Beethoven: Violin Concerto

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Violin Concerto in D major, Op.61

1.Allegro ma non troppo
3.Rondo. Allegro

Franz Clement, the dedicatee and first performer of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, is a man recalled by some with horror. At the concert in December 1806 when he gave the first performance, rather than play the whole concerto through in one go he performed the first movement in the first half of the concert and the remaining two in the second half. In between he interspersed a number of other pieces, including a set of variations of his own composing, played on one string with the violin held upside down, before continuing with the remaining two movements of Beethoven’s piece.

A little perspective is required. Those who complain po-facedly about this sullying of the concerto’s artistry would do well to remember the dedication to Clement that Beethoven scrawled on the manuscript, which consists mainly of a tortuous pun on the violinist’s “clemency”. Beethoven clearly saw no contradiction between the expression of divine ideas and a cheap joke, and there is no reason why we should be troubled by such things.

That Clement performed the concerto at sight with no rehearsal may be true or may be a tale put about to bolster his reputation as a technical master, but Beethoven certainly finished the concerto very late. Again, though, this was not such an unusual situation as it appears to us. Late into the nineteenth century, virtuosi such as Liszt were accustomed to rolling into whichever town was next on their tour itinerary and only then organising concert dates and assembling the necessary local musicians to form an orchestra. Spontaneity was the order of the day, and if we like to believe we treat this music with more reverence we might also consider what we have lost in the process.

Although now one of his most loved pieces, the Violin Concerto remained relatively unknown until Joseph Joachim took it into his repertoire in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Until then it was more likely to be heard on a very different instrument: as a violin concerto was not an enormously sellable genre, Beethoven rewrote the solo part for piano.

The concerto is unusual for Beethoven in its overall feeling of sublime calm, which is not to say that there is not plenty of drama to be had in the vast opening movement, which is filled with incident and surprises. The second movement is so filled with rapturous stillness that it takes a sudden and violent interjection to dispel the mood and prepare for the energetic finale, whose joyfulness and cheeky touches (including the soloist’s only two plucked notes in the entire piece) remind us that humour and profundity can make perfectly happy bedfellows.

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