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Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The True Story of the Martinu 2nd Violin Concerto, Heretofore Unknown

Autographed photograph of Bohuslav Martinu

One of the exciting functions of a Music Antiquarian is detective work.  I have a three page letter in our inventory by the Czech composer Bohuslav Martinu.  The letter written on July 31st, 1943 is to the pianist and conductor Paul Aron requesting that he send his completed piano score of an unnamed work to the violinist Ruth Posselt.  He mentions, ......Mrs. Burgin will play it next season, need the score as fast as possible to study it and correct the violin part.....  Of course this is entirely leading and research shows that Ruth Posselt, a world class concert violinist who was also the wife of Boston Symphony Orchestra Concertmaster Richard Burgin, never played a Martinu World Premiere.  Now Martinu, who came to America during the Second World War, not as a Jewish immigrant, but a conscientious objector had a very close relationship with the Boston Symphony Orchestra Music Director Serge Koussevitzky.  Koussevitzky through his Foundation, commissioned a number of Martinu's symphonic works of the period.  It is also known that Martinu spent part of the Summer of 1942 at his friend Emanuel Ondricek's home on Cape Cod where he worked on his 1st Symphony for Serge Koussevitzky.  The Posselt connection there is two-fold, first Ondricek was one of Ruth's violin pedagogues and second, he was married to Ruth's sister Gladys.  However, there is no mention in any of the Martinu biographies that the piece was written for Ruth Posselt.  As a matter of fact, Mischa Elman gave the World Premiere performance on December 31st, 1943.  The biographies and descriptions of the work vary, some say Elman contacted Martinu three months before the World Premiere and Martinu produced the work for him and then wrote some cadenzas for the piece with him.  Allan Kozinn's seminal work on Elman, Mischa Elman and the Romantic Style goes into some detail about how the work was commissioned by Elman in January of 1943 after hearing the World Premiere of Martinu's 1st Symphony in Boston several weeks before and includes details of their meetings.  However, based on the composer's oeuvre of unperformed works it seemed to make the most sense that the work described in the letter was in fact the Martinu 2nd Violin Concerto.  Further researched yielded the information that Ruth Posselt played the World Premiere of the Vladimir Dukelsky (Vernon Duke) Concerto with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.  

At this point I picked up the phone and called my friend Bridget Carr, the Boston Symphony Orchestra Chief Archivist to see what she knew and she referred me to Posselt's daughter Dr. Diana Burgin, who has spent years researching her parents careers.  My hunch proved correct, Martinu did write the 2nd Violin Concerto for Ruth Posselt, not Mischa Elman.  She became very interested in the piece during the Spring/Summer of 1943 and planned to play the World Premiere with Artur Rodzinski and the New York Philharmonic in the Fall.   This fact is confirmed in a letter by Artur Rodzinski to Orchestra Manager Bruno Zirato in the New York Philharmonic Archives, June 16, 1943 ...In case Martinu did not write a second violin concerto for Elman and in order to save Miss Posselt any embarrassing situation with Koussevitzky on whom she and her husband depend, and in order to still have a Premiere with our orchestra, I would suggest switching Posselt from her January date to any other date before December which you might find suitable....
(Thank you to Barbara Haws Chief Archivist of the New York Philharmonic)  

The letter is further evidence that the Concerto was in fact written for Posselt.  As the letter to Aron clearly states; Posselt will make corrections to the violin part as noted in the first paragraph and later goes on to say, Mrs. Posselt started to study and she needs the score, she has now only the violin part and there are the stands to reason that she was Martinu's choice for the World Premiere and not Elman.  However, the offer of the Dukelsky Concerto came along and it appears for political reasons she changed her plans and performed it instead with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. However, the Dukelsky Concerto though written for and rejected by Heifetz is dedicated to Posselt and bears her input in the cadenza, as well as corrections throughout the manuscript. (Information provided by Dr. Diana Burgin.)  Elman and Martinu had a group of mixed reviews after the Boston and Carnegie Hall Premieres, mostly good for Martinu and not as good for Elman, the best of which was Olin Downes who praised the work and playing. Posselt did in fact give the World Premiere of the Dukelsky Violin Concerto in Boston with Koussevitzky in December, 1943 and then played the Concerto in its' New York Premier on January 5th, 1944.  

Our letter will be available for purchase shortly, with a complete transcription and further details.

Dr. Diana Burgin is currently working on a biography of her parents.  We will bring you the details when the book becomes available!

Meanwhile, here is a Youtube clip of the first part of the first movement of the radio broadcast of Elman playing the World Premiere.  You can connect to the additional clips on the Youtube site.


  1. Vernon Duke (also known as Vladimir Dukelsky) wrote his violin concerto for Heifetz. Duke's autobiography "Passport to Paris" narrates the history of the creation of his violin concerto. On pages 398-399 he writes: "The idea for writing a violin concerto originated with "Mr. Violin" himself - the peerless and Olympian Jascha Heifetz. "; " .....he asked me: "Why don't you write a violin concerto? I'll play it if it turns out well." ; "....This is what the violinist wrote me eight months later: "I have just recently had a chance to play the work through, and I am very sorry to say that it does not appeal to me to my entire satisfaction"; "...The piece, turned down by Heifetz, was soon picked up by Richard Burgin's handsome wife, Ruth Posselt...".

    As I mentioned above, these are quotes from Vernon Duke's own autobiography "Passport to Paris". I felt compelled to bring this to your attention.

    Best Regards,

    Elmira Darvarova
    Concert Violinist,
    Former Concertmaster, Metropolitan Opera
    Leader, New York Piano Quartet
    Artistic Director, New York Chamber Music Festival

    1. I thank you for bringing the Dukelsky (Duke) information to my attention. After further research, I have amended the post on that specific matter.