Theme and Variations

Thoughts and experiences of exploring classical, jazz, and other art music.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Beethoven, the Violin, and the Orchestra

I'm coming down to the end of my Beethoven collection, with the Missa Solemnis the last to study and to follow here. But I want to touch briefly on his two Romances for Violin and Orchestra (Ops. 40 & 50), and talk about his (sadly) only violin concerto.

I can't seem to find too much about the Romances (found on Vol. 9 of this collection), except that they were written sometime around 1800. According to the liner notes, they resemble studies of the slow movement of the violin concerto. They are pretty works, and have been recorded by a number of people.

The Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D, Op. 61, is a fantastic and beautiful piece of music. More than half of it is taken up by the first movement, nearly twenty-five minutes long. It starts out with an odd, quiet five beats on the timpani, and then the orchestra introduces the first theme. This five beat motive returns a number of times throughout the first movement as dissonant notes. These notes are used to modulate to other keys at various places in the movement.

The second movement is a lyrical Larghetto, which transitions straight to the third movement Rondo Allegro. The rondo has a dance-like theme, but the transition is not jarring as one might expect.

Along with the Platinum Collection version, I also have a version on a SACD featuring Jascha Heifetz and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, as well as a CD featuring Hilary Hahn that I will write about when I get to her CD's.

The history of the concerto is that it was a commission to Beethoven from the violinist and concertmaster Franz Clement. Ten years younger than Beethoven, the composer was quite taken with young prodigy. Clement requested that the concert show off his playing proficiency, and Beethoven obliged, finishing the work just two days before Clement's academy concert on December 23, 1806.

After Clement, the work wasn't performed, as it was considered unplayable. But, in 1844 (some seventeen years after Beethoven's death) a thirteen-year-old Joseph Joachim played it in London, composing his own cadenzas for the work. Joachim's cadenzas are often played with the concerto now, and a number of modern performers have found that the piece is, indeed, playable.