The Breath of Life: Beethoven’s Violin Concerto

I can’t recall if my father owned a copy of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto. Our resources were limited and he most concerned himself with collecting the recordings of great pianists performing the highlights of the late Classical and Romantic repertoire. So it is entirely possible that my first brush with Beethoven’s Violin Concerto came in 1983 when I went to hear Gidon Kremer perform it at Carnegie Hall. I was a kid, no older than my daughter is now, and so had no idea that I was walking into a hornet’s nest of controversy.

Why? Well, like most concertos, Beethoven’s features multiple cadenzas–periods where the soloist plays unaccompanied by the orchestra. While these cadenzas were originally composed, if not improvised, by the violinist, modern soloists generally use cadenzas that were written by another composer or a noted virtuoso from a previous age. Eugène Ysaÿe, the great violinist, wrote a set, as did Heifetz and Milstein. So did composer Camille Saint-Saëns. They are rarely performed. As he did with so many concertos, the violinist-composer Fritz Kreisler wrote what are probably the most-often performed set of Beethoven cadenzas. For this concert, however, Kremer had chosen to perform a set composed by contemporary Russian composer Alfred Schnittke on the heels of having recording them with Sir Neville Marriner and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields. The conservative NYC audience was outraged, my father first and foremost among them.

I, on the other hand, loved it, much the consernation of the older gent sitting next to me. The music was so daring–contrasting modern harmonic language with Beethoven’s (and finding that they had plenty to say to each other). In my view these new cadenzas worked, even the infamous cadenza in the third movement that sounds like a swarm of bees. My reaction at the time was purely visceral, lacking in any real understanding of what Schnittke was doing.

On repeated listening, however, something deeper began to emerge. In his cadenzas, Schnittke quotes endlessly from centuries of great music–and, in particular, music written for the violin. The long candenza at the end of the long first movement is a prime example. Schnittke starts with a quote from Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony as if to say: “yes, let’s start here, with heroic Beethoven.” Then he moves on the Brahms, a natural succession. But then he jumps forward to Shostakovich (his first violin concerto) and Bartok (his great second violin concerto), before moving on to the Berg concerto. Far from the travesty these candenzas are often made out to be–Kremer retreated back to playing Kreisler’s if memory serves–Schnittke is paying homage to Beethoven. It’s as if he’s saying: “This is the source of everything.” Tonal and atonal music cooexist seemlessly here. This is one of the greatest examples of The Conversation in music.

Back to Beethoven. The score was dedicated to French violinist Franz Clement, who debuted the concerto. Characteristically, Beethoven was behind schedule, so Clement had to sight read a good chunk of the score (and likley improvised the cadenzas on the spot). This is not a good recipe for success under the best of cicrumstances, let alone at a time when Beethoven was attempting to push audiences away from the cozy, refined countours laid out by Haydn and Mozart. In the Classical tradition, the concerto was a polite conversation between soloist and orchestra, all pulling in the same direction: The soloist develops a theme; the orchestra repeats it later on. Beethoven shattered that expectation here. Just as the Kreutzer Sonata is really a duet for piano and violin, the orchestra is an equal partner to the violinist here.

A few notes on the score:

The concerto opens with a solo timpani, which plays four unaccompanied notes. Prefiguring his Fifth Symphony and reflecting parts of the Appassionata covered last week, Beethoven obsessively focuses on these four notes, which repeat in virtually every measure of the first movement. It is the central idea of the opening movmement, and as simple as you can get. The same note repeated in a basic 1-2-3-4 rhythm. Indeed, one of the only legitimate critiques of the Schnittke candenzas I can think of is that they abandon this otherwise omnipresent pulsing five note motif.

Now, it is tempting to say that it is a four-beat motif (which nearly everyone does), but it is actually five beats. The fifth beat coincides with the first beat of the next motif. Listen carefully to the opening–the timpani plays five notes, not four. This has a profound effect on the ear. To explain:

On beats 1-4 you inhale; on the 5th beat you exhale. And the tempo corresponds to a normal breath that one could call an ordinary, everyday sigh. So there is a feeling – a visceral physical experience – of a release of tension on that 5th beat, each and every time it occurs (which is most of the movement).

