Violin Concerto (Beethoven)

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Ludwig van Beethoven’s Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D major, op. 61, has been celebrated as the "King of Concertos", the “unparalleled model of concerto construction”, and “the keystone of the violin repertory”[1]and recently music scholar Robin Stowell commented, “few would dissent from [t]his assessment of Beethoven’s masterpiece.”[2] In Beethoven’s day, however, the critical reception of the concerto was largely negative.

History

Beethoven’s Violin Concerto was written in 1806 and premiered at the Shauspielhaus an der Wein in Vienna on 23 December 1806. The soloist was Viennese violinist Franz Clement, whose playing was described by contemporary critics as having “suavity, lightness, [and] brilliance”, with “habitual elegance and clarity”[3]; and Stowell comments, “A clear case” can be made for Beethoven’s “tailoring his concerto to suit this particular neat, elegant and lyrical playing style.”[4] Another influence on the style of the concerto may have been the Violin Concertos of Giovanni Battista Viotti, which were highly esteemed in Beethoven’s day and which were exemplars of the so-called French Violin School (i.e., style).[5]

A contemporary review of the premiere in Wiener Theaterzeitung reported: “the judgement of the critics is unanimous; certain beauty is conceded, but they find that the construction is weak, and that unending repetition of certain uninteresting places might easily cause fatigue.”[6] The concerto may have only been performed twice in Beethoven’s life.[7] Following its premiere, its next “memorable audition” didn’t come until 1828, in Paris.[8] Its premiere in London in 1832 occasioned more negative reviews, one of which went: “a fiddling affair, that a composer of the third or fourth class could have written.”[9] Niccolo Paganini, the most famous violinist in Europe of the 1820s-1830s, revered Beethoven but never played the concerto in public; he and other virtuosos such as Louis Spohr considered the violin part lacking in crowd-awing technical effects and showmanship.[10] A critical re-evaluation of the concerto was inspired by its rapturously received performance by the twelve-year-old Joseph Joachim in London on 27 May 1844; Joachim subsequently played it to further widespread acclaim throughout Germany in the 1850s.[11] Many notable violinists of the later nineteenth century followed Joachim’s example, and by the time the eleven-year-old Yehudi Menuhin performed the Beethoven concerto at Carnegie Hall in New York City on 25 November 1927, the beginning of his international career, the Beethoven concerto had become the “focal work” of the genre for violinists.[12] Most major concert violinists of the twentieth century have recorded the piece for album or CD, or have played it on television, in film, or on DVD, including Accardo, Heifetz, Kreisler, Menhuin, Mutter, Oistrakh, Perlman, Stern, and Szigeti.

Structure

The concerto is in three movements.

I. Allegro ma non troppo [535 bars]

II. Larghetto [91 bars]

III. Rondo. Allegro [359 bars]

References

  1. Lawrence Sommers, “Beethoven's Violin Concerto”, Music & Letters, Vol. 15, No. 1. (Jan., 1934), pp. 46-49.
  2. Stowell, Robin, Beethoven: Violin Concerto (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), p. ix.
  3. Sommers, p.46; 47.
  4. Stowell, p. 29.
  5. See Boris Schwarz, “Beethoven and the French Violin School”, The Musical Quarterly, Vol. 44, No. 4. (Oct., 1958), pp. 431-447.
  6. Sommers, p. 47.
  7. Stowell, p. 34
  8. Sommers, p. 48.
  9. Ibid.; Stowell, p. 35.
  10. See, for example, De Courcy G. I. C., Paganini The Genoese (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1957), I., 13; Sugden, John, Niccolo Paganini (Kent: Midas Books, 1980), p. 78; Kolander, Walter, The Amadeus Book of the Violin (Portland, Oregon: Amadeus Press, 1988), p. 383.
  11. Stowell, p. 35.
  12. Magidoff, Robert, Yehudi Menuhin (London: Robert Hale Limited, 1956), p. 83; Stowell, p. 39.