I - Allegro ma non troppo
II - Larghetto
III - Rondo (Allegro)
The Violin Concerto was given its first performance on 23 December, 1806 by Franz Clement, principal violinist of the Theater an der Wien. Czerny reports that Beethoven wrote the Concerto within a very short space of time, and another contemporary notes that Clement was in fact reading the solo part at sight in the concert, without previous rehearsal. It was nevertheless well received by the audience, with whom Clement was a popular figure. Despite Beethoven’s punning superscription on the score “Concerto par Clemenza pour Clement”, the work was dedicated to the friend of his youth, Stephan von Breuning. Beethoven was persuaded by his English publisher, the composer and pianist Clementi, to produce an alternative solo part for keyboard, and the work was published in both forms, the piano version providing in itself ample justification for Beethoven’s dislike of such arrangements.
The Concerto took some time to establish itself in the concert repertoire, due no doubt to the nineteenth century violin viruosi’s predilection for the display of their own compositions and to the demands which the work makes on the performer’s musical understanding, as well as upon technical skills (Beethoven know very well the violin, because he himself played skilfully the instrument in his Bonn years). Joachim became an ardent exponent and advocate of the Concerto in the middle of the nineteenth century, and, like many later performers, he wrote a cadenza for the work. His friend Brahms paid Beethoven the compliment of writing his own Violin Concerto in the same key, as did Tchaikovsky. The Concerto has grown steadily in popularity and it has come to be regarded as the touchstone of the violinist’s art. Among the violinists who loved much to execute this Concerto, Ysaye certainly must have a special mention for his capacity to reproduce Beethoven’s spirit.
We are inclined to assess Beethoven’s individuality in terms of formal structures, thematic treatment, or emotional and dramatic content, and understimate the originality of the actual musical sound. Each of Beethoven’s works has its own sound world, which both relates to other works, and defines its uniqueness. This point is effectively illustrated by the opening of the first movement, the drum strokes introducing a quiet melodic woodwind phrase. In pure sound terms this is virtually unprecedented; at the same time the rhythmic pulsation is a generating force throughout the movement, giving rise to mystery, suspense, and triumph, as well as linking apparently independent thematic ideas (an additional factor relating the various themes is the universal predominance of step-wise movement in their shapes). Another notable feature of the movement is the interplay of major and minor versions of the same idea, a treatment characteristic of Beethoven’s work in D, from the Second to the Ninth Symphony. Here it imbues the music with a bitter-sweet flavour, and allows Beethoven to indulge in an unusual degree of lyric expansion without too much literal repetition.
The Larghetto in G major starts where the earlier Romances left off. Cast in a free variation form, it is an exquisite study in colouring. The violin sympathetically embellishes the gentle phrases of muted strings and solo wind, then takes the lead with a new cantabile phrase of its own invention, spinning it out with a sweetness which pierces the soul but defies description. The orchestra’s forte statement in the middle and its angry dismissive gesture at the end evoke the theme of Orpheus and the furies, and relate the movement of the companion Fourth Piano Concerto. The main theme of the concluding Rondo, in 6/8 time, has all the earthly ebullience of Haydn in his most unbuttoned mood. Teasingly, the violin insists on announcing it quietly twice, first on the G string, then in the highest compass, before the orchestra is allowed to seize it and rush off with it. The movement is full of energy and good humour, which do not exclude some subtle effects of instrumental and harmonic colour, and a minor episode, whose momentary shadows dissolve into the light of the major key. At the end of the rousing peroration Beethoven still keeps us in suspense with his dynamic markings, before clinching the final cadence of what is surely one of his greatest compositions.