But that is also the beginning of a new inhaled breath. So you get an overlapping effect of a buildup of tension and a release of tension on the same beat – beat #1 of the measure. And it happens throughout the movement. There is this constant juxtaposition of inhaling and exhaling.

And so you may actually hear it and experience it differently every time, because on any given measure, sometimes you’re exhaling and sometimes you’re starting to inhale – buildup and release of tension – constantly and in ever-different sequences. Even that famous measure with the 3 beats of rests, when you think about it, is actually part of a 5-beat “motif” of silence. . . . It is, I believe, the breath of life that Beethoven captured, and this, more than anything else, is what gives this 1st movement an olympian sense of serenity.

Sander Marcus, Violinist.com

This is the key to this work and fully in line with Beethoven’s knack of presenting something that appears very simple but is in fact something quite revolutionary–in his quest to knit his musical lines together, Beethoven is writing overlapping motifs. And if this sounds baroque, it is. Indeed, the music of past masters would increasingly inform his compositions as Beethoven aged. This is not to say that Beethoven retreated to earlier forms–to the contrary, Beethoven used techinques pioneered in earlier periods to better develop his revolutionary ideas.

And these revolutionary ideas are present here too. There are also the now-expected dissonances–the D# in the first movement, for example. The movement opens in D Major, which should allow the violin to play on their open strings, creating a lush sound. But when the violins actually enter, they play the four note motif on D#, immediately introducing harmonic tension and shattering that expectation. Following the transition, Beethoven introduces a second theme. Like he did in the Appassionata, this theme essentially summarizes everything we have heard so far, rather than a entirely new theme. This is yet another step in the Beethoven’s development away from formal structure. In fact, as the melody falls away, all that is left are those insistent four notes–echoes of the Fifth Symphony.

And then the soloist enters, playing one of the most difficult passages ever written for the instrument. For once with Beethoven, it isn’t the rhythm that gets you–it’s the octaves. While pianists (like Beethoven) don’t think twice about their perfectly tuned instruments, octaves played on the violin expose lapses in technique and intonation like nothing else. Even the slightest error leaves you totally exposed, especially since the violin enters solo. I note that Beethoven surely knew this to be the case. In addition to playing the piano, the young Beethoven played viola in his Bonn orchestra. (As always, viola sections are hard to fully staff.). Although he was not a great violist, Beethoven surely knew what posed the greatest challenges for a string instrument. Writing for the great Clement, therefore, Beethoven sought to pull out all the stops.

Yet Beethoven does something truly startling here–he doesn’t give the violinist the theme. In fact, the violin rarely gets to play the theme at all (this, incidentally, was Clement’s complaint about the work). Instead, the violin serves as a second conductor, jostling with the other sections, commenting on the themes, and providing accompanimet (!) for the woodwinds. Putting the soloist through dizzing runs of scales and arpeggios, the violin part reads more like an etude (a study piece used to develop technique) than a true concerto part. The harmonies produced between the violin and the warm strings are stunning–only together, as equals, does this section really work.

In the development, Beethoven shifts gears from D Major to A Minor. And it appears that Beethoven in simply restating the opening themes in a different key. Nothing remarkable to look at here, right? Well, Beethoven, as always, has something else up his sleeve. The arpeggios for the soloist tell the tale–this is something new. After an elongated cadence, and as he did in Eroica, Beethoven introduces a new theme in the development section–in G Minor. It is a stunning turn of events–for me, the signature “wow” moment of the piece. But the music starts to fade away, melody being replaced by that four note rhythmic motif that opened the movement. It is up to the soloist to bring the music back. And in a flourish, that’s what happens–with a subtle (and easily missed) modulation the orchestra returns, seemingly by magic, to the tonic D Major and the feeling of fulfillment is hard to deny.

Reaction to the Violin Concerto was decidedly mixed. Clement received much praise for his playing–if only to compensate how shabbily he had been treated by Beethoven. The concerto, however, was quickly forgotten. Even Clement (as noted above) had little good to say of it. And so, like so much music of the time, the concerto slipped to obscurity until it was given new life by Felix Mendelssohn some decades later (with Joseph Joachim on violin!). Today, however, Beethoven’s lone effort at this form stands at or very near the summit of any list of the greatest violin concertos.

Ludwig van Beethoven, Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 61 (cadenzas, Alfred Schnittke):

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