Unlike many composers who wrote famous violin concertos, Finnish composer Jean Sibelius himself was a violinist.

Though he was a natural to write violin concertos, in the end he wrote only one, and he spent enormous time and energy on it before he was satisfied. (The Chicago Symphony Orchestra will perform the work, with Hilary Hahn as soloist, in concerts May 16-18 and 21.) No doubt it was, in some deep sense, his own concerto, though he would never attempt to play it. Perhaps this explains not only the great pains he took in writing the piece, but also the way he treated the man who had asked him for it.

Willy Burmester had known Sibelius briefly in Finland before his career as a violin virtuoso took off. Burmester had persuaded Sibelius to write the concert. When he sent the finished work to Burmester, he responded: “Wonderful! Masterly! Only once before have I spoken in such terms to a composer, and that was when Tchaikovsky showed me his concerto.”

When Burmester suggested that he needed time to master the piece, Sibelius hired Viktor Nováček, a musician of no particular distinction, to give the first performance. After the premiere, Burmester again offered to play the concerto, promising that “all my 25 years’ stage experience, my artistry and insight will be placed to serve this work.” But Sibelius, who had extensively reworked the concerto, picked Karl Haliř, a former member of the Joachim Quartet, to give the premiere of the revised version in October 1905, under the baton of Richard Strauss. And when the score was published, it was dedicated to Ferenc von Vecsey, a Hungarian violinist who was one of the concerto’s first champions.

The work Burmester inspired but never played is a violinist’s dream. In fact, the first version was particularly criticized for the way the solo part consistently overshadowed the orchestra, and much of Sibelius’ subsequent reworking tried to restore that balance. Still, from the very first measures, it is the solo voice, rather than its dialogue with orchestra, that commands the listener’s attention. In September 1902, Sibelius had written to his wife about “a marvelous opening idea” for the concerto. What he ultimately put on paper is truly unforgettable, with the violin entering almost at once on a sustained mezzo-forte G quite at odds with the orchestra’s shimmering D minor.

From there, the violin embarks on a long, rhapsodic theme, allows the orchestra one extended statement of its own and then banishes it entirely from the central development section, which Sibelius, against all tradition, treats as a brilliant cadenza. This is but one masterstroke in a bold and inventive design. Though less imaginatively conceived, the Adagio is deeply haunting: a broad melody begins low in the violin register and then takes off. (It is particularly lovely how Sibelius later accompanies that melody, now in the clarinet and bassoon, with pianissimo scales.)

The British critic Donald Tovey called the spirited finale “a polonaise for polar bears.” The folksy main theme, over an excited drum beat, comes from a early string quartet that Sibelius did not publish. The way the violin dances around the melody, however, teasing its insistent rhythms and recklessly walking the high wire, turns circus music into high art.

Excerpted from a previously published program book essay written by Phillip Huscher.