The piece was written in a Swiss resort on the shores of Lake Geneva, where Tchaikovsky had gone to recover from the depression brought on by his marriage to Antonina Miliukova. In June 1877, Tchaikovsky proposed marriage, in order (according to one theory) to please his family and put to rest any social rumors regarding his sexual orientation. He described Miliukova as “… a woman with whom I am not the least in love.” A permanent separation followed after only six weeks of them being together. But Antonina had been in a great period of happiness – She wrote, “I would look at him surreptitiously, so he didn’t notice, and admire him enormously, especially during morning tea. So handsome, with kindly eyes which melted my heart, he breathed such freshness into my life! I would just sit there looking at him, and think ‘Thank God he belongs to me and no-one else! Now he is my husband, no-one can take him away from me …‘”
She later said, ‘We were separated by constant whispering to Pyotr Ilyich that family life would kill his talent. At first, he paid no attention to this talk, but then he began somewhat to listen to it more and more attentively…. To lose his talent was for him the most dreadful thing of all. He began to believe their slanders and became dull and gloomy.“
At the time of writing, Tchaikovsky was working on his Piano Sonata in G major but finding it heavy going. He was joined there by his composition pupil, the violinist Iosif Kotek (pictured left with Tchaikovsky). He too played works for violin and piano together, including a violin-and-piano arrangement of Édouard Lalo’s Symphonie espagnole. This work may have been the catalyst for the composition of the concerto.
Tchaikovsky made swift, steady progress on the concerto, as by this point in his rest cure he had regained his inspiration, and the work was completed within a month despite the middle movement getting a complete rewrite (a version of the original movement was preserved as the first of the three pieces for violin and piano, Souvenir d’un lieu cher). Since Tchaikovsky was not a violinist, he sought the advice of Kotek on the completion of the solo part. Tchaikovsky wrote to his brother Anatoly on the day he completed the new slow movement. “It goes without saying that I would have been able to do nothing without him. He plays it marvelously.“
Tchaikovsky wanted to dedicate the concerto to Losif Kotek, but felt constrained by the gossip this would undoubtedly cause about the true nature of his relationship with the younger man. (They were almost certainly lovers at one point, and Tchaikovsky was always at pains to disguise his homosexuality from the general public.) In 1881, he broke with Kotek after the latter refused to play the Violin Concerto, believing it was poorly received and would do damage to his budding career. However, he did dedicate to Kotek the Valse-Scherzo for violin and orchestra, written in 1877, on its publication in 1878.
Critical reactions were mixed on its first performance in Vienna. Taken as a whole, the work turned out to be one of Tchaikovsky’s most creative and least pretentious works, as well as a measure of how well he was able briefly to detach himself from his personal problems.