Concerto for Violin and Orchestra

in D Major, Op. 61, Ludwig Van Beethoven

In 1794, Beethoven met a precocious violinist, Franz Clement, who was only thirteen at that time.  Shortly thereafter, he wrote to the teenager, “Continue along the road on which you have already made such a fine and magnificent journey. Nature and art have combined to make a great artist of you…”  Beethoven followed Clement’s career and trusted him with conducting the first performance of his Eroica.  Selecting him to premiere Opus 61 was not surprising.

On December 23, 1806, at Theater an der Wien in Vienna, Franz Clement, noted for “graceful playing, a relatively small but expressive style, and unfailing purity in high positions and exposed entrances.. indescribable delicacy, neatness and elegance” introduced Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, which he had requested from the composer. The frequent high positions, restraint, and lyricism in Opus 61 were tailor-made for his personal strengths, and the concerto was dedicated to him.

However, the performance was deadly for several reasons. Clement had received the hand written score only two days before the musicians; the twenty-six year old was probably sight reading most of the time; a cadenza was missing and Clement most likely improvised a cadenza on the spot. Between the first and second movements, his youthful ego took over, and  he threw in a couple compositions of his own, played upside down  on one string  for a bit of saucy showmanship which regaled the audience. The concerto itself was marginalized at best. After the concert, Clement advised that the work be re-written for the piano, which Beethoven did in 1808. Eventually, this was put on the shelf.

To audiences of that time, the Violin Concerto was perplexing at best because it just did not seem like a “real” knockout concerto. For example, the opening began with a long three minute wait for soloist entry; the five note  “knocking rhythm” from the timpani seemed strange; direct connectivity between second and third movements was unusual; a brusque ending was shocking; a comparative “lack” of traditional virtuosity was disappointing, and the length seemed excessive. Reviewer Johann Nepomuk Moser commented in the Theaterzeitung,“ The concerto’s many beauties must be conceded but…the endless repetitions of certain common place passages may easily become tedious…it is to be feared that if Beethoven continues upon this path he and the public will fare badly.”  In Harmonicon, William Ayrton wrote, “Beethoven has put forth no strength in his Violin Concerto. It is merely a fiddling affair and might have been written by any third or fourth rate composer.” After this inauspicious debut, the concerto was very slow to gain traction.

It was not until the precocious Joseph Joachim at age thirteen played the concerto in London in 1844 with Mendelssohn conducting, that the concerto began to  thrive. Audience reception finally was positive, and Joachim continued to play the concerto many times to great acclaim. This support for Opus 61 was critical to its survival.

The first movement, Allegro ma non troppo, opens with five pulsing strokes from the timpani (a motif which will inhabit and unify the entire work, hence the sobriquet kettledrum concerto) followed by a calm, gently sculpted first theme sung by oboes, clarinets, and bassoons. Violins echo the timpani strokes before winds and horn present a second theme in a well-coifed statement.

After this expansive introduction, which increases anticipation and tension, the soloist finally enters with a daring passage of high ascending octaves (no room for an error in intonation) playing in quasi-improvisatory fashion before launching his first theme.  A second theme follows, and the two forces work out the ideas in tight collaboration during the huge development, concluding with a quiet section sung by the soloist.  The recapitulation is announced by reference to the opening timpani strokes from the orchestra.  Themes from the exposition re-emerge with decorative commentary. (Before the Kreisler cadenza most soloists made up their own cadenza at this point.) A quote of the second theme concludes the movement.

The Larghetto offers a stately theme presented first by muted strings then repeated by clarinet and bassoon. As the melody moves to the background, the soloist assumes a role of melodic decoration with extensive, high register ornaments swirling in graceful arabesques. This behavior immediately sets up a theme and variation format. Gradually, the soloist assumes more than a decorative role and initiates a secondary theme before the first idea tiptoes back in pizzicato. A cadenza passage carries the concerto directly into the finale.

The third movement, Rondo: Allegro, flows seamlessly with the soloist presenting a rocking theme on the low g string. This is repeated three times. The result is warm and folk-like, and the orchestra quickly joins in the informal merrymaking, as the rondo unfolds. Contrasting sections offer colorful changes of mood and key in securely crafted, bold writing. There is ample opportunity for virtuosic fun (including an inserted cadenza), and horns lend pastoral touches throughout. The concerto dwindles at the end but suddenly closes with a pair of hammered orchestral chords.

©Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, 2016.

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