Concerto in D Major for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 61

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

Perhaps one of the most important elements necessary for understanding Beethoven’s Violin Concerto is a consideration of the performer for whom it was written.  Franz Clement, music director and concertmaster of the Theater an der Wien and the original performer of the concerto, was one of the leading violinists of his day.  He was lauded for his lightness of hand; an 1805 article in the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung wrote that his style had “an indescribable delicacy, neatness, and elegance, an extremely delightful tenderness and purity.”  He also possessed a remarkable musical memory and quick-thinking dexterity, which served him well when Beethoven finished writing the concerto a mere two days before the performance, necessitating Clement to muster his prodigal musicality in full to execute this innovative piece.  While unmistakably Beethovenian, the concerto is not a weighty drama, but rather is informed by the strengths and character of its original performer.

Clement had first met Beethoven when he was touring as a child prodigy in 1794, and later knew him as a colleague, even offering advice on revisions for Fidelio.  In 1806 he requested a violin concerto of Beethoven for his upcoming benefit concert.  By this time, the idea of writing such a piece had been brewing in Beethoven’s mind for some time; he had started one about fifteen years earlier that he never finished, and he had already written two Romances for violin, but this was to be his only completed concerto for the instrument.  The benefit concert was held on December 23, 1806 at the Theater an der Wien, with Beethoven conducting the concerto.  Also on the program were works by Mozart, Haydn, Méhul and Cherubini.  A myth prevails that Clement inserted a solo composition of his own after the first movement of the concerto, played with the violin held upside down; he did play this piece but not until the end of the entire concert.

The concerto was met with mixed reviews.  One writer in the Zeitung fur Theater, Musik und Poesie said, “If [he] pursues his present path, it will go ill with him and the public alike.”  The concerto continued to be performed on occasion over the years, but it remained relatively unknown and unpopular until a successful revival in 1844 by twelve year old violin sensation Joseph Joachim, performing in London with Felix Mendelssohn conducting.  The audience, wild with enthusiasm, interrupted the first movement several times with applause, and the concerto has been a major piece of the violin repertoire ever since.

The piece begins with four soft beats in the timpani—not as an introduction, but as a first iteration of a rhythmic motif that will be persistent throughout the entire movement in a variety of guises, weaving in and out in relentless repetition.  After an opening statement in the woodwinds joins the timpani, the motif is first taken up by the strings, sounding the four notes, with their resolving fifth note, on a strange and somewhat jarring D sharp.  The D sharps return later when they are integrated into the expansion of a lyrical theme started by the woodwinds.  The orchestra plays a sweeping passage before ebbing away to make room for the long awaited solo part, and at last the violin makes an entrance by bounding up out of the orchestra in a mini cadenza to announce its presence.  It is a playful character that capers around in a high register and shows off the virtuosity of the performer.  With an airy fancifulness, it takes what the orchestra plays and runs with it a little farther, adding flourishes of capricious elegance.

The themes take their time developing through variations with the violin’s playful take on each idea, until the orchestra suddenly arrests our attention with a tutti passage, giving the earlier lyrical theme back to the winds, and leading into a lush, dramatic variation that eventually closes the exposition in bright C major.  In the midst of this distant key the violin reappears with an expressive, plaintive response in the minor mode.  We begin to hear the five notes beating softly underneath again, growing in energy as they lead into the orchestra’s restatement of the opening in a recapitulation in the home key.  The violin plays a cadenza that ends with, for the first time in the solo part, the theme in its simplest form, as though all the fancifulness leads in the end to simplicity.  The orchestra reenters with gentle pizzicato, and together they bring the movement to a close.

If in the first movement the violin is playful with the orchestra, in the second movement it is singing with it.  In a period of serenity in the midst of the concerto, the orchestra and violin come together to share a moment in the sublime.  The strings are muted and the movement remains in G major, giving the entire section a sense of stillness.

The movement is built from a theme and its four variations.  The theme is heard first in the strings, saturated with the delicious, tender blossoming of the melody.  It is an expression of pure bliss.  The first and second variations are taken up by the clarinet and the bassoon, respectively, while the violin offers gentle, lilting agreement.  The orchestra lushly plays the third variation.  The violin plays a tender reflection, rising up to lofty heights on the gossamer thread of its musing before carrying on into the fourth and final variation, the orchestra reentering pizzicato.  At the end of the movement, the violin and orchestra rouse themselves as though waking from a dream, and a brief cadenza in the violin leads straight into the third movement.

In the Rondo, we find the violin and orchestra now dancing merrily to 6/8 meter back in D major.  We are brought back down to earth after our moment in heaven, and it is time for some fun.  The themes are connected by splendid tutti fanfares in the orchestra.  The middle section forays into a minor mode with a bassoon melody, but this is quickly swept up into the dance.  In a delightful and unexpected moment, the solo violin plays its only two pizzicato notes of the entire piece, as though in such a good mood it cannot help but throw them in there.   After the violin’s cadenza, a long trill invites the orchestra to come back in, tiptoeing quietly at first before a jubilant coda, ending with a final word from the violin.

© 2012 Pamela Feo