This piece will be played on the GDYO Season Finale on May 22, 2011 at the Meyerson Symphony Center. This program note is written by Brendan Kim, who is in the first violin section of the GDYO.
Violin Concerto and Orchestra in D major Opus 61
Ludwig van Beethoven
Born December 17, 1770 in Bonn, Germany
Died March 26, 1827 in Vienna, Austria
Ludwig van Beethoven is justly heralded as perhaps the greatest composer of all time. His immensely acclaimed concerto for violin serves as a paradigm of his musical genius, and many violinists consider the concerto as the grandfather of all pieces composed for the violin. This immense 44-minute work features pastoral elegance, dignified drama, and a symphonic part that sets itself apart from the solo accompaniment with its own heroic themes.
The Heroic Period
Beethoven’s works are generally divided into three periods of composition. This Violin Concerto dates from his second period, widely referred to as his “heroic” period. Violence and war in Europe during this time deeply influenced Beethoven’s music. Specifically, the Napoleonic Wars caused a traumatic episode in his life. Because of the deafening blasts that ensued as Napoleon was bombing Vienna, Beethoven’s home since the early 1790s, he was overwrought with the fear of hearing loss, forcing him to stay at the basement of his brother’s home with pillows covering his ears. These emotional experiences of intensity and absolute fear helped characterize this period as one boasting gripping drama, noble melodies, and musical heroism that produced unparalleled music at the time: notably the “Eroica” Symphony, the Egmont Overture, and the Fifth Piano Concerto.
The heroic period also yielded a more sensitive, halcyon side of Beethoven, referred to by many as his “pastoral” side. This style of Beethoven’s expressed his desire for peace amongst the ravages of war-torn Europe and may also have been his musical response to violence. These works have calm melodies and themes that pay tribute to the beauties of unadulterated nature. Examples of such works include the “Pastoral” Symphony, the Fourth Piano Concerto, and, Beethoven’s Violin Concerto. Beethoven completed the concerto in only five weeks in 1806, a very short amount of time for the completion of a full concerto. He was commissioned by Franz Clement to compose the work for an annual benefit concert for charity. Clement, one of Europe’s most talented violinists at the time, also premiered the work as the violin soloist in December 23, 1806 under the baton of Beethoven himself. It wasn’t until after Beethoven’s death, however, when the celebrated violinist Joseph Joachim performed the concerto with Felix Mendelssohn conducting in 1844, that the work gained recognition. Joachim, then only twelve years old, kept the concerto firmly in his repertoire and immortalized it as the iconic masterwork it remains to this day.
About the Concerto
What comes to mind with this concerto is the figure of Beethoven as a master storyteller, revealing every detail, every emotion of his story with patience, dignity, and respect, and with a touching intimacy that reaches out to the hearts of the audience. Maria Schleuning, the violin soloist for the concerto, provides personal insight to the work, describing it as “a masterpiece that requires intense concentration and study,” which although “demanding both musically and technically,” is “fulfilling, pure, and soaring.” She has studied it while in London under Yfrah Neaman, who was very knowledgeable with the work. There, Ms. Schleuning developed her basics and style for it and, while studying with other musicians, formed new ideas regarding its interpretations. Ms. Schleuning adds, “this concerto is at the top of my list of favorite works, and I am thrilled to have the opportunity to play it with the GDYO.”
The first movement of the Beethoven concerto is marked Allegro ma non troppo, which indicates a moderately fast tempo. The opening of the work starts with five lone beats from the timpani, low and resonant, which mark the beginning of the orchestral tutti that follows. The tutti, which is a term denoting that the entire orchestra plays, is repeated in different keys throughout the movement. This work possesses an interesting pattern that shifts from a series of dramatic orchestral parts to the more peaceful melodies of the solo violin, which elegantly embellish the orchestral parts and present diverse shades to the melodies. These transitions from heroic to calm, orchestra to solo violin, bring refreshing perspectives to the work. There are several different cadenzas written for this movement, but Ms. Schleuning has chosen to play the cadenza written by Fritz Kreisler, which is the most famous cadenza because of its structural beauty.
The second movement is a serene movement that continues the pastoral quality with beautiful melodies, tranquil themes, and soft dynamics. The movement starts very softly with muted strings playing shades of sound, setting the tone for the solo violin that eventually enters with a bright solo line. The pure lyricism continues throughout the movement as the winds and strings play the melody while the solo violin elaborates it. Towards the finish of the movement, the orchestra plays a striking passage that breaks the stillness the solo violin had maintained; the soloist comes in on a trill, dramatically ending the movement with bold notes on the G-string.
The second movement elides into the third movement, meaning that there is no pause between the two movements; the solo violin bursts in with a jolly, robust melody in 6/8 time. This movement brings life and gaiety to the concerto, as if the soloist is humoring us with a jovial anecdote, and the orchestra delightfully joins in on it from time to time. The movement also boasts an energetic cadenza towards the end of the movement, again written by Fritz Kreisler, upon the preference of Ms. Schleuning, which features an exciting sequence of chords. Finally, after all of the manifold emotions portrayed throughout the monumental concerto, the solo violin builds to the ending with anticipation and gracefully concludes the concerto.
Beethoven’s violin concerto is a true treasure to the violin literature that comes to mind a gem in all of its multifaceted and flawless beauty. With all of the melodies, instruments, and harmonies in perfect equilibrium, the music is truly sublime in every sense. Instrumentation for the concerto includes flute, oboe, clarinet in A, bassoon, horns in D, trombone in D, Timpani in D-A, solo violin, violin, viola, cello, and bass.
Brendan Kim, First Violin