Violin Concerto

Composed by Beethoven

Entire books have been written about the impact of Beethoven’s deafness on his life and music. The first indications that anything was amiss came at age 26, when tinnitus set in. By age 28, hearing loss was undeniable, and by the spring of 1802 the 31-year old Beethoven retreated to the village of Heiligenstadt, outside of Vienna, following his physician’s recommendation that he move to a quieter locale in order to preserve what was left of his hearing. It was here that Beethoven wrote a heart-wrenching letter to his brothers, now known as the Heiligenstadt Testament, in which he detailed his thoughts of suicide and eventual resolve to continue living for his art. Returning to Vienna in late 1802, Beethoven resumed composing, despite his affliction, and the next ten years would be some of his most productive as he continued to commit to paper the extraordinary music that he increasingly heard only in his mind.

The Violin Concerto was commissioned four years later by the 26-year old virtuoso violinist Franz Clement, whom Beethoven had first met when Clement was a teenager. The work was premiered on December 23, 1806, at the end of a year that also saw the completion of Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto, Fourth Symphony, the three “Razumovsky” String Quartets, a set of 32 variations for piano, and the “Appassionata” Piano Sonata. The concerto is notable for its focus on lyricism rather than virtuosity, although it is fiendishly difficult to play well. The premiere was somewhat unsuccessful, in large part due to the fact that Beethoven had only finished the violin part two days earlier, forcing Clement to sight-read sections of it at the premiere. Critics were somewhat mystified by the work, panning it as too long and overly complicated. Audiences who were expecting pyrotechnic displays of violin technique instead heard a transcendent work of extraordinary tenderness. Beethoven had once again bucked a popular trend: Whereas many early 19th-century violin concerti focused on showing off the skill of the soloist, this work was focused solely on the beauty of the music. The work languished in obscurity for some 38 years until a 12-year old virtuoso, Joseph Joachim, played it in a London performance with Mendelssohn conducting. It has now become a staple of the repertoire.

The expansive first movement opens unusually with five beats from the timpani, followed by a calm melody offered by the oboes and clarinets. It quickly becomes clear that the five strokes from the timpani are to be the central motive of the movement, as the figure is imitated repeatedly by various instruments, becoming the music’s unifying concept. A lengthy orchestral introduction follows, and when the soloist finally enters, it enters gently, slowly rising above the orchestra in an almost improvisatory moment, leading to an exquisite rendering of the first theme in the highest register of the violin. Moments of extreme delicacy, requiring extraordinary control and pristine intonation from the soloist, alternate with stronger statements from the orchestra as the movement unfolds. Near the end the soloist is given an opportunity for a cadenza, although Beethoven did not compose one, and presumably Clement improvised his own at the premiere. (Fritz Kreisler composed the cadenzas that are most frequently played today.) As the soloist concludes the cadenza, Beethoven offers the movement’s most poignant moment: a tender and nostalgic rendering of the second theme, accompanied by pizzicato strings…a final moment of repose before a traditional and somewhat grand finish ensues, capping this noble movement.

The “Larghetto” opens with a hushed, almost hymn-like theme in the orchestra’s strings, now muted. The soloist enters delicately, ornamenting the theme, which repeats in the horns and winds. This understated, almost reverent tone continues throughout the movement, culminating in an extraordinary moment where the soloist sings the theme tenderly above a barely audible accompaniment by the orchestra’s pizzicato strings. A series of hushed arpeggios ascending to the violin’s highest register conclude the movement, which then segues directly into the final “Rondo.” The mood of this last movement is one of pure joy, as a rollicking, folk-like theme is presented twice by the soloist, then joined by the orchestra. Hunting calls in the horns and winds contribute to an overall pastoral quality, as if we have come upon a village celebration. In keeping with the rondo format, the main theme returns again and again, interspersed with interludes where the soloist is given the chance for some fiery technical displays. Following a cadenza, the orchestra creeps back in slowly, offering snippets of the theme here and there, before finally joining the soloist in what we expect to be a charge to the finish. Even here though, Beethoven surprises us: The final measures see the orchestra drop out completely so the soloist can offer one last, delicate snippet of the theme, before the orchestra joins for two raucous final chords, leaving musicians and audience alike grinning from ear to ear.

Program Notes written by Betsy Hudson Traba © 2020