BeeMo VC

Severance Hall
February 13 – Thursday at 7:30 p.m. 

February 14 – Friday at 7:00 p.m.*  
February 15 – Saturday at 8:00 p.m. 
February 16 – Sunday at 3:00 p.m. 

Violin Concerto, in D major, Opus 61

Ludwig van Beethoven  (1770-1827)
composed 1806

At a Glance
Beethoven wrote his Violin Concerto in 1806 for Franz Clement, who was the soloist in the first performance on December 23, 1806, in Vienna.  The score was published in 1808 with a dedication to Beethoven’s childhood friend Stephan von Breuning.  

This concerto runs about 45 minutes in performance.  Beethoven scored it for flute, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and strings, plus solo violin.  

The Cleveland Orchestra first performed Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in January 1920, when the 19-year-old Jascha Heifetz appeared as the soloist, with Nikolai Sokoloff conducting.  Since that time, the concerto has been presented by the Orchestra quite frequently, performed with many of the world’s greatest violin soloists.  The Orchestra’s most recent performances were at Blossom in 2012, with soloist Gil Shaham led by Jahja Ling, and at Severance Hall in January 2013, with violinist Joshua Bell conducted by Franz Welser-Möst.

About the Music
The four drum taps that open this Violin Concerto are one of the most surprising and audacious ideas that Beethoven ever committed to paper.  What was he thinking?  Is this an echo of the military music that emanated from the French Revolution — and which was to be heard all over Vienna in those warlike years?  Is it an easy way to set the tempo, like those audible 1-2-3-4 counts that jazz musicians rely on?  Is it a suggestion of menace or coming thunder?  Is it a way to attract the audience’s attention?  To make everyone sssshush and listen quietly right from the top?  Is it a tune?

The concerto itself is so familiar to many of us — along with so many even more daring ideas let loose in the past two centuries — that it’s quite a challenge today to imagine the shock waves those four notes should have set off at its first performance in 1806.  Unless, perhaps, the audience was too noisy to allow anyone to hear them clearly (or at all).  Perhaps the Viennese were already used to Beethoven’s eccentricities and regarded this as just another of his strange ways.  

At the time, critics in the press barely noticed the oddity of such an opening.  Instead, they complained about the concerto’s length and repetitiousness, and mostly expressed the view that things would be better if Beethoven reined himself in a little and stuck to the agreeable style he had perfected in his first two symphonies.  No one was yet ready to bask in the work’s beautifully melodic and elegant writing for the violin, or appreciate the spacious symphonic breadth of the first movement, let alone declare this to be the finest violin concerto anyone had ever heard. 

In fact, this concerto came into the world with very little fanfare and made little impression on the Viennese or anyone else.  Not for some fifty years was it treated as the great work we now know it to be, when Joseph Joachim, Ferdinand David, Henri Vieuxtemps, and other virtuosi began to play it everywhere.  In the 1870s, a crop of fine concertos appeared — by Brahms, Lalo, Tchaikovsky, and Bruch — all more or less in homage to Beethoven’s concerto and most of them in the same key of D major. 

If later concertos were written to honor Beethoven’s, where was Beethoven’s inspiration from?  He probably had little if any knowledge of Mozart’s five early violin concertos (they, too, didn’t gain popularity until decades later).  Instead, Beethoven’s models were mostly French, in concertos by Viotti, Kreutzer, and Rode, all working in Paris.  He may also have known Louis Spohr’s concertos.

Beethoven also almost certainly knew a D-major concerto by Franz Clement, a young Viennese violinist who had played it in a concert in 1805 at which Beethoven had first presented his Symphony No. 3, nicknamed the “Eroica.”  Beethoven’s own concerto was written “par Clemenza pour Clement” in the autograph score, and the dedicatee gave the first performance in December 1806, an event colored by the anecdote that Clement was sight-reading from Beethoven’s messy manuscript and by the program’s inclusion of a sonata to be played by Clement on a single string and “mit umgekehrten Violin” — with the instrument upside-down.  (Such stunts were common at concerts of the time — and often what audiences remembered most.)

Beethoven’s concerto
What makes Beethoven’s concerto different from all those others from his time is its enormously enlarged sense of space.  With four symphonies behind him, he now thought instinctively in the extended paragraphs of symphonic structure and was able to create a broad horizon within which his themes can be extended in leisurely fashion and adorned by graceful elaborations from the soloist.  For the four drum taps are a theme, or at least a crucial part of a theme, to be taken up by the soloist and the orchestra at various points, sometimes soft, as at the opening, sometimes brutally loud, and always highly distinctive.  The other themes of this opening movement are elegant, often built out of rising or falling scales and usually moving in stepwise motion, avoiding wide intervals and sustaining a calm dignity.

Since Beethoven left no written-out solo cadenzas for this concerto, violinists have been writing their own for two centuries.  Spohr, Joachim, Vieuxtemps, Eugène Ysaÿe, Fritz Kreisler, Jascha Heifetz, and dozens of others have published their own versions, and some more recent cadenzas break with convention by quoting from other concertos or indulging in modernisms such as quarter-tones written in the cracks between notes within Beethoven’s own tonal scale.  All three movements offer opportunities for cadenzas, the one at the end of the slow movement acting as a link to the rondo finale.  

The middle slow movement is a group of variations on a theme, ten measures long, of surpassing simplicity and beauty.  First played by the strings alone, the theme passes to the horns and clarinet, then to the bassoon, then back to the strings with strong woodwind punctuation.  The soloist, who has offered only decoration up to this point, then introduces a second theme, even more serene than the first, which acts as an interlude before the next variation, marked by pizzicato strings.  Perhaps Beethoven was thinking of Haydn, who also liked to leaven his sets of variations with secondary themes.  This second theme returns, accompanied now by the winds.  The movement has remained firmly in its home key of G major throughout, and just when another variation seems to be hinted at by the horns, a violent series of chords sets up the cadenza-link into the finale.    

The Rondo third movement’s catchy theme releases a burst of energy and an inexhaustible flow of lively invention.  The bassoon is favored in a minor-key episode that is heard, regrettably, only once.  At the end, the coda plays with the theme like a kitten with a ball of wool — rounding the work off with a light touch quite at odds with the image of a surly, stormy composer that we too often take to be the real Beethoven. 

Hugh Macdonald © 2020