Interlude: Pierre Rode

During his time in Vienna, Ludwig van Beethoven traded on the “van” in his name, which the local Vienesse mistook as a signifier of an aristocratic family. The German aristocracy commonly used “von” in their names, while “van” was used by exclusively by commoners. But there was nothing aristocratic about Beethoven.

Coming of age in the latter years of the Enlightenment and steeped in Kantian philosophy in particular, Beethoven loathed the aristocracy even if his home in Bonn was ruled by the more enlightened Joseph II, the Holy Roman Emperor. As Beethoven entered his late teenaged years, France erupted in Revolution. The ideals of the Revolution, the establishment of a Republic, and the commitment to human rights dovetailed perfectly with Beethoven’s youthful outlook on life. Beethoven’s ambitions quickly turned to France, not just as a political and spiritual home, but as a musical one as well.

Just as Mozart repeatedly turned to Italy for inspiration, Beethoven’s primary influence was Gallic. The French School excelled in opera–Beethoven’s lone operatic attempt, Fidelio, was based on French dramatic operas of the 1790s–and, especially, the violin. Despite its origins in Italy, the violin, first through Catherine de Medici and then through violinist-composers such as Lully (both histories detailed here some months ago), the violin reached its late Classical apex in France. Beethoven’s rededication of his most famous violin sonata to French violinist Rodolphe Kreutzer tells only part of the story.

Pierre Rode was unquestionably one of the greatest violinists of his age, evenutally becoming a court favorite of Napoleon’s. Today, he is most often recalled as having received the dedication of Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No. 10, which he premiered. He also composed a set of Caprices, which remain (at least in my day) a fairly common set of advanced studies for violin. Rode, however, also composed 13 concertos for violin and orchestra of startling beauty and originality. Until very recently, I was completely unaware of their existence, despite the dog eared copy of Rode’s Caprices gathering dust somewhere in my closet. There was a very good reason for this: The first recordings of these works were first made about 10 years ago.

We are, today and in the years to come, deeply endebtted to the great violinist Friedemann Eichhorn and the Jena Philharmonic for undertaking to record all of Rode’s concertos. Beginning in 2009, Eichhorn dug deep into Rode’s music and has produced a catalog of recordings that, to some extent, stands music history on its head. Next week, we will tackle one of Beethoven’s seminal works, which is to say one of the seminal works in all of music history–his Third Symphony. But even as Beethoven borrowed liberally from his own compositions for that truly titanic composition, I think he also might just have been influenced quite a bit by Rode’s compositions too.

I recommend the entire set enthusiastically, but here are a few highlights. Rode’s Violin Concerto No. 1 repeatedly “recalls” Beethoven’s second period compositions, especially at the start and in the atmospheric second movement–but Rode composed this in 1794, nearly 10 years earlier than comparable Beethoven works.

Pierre Rode, Violin Concerto No. 1 in D Minor, Op. 3:

Perhaps my favorite of the entire set is Rode’s Violin Concerto No. 3, a supremely polished work that prefigures many later composers. Only this concerto was written in 1798. The opening movement is frightfully difficult, far beyond anything that other composers were demanding of their violinists at the time. Is that a hint of Paganini I hear? It is no accident that when Paganini composed his famous Caprices he also chose to compose a set of 24–the same as Rode had done.

Pierre Rode, Violin Concerto No. 3 in G Minor, Op. 5:

Finally, Rode’s Violin Concerto No. 6, from about 1800. And that date is important. Here we have a work that features harmonies that move frequently among neighboring keys, disjoined rhythms, and a theme that is so ellusive that it appears largely as fragments across the entire first movement. These are some of the very innovations that Beethoven unleased in his Third Symphony. Given his obsession with France, and the French violin school in particular, it is likely that he did encouter this score–which was published 3 years prior to Beethoven’s work on the Eroica. Rode’s 6th might very well be the wellspring for Beethoven’s second period.

Pierre Rode, Violin Concerto No. 6 in B-Flat Major, Op. 8:

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