LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN: Concerto in D for Violin and Orchestra, op. 61

Ludwig van Beethoven was baptized in Bonn, Germany, on December 17, 1770, and died in Vienna on March 26, 1827. He completed the Violin Concerto in 1806, shortly before its first performance by Franz Clement at the Theater an der Wien in Vienna on December 23 that year. In addition to the solo violin, the score calls for flute, two each of oboes, clarinets, and bassoons, two horns, two trumpets, timpani, and strings.

The popular image of Beethoven, derived from what has been called his “middle period,” is of a composer who writes dramatic, tempestuous music challenging in its energy and aggressive power the cozy assumptions of older music. This is not a false image, of course, yet it is a thoroughly one-dimensional view of the composer, utterly failing to notice the rather prominent appearance of works projecting a wondrous sense of lyricism. In the last half of 1806, to take a single instance, Beethoven finished in rapid succession the Violin Concerto, the Fourth Symphony, and the Fourth Piano Concerto, all of which feature a markedly lyric style for works of a kind that elsewhere are “heroic” or “dramatic.” Yet even this generalization is too easy: the “lyric” Violin Concerto (Opus 61) was followed almost immediately by the very dramatic Coriolan Overture (Opus 62).

Beethoven wrote the concerto for a remarkable musician named Franz Clement, who had been known as a child prodigy in the 1790s, when his father had taken him on concert tours. In 1794 Beethoven heard the fifteen-year-old boy play in Vienna, and signed his autograph book as a memento of the occasion. Clement became the music director of the Theater an der Wien from 1802 to 1811. His musical memory was prodigious. When meeting with Beethoven to discuss possible cuts in the original version of his Fidelio, he played through the entire score at the piano without music. In April 1805 he was the concertmaster for the first public performance of the Eroica Symphony. It was for this remarkable colleague that Beethoven wrote his violin concerto. The story goes that he barely finished the work in time for the concert, and Clement is supposed to have played his part at sight, which must be, at the very least, a slight exaggeration.

Clement’s playing was renowned for grace, delicacy, and purity of intonation, and these are precisely the qualities called for in the soloist’s first entrance. In any case, it marks the concerto with a special benison, for Beethoven is far more concerned with the range and depth of his musical architecture and expression than he is with mere opportunities for the soloist to show off. Clement’s executive talents did not, however, prevent him from indulging in a little “showmanship” at the premiere, where he interpolated into the middle of Beethoven’s concerto—between the first and second movements—a stunt piece of his own, played with his instrument held upside down!

Beethoven was primarily a pianist, but he had also played the viola, and he surely understood the fact that the essence of the stringed instruments is a singing legato tone. To that end he created a concerto that begins with the ne plus ultra of violinistic themes, a tranquil, floating melody that hovers over the ensemble. Yet what we first hear as a melody in the strings is not quite the beginning: the very first thing we hear, most remarkably, is a solo measure for the timpani, playing four soft quarter-note beats and a fifth stroke at the downbeat when the rest of the orchestra enters. It is so quiet that it is easy to overlook; and few people in Beethoven’s day thought of the timpani as a “thematic” instrument. Yet those five beats on a single pitch form the true beginning of the theme, a fact that becomes clearer throughout the exposition of the material. And we are inescapably reminded of this at the recapitulation when the whole orchestra pounds it out.

Beethoven’s slow movement is a set of variations on a rapt theme, contemplative and almost motionless at first. The soloist’s commentary on this is exceptionally tender. Little by little the winds join in and punctuate. Eventually the strings reject the idea of a new beginning mooted by the horns, and the soloist leads—with a trill—into the rollicking final rondo, a lively, even earthy, contrast to the ethereal mood of the slow movement. The rustic character is emphasized by fanfares connecting the main themes and by the humor of the soloist’s two pizzicato notes near the end—the only time the soloist is required pluck, rather than bow, the strings in the entire concerto. That witty touch encourages all the participants to open up for a boisterous conclusion. –© Steven Ledbetter