Sibelius originally dedicated the concerto to the noted violinist Willy Burmester, who promised to play the concerto in Berlin. For financial reasons, Sibelius decided to premiere it in Helsinki, and since Burmester was unavailable to travel to Finland, Sibelius engaged Victor Nováček (1873-1914), a violin pedagogue of Czech origin, teaching at the Helsinki Institute of Music (now the Sibelius Academy). The initial version of the concerto premiered on 8 February 1904, with Sibelius conducting. Sibelius had barely finished the work in time for the premiere, giving Nováček precious little time to prepare, and it was of such difficulty that it would have sorely tested a player of much greater skill. Given these factors, it was unwise of him to choose Nováček, who was a teacher and not a recognised soloist, and so it is not surprising that the premiere was a disaster. However, Nováček was not the poor player he is sometimes painted. He was the first violinist hired by Martin Wegelius for the Helsinki Institute, and in 1910 he participated in the premiere of Sibelius's string quartet Voces intimae, which received favourable reviews.
Sibelius withheld this version from publication and made substantial revisions. He deleted much material he felt did not work. The new version premiered on 19 October 1905 with Richard Strauss conducting the Berlin Court Orchestra. Sibelius was not in attendance. Willy Burmester was again asked to be the soloist, but he was again unavailable, so the performance went ahead without him, the orchestra's leader Karel Karel Halíř stepping into the soloist's shoes. Burmester was so offended that he refused ever to play the concerto, and Sibelius re-dedicated it to the Hungarian "wunderkind" Ferenc von Vecsey, who was aged only 12 at the time. Vecsey championed the Sibelius concerto, first performing it when he was only 13, although he could not adequately cope with the extraordinary technical demands of the work.
The initial version was noticeably more demanding on the advanced skills of the soloist. It was unknown to the world at large until 1991, when Sibelius's heirs permitted one live performance and one recording, on the BIS record label; both were played by Leonidas Kavakos and conducted by Osmo Vänskä. The revised version still requires a considerably high level of technical facility on the part of the soloist. The original is somewhat longer than the revised, including themes that did not survive the revision. Certain parts, like the very beginning, most of the third movement, and parts of the second, have not changed at all. The cadenza in the first movement is exactly the same for the violin part, but Sibelius employed a bass tremolo to add drama in the revision. Some of the most striking changes, particularly in the first movement, are in orchestration, with some rhythms played twice as slow.