Ludwig van Beethoven was born probably on December 16, 1770 (his baptismal certificate is dated the 17th), in Bonn, then a sovereign state, and died in Vienna on March 26, 1827. He composed this concerto in the second half of 1806, and it was first played on December 23 that year by Franz Clement at the Theater an der Wien. The first complete performance in North America was given on December 21, 1861, at the Academy of Music in New York by Edward Mollenhauer with Theodor Eisfeld conducting the Philharmonic Society. Fritz Kreisler was soloist in the first San Francisco Symphony performance, in February 1914; Henry Hadley conducted. In the most recent performances, in June 2010, James Ehnes was soloist, with Michael Tilson Thomas conducting. The orchestra consists of one flute, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns, two trumpets, timpani, and strings. Performance time: about forty minutes.
Beethoven and Franz Clement met in 1794, when the composer added his signature to the thirteen-year-old violin prodigy’s 415-page book of souvenirs “dedicated to the eternal remembrance of his travels.” Clement had already covered many a mile of Europe’s highways in the company of his father. By the time he introduced Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, a work he asked the composer to write for him, Clement was widely regarded as one of Europe’s outstanding violinists.
Clement was a formidable musician with an extraordinary memory. This stood him in good stead when he introduced Beethoven’s concerto in December 1806. In Alexander Wheelock Thayer’s Life of Beethoven we read that one contemporary noted “that Clement played the solo a vista, without previous rehearsal.” Even if it is a slight exaggeration to say that Clement sight-read his part—we do not know—these are frightening conditions for the first performance of an extraordinarily difficult and novel work.
Long afterwards, in 1842, Beethoven’s pupil Carl Czerny recalled that Clement had played the new work “with very great effect” and that there had been much applause. Czerny was nothing if not honest, but at least one contemporary report paints a different picture. The highly regarded Johann Nepomuk Möser in the Viennese Zeitung für Theater, Musik und Poesie tells us that “cognoscenti are unanimous in agreeing that, while there are beautiful things in the concerto, the sequence of events often seems incoherent and the endless repetition of some commonplace passages could easily prove fatiguing.”
Although there were occasional performances over the next three or four decades, the Beethoven Concerto did not catch on. The first violinist to make a success of it was the twelve-year-old Joseph Joachim, who played it in London in 1844 with Mendelssohn conducting. Joachim came pretty much to own the work, and it was mainly through his persuasive advocacy that it took its place as an indispensable repertory item.
The music begins with five soft beats on the kettledrum. No music had ever begun like this. On the fifth of those gently resonant taps, woodwinds begin a tranquil and dolce melody. We could, for a moment, take those beats to be nothing more than a simple introduction to the melody, but the violins’ immediate imitation of the timpani notes on a strange pitch quickly disposes of that idea. The pattern of four knocks, sometimes with, sometimes without a resolving fifth note, is more than a colorful incident. This entire, immensely expansive movement will be saturated with it.
The dense knots of repeated short notes that accompany the next idea, a scale melody for clarinet and bassoon, are a variant of the drumbeat motif, and so is the rhythmic pattern of the first orchestral outburst. When the woodwinds sing the concerto’s most famous and loved theme, the violins, with discreet support from horns, trumpets, and timpani, make sure we do not forget the pervasive tapping. Indeed, as that lyric paragraph expands, the drum rhythm becomes an integral part of the melody itself.
One more grandly sweeping melody is heard before the solo entrance. Then, when the long orchestral passage has subsided, the violin rises from the receding orchestra. It is a beautiful touch of fantasy. So is the unexpectedly quiet resumption of the movement after the cadenza. Here Beethoven gives us something we have—perhaps unconsciously—been waiting for but that he has withheld until now, the lyric melody played by the solo violin all the way through and in its simplest form. Also, in this piece so given to high-altitude flight, we now hear it for the first time low, settled, and gentle.
The slow movement is the concerto’s still point. The orchestral strings are muted and the motion of the harmonies is minimal. The movement is a set of variations on a theme that has the simplicity of a chorale. The fourth of these variations introduces a lyrical episode, touchingly ornamented and beautifully accompanied in utmost simplicity by clarinets and bassoons.
Now the music loses itself in new improvisations and sinks almost out of hearing. The orchestral strings declare that we have had enough of musing, the soloist responds, and we move into the amiable finale. This is a time for relaxation—for the listener, not for the soloist—and for simple games. Here too there is room for a passage given to the soloist alone, and again Beethoven devises a striking re-entrance for the orchestra. He also invents a coda far longer and more eventful than the tone of most of the finale would lead us to expect. The close is brilliant, calculated to earn Clement those bravos that Czerny tells us greeted him that December evening in 1806.
Michael Steinberg, the San Francisco Symphony’s program annotator from 1979 to 1999 and a contributing writer to our program book until his death in 2009, was one of the nation’s pre-eminent writers on music. We are privileged to continue publishing his program notes. His books are available at the Symphony Store in Davies Symphony Hall.
More About the Music
Recordings: Christian Tetzlaff with David Zinman conducting the Tonhalle Orchestra of Zurich (Arte Nova) | Itzhak Perlman with Carlo Maria Giulini conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra (EMI Great Recordings of the Century) | Gidon Kremer with Nikolaus Harnoncourt conducting the Chamber Orchestra of Europe (Elatus) | Yehudi Menuhin with Wilhelm Furtwängler and the Philharmonia Orchestra (EMI Great Recordings of the Century) | Vadim Repin with Riccardo Muti and the Vienna Philharmonic (Deutsche Grammophon)
Reading: Beethoven, by Maynard Solomon (Schirmer Books) | Beethoven: The Music and the Life, by Lewis Lockwood (W.W. Norton) | The Beethoven Compendium: A Guide to Beethoven’s Life and Music, edited by Barry Cooper (Thames and Hudson) | Beethoven: His Life, Work, and World, by H.C. Robbins Landon (Thames and Hudson; reprinted by Collier Books)
On DVD: Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony explore the composer and his world in Beethoven’s Eroica, part of our Keeping Score series (SFS Media). Also at keepingscore.org.