and the diary of his tour abroad in 1888 (New York, 1900), 204-5. Halir’s first performance on 26.1.1888 at the Singakademie paired the Tchaikovsky with the Brahms Violin Concerto (!). Halir played the former again at the Philharmonie that year, on 27 March 1888. Another four years went by before Felix Berber played it on 12 November 1892, and finally the original dedicatee, Leopold Auer, performed the work on Philharmonic concerts on 8 and 20 March 1895. The orchestra programs in other cities involve most of the same violinists. At the Gewandhaus in Leipzig, the first complete performance of the Concerto was by Leopold Auer on 5 March 1896. Brodsky had played the first movement only on 14 December 1882. In New York with the Philharmonic, Maud Powell gave the US premiere of the Tchaikovsky Concerto on 18 January 1889. Brodsky was second four years later, on 6 January 1893. The first complete performance in Boston took place when Karl Halir played it on 9 and 10 December 1896.
But let us return to Kotek! When I came across the following obituary, I had to re-read it several times. Apparently, after this concerto business his life took a surprising turn. He lived his six remaining years in Berlin, where he became Joachim’s protegé and a successful, respected soloist, chamber musician, and teacher.
I find this surprising because in 1878 Kotek was twenty-three years old and had already studied for four years in Moscow with a famous teacher, the revered Ferdinand Laub. Nevertheless, he decided to return to school and study with Joachim at the Hochschule. Also, in the 1870s Berlin was only starting its transformation into a cosmopolitan, modern city, and Kotek was already accustomed to roaming around Europe, with and without Tchaikovsky. But he settled down and got to work.
Obituary for Kotek in the Neue Berliner Musikzeitung
Josef Kotek died on 4 January in Davos, where he was seeking treatment for a lung ailment. His training was at the Moscow Conservatory, until he left in 1877 to complete his studies with Joachim. He took this master in inner devotion as his model. Berlin musical circles often had the opportunity to follow the progressive artistic development leading to the most assured success. His inexhaustible striving, led by fresh optimism and healthy ambition, brought him to outstanding achievements in his profession’s most diverse areas. He took part in the first brilliant performances of the Ring of the Nibelungen in Berlin as concertmaster. One of the quartets he brought into existence enjoyed two seasons of a large, faithful group of subscribers through excellent performances of string quartets by both the classic and living composers; one of the last of these quartet evenings stands out by the collaboration of Anton Rubinstein. As a solo violinist Kotek had attained in recent years full rights as a citizen of Berlin concert life, in which he participated through frequent collaboration with other artists in concerts, as well as putting on his own concerts. His last concert is in everyone’s memory as a musical act of heroism: he gave the astonished audience an exemplary performance of three great violin concertos by Bruch, Joachim and Mendelssohn, for which Joachim himself conducted. He found general and increasing recognition in several violin compositions, among which a series of character pieces for two violins stands out, and Kotek’s fine musical talent as composer continued with a number of pretty songs. Hired by the Königliche Hochschule, Kotek had the most wonderful successes to attest to his qualities as a teacher, as one of his student’s performances showed shortly before his departure. The excellent, attractive qualities in the character of the deceased gave him entry to the best social circles of the city, and make the loss of the artist in his 30th year all the more lamentable.
Neue Berliner Musikzeitung (1885): 13.
To expand on the some of the accomplishments mentioned above:
As a student and a teacher
In 1879 Kotek was among the first recipients of the Mendelssohn Stipendium, a competition open to any student of a German school of music. Kotek was awarded the highest prize of 1500 marks, which was more than most musicians earned in a year.
This award was basically Joachim’s to give, and was just one of the favors Joachim bestowed on him. Kotek participated on a benefit concert with Joachim in May of 1879, and that summer assisted with Joachim’s informal series of concerts that he gave for his students. He assisted the Hochschule’s Piano Trio group several times and performed with other musicians associated with Joachim. At the end of 1882 he was made an instructor at the Hochschule, which was a high mark of distinction. His duties included preparing students for their lessons with Joachim. One of these was the Russian Charles Gregorowitsch, one of Joachim’s most successful pupils as a virtuoso. A report in 1884 had him teaching a nine-year-old Wunderkind, Amadeo von der Hoya (1874-1922), who went on to an impressive career.9He also studied with Halir and Joachim.
As a chamber musician
Kotek’s Quartet, whose first concert was in January 1882, was made up of the Hochschule alumni (and eventual faculty) Gustav Exner, Andreas Moser (replaced the following year by Willy Nicking) and cellist Hugo Dechert. They received strong reviews for their programming of new music on their concert series (1882-84). Tchaikovsky’s Piano Trio was on a concert of 4 November 1883. The following year the whole quartet assisted on a Joachim Quartet concert for a performance of a Spohr “double quartet.” Anton Rubinstein, at the height of his fame, made a special trip to Berlin in December of 1883 to play his Piano Trio in C minor, Op. 108 with Kotek’s group.10Neue Zeitschrift für Musik 79 (1883): 560; and 80 (1884): 7.
As a virtuoso
In October of 1883 the Berlin Philharmonic began their second season with Joachim as one of the conductors. This included a concert in which Kotek successfully performed three violin concertos in a row: Bruch’s G minor, Joachim’s Hungarian Concerto, and the Mendelssohn Concerto. (Although his playing was praised, the concert was reviewed as a kind of stunt and judged too much of a good thing.11See Der Klavierlehrer 6 (1883): 254; and Musikalisches Centralblatt 2 (1883): 422. Joachim conducted and undoubtedly was satisfied with the choice of concertos.
A memorial concert was given by Kotek’s collaborators a month after his death.12Besides the remaining quartet members, the participants were soprano Frau Schultze von Asten, violinist Stanislaus Barcewicz and pianist Franz Rummel. “Alle Ausführungen waren sichtlich getragen von dem Ernste dieser Veranstaltung und leisteten ihr Bestes.” Der Klavier-Lehrer 8 (1885): 42-43. See also Neue Zeitschrift für Musik 81 (1885): 98. Tchaikovsky’s Piano Trio, written upon the death of Nicholas Rubinstein, was one of the works performed, this time in memory of Joseph Kotek.