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Beethoven's Violin Concerto

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Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 61


COMPOSER: Born December 16, 1770, Bonn; died March 26, 1827, Vienna
WORK COMPOSED: 1806. Commissioned by and dedicated to Franz Clement, music director and concertmaster of the Theater an der Wien
WORLD PREMIERE: Clement performed the solo at the premiere, which Beethoven conducted at the Theater an der Wien on December 23, 1806.
INSTRUMENTATION: Solo violin, flute, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and strings

Ludwig van Beethoven’s only violin concerto is truly iconoclastic, and it shattered conventional notions of what an early Romantic concerto could be. Instead of using the concerto as a vehicle to show off the soloist’s technique, Beethoven recreated the genre, giving the soloist plenty of opportunities to display their talents with music full of depth and innovation.

Beethoven composed the Violin Concerto during a highly productive period that stretched from 1804 to 1806. During this time, Beethoven wrote some of his best-known music, including the Fourth Piano Concerto, the “Razumovsky” string quartets, the Fourth and Fifth symphonies, and the “Appassionata” Piano Sonata.

Franz Clement, the 21-year-old music director and concertmaster of the Theater an der Wien, commissioned the Violin Concerto. After the premiere, Clement made suggestions for revisions to the solo part, and Beethoven’s manuscript shows a number of corresponding alterations. Contrary to convention, Beethoven did not write a cadenza – the extended unaccompanied solo passage usually found at the end of the first movement – where the soloist demonstrates their technical and artistic skill. Presumably Clement improvised a cadenza at the premiere; since then, many violinists and composers have composed their own. Today’s audiences are probably most familiar with the cadenza created by violinist Fritz Kreisler.

Any piece of music can be spoiled by a poor performance. According to published accounts, Beethoven finished the concerto just two days before the premiere, which meant Clement had to sight-read the opening performance. Although it was beautiful – and staggeringly difficult to play – the lack of adequate rehearsal, among other factors, gave the Violin Concerto a bad reputation that took 30 years to overcome. In 1844, 12-year-old violin virtuoso Joseph Joachim played the concerto at his debut with the London Philharmonic. Joachim pored over the score, memorized the entire piece, and composed his own cadenzas in preparation. The hard work paid off, as one reviewer noted, “[Joachim] is perhaps the first violin player, not only of his age, but of his siècle [century]. He performed Beethoven’s solitary concerto, which we have heard all the great performers of the last twenty years attempt, and invariably fail in . . . its performance was an eloquent vindication of the master-spirit who imagined it.”

Unlike Beethoven’s concertos for piano, which feature thick, dense chords and difficult scalar passages, the violin solo is graceful and lyrical. This warm expressiveness matched Clement’s style of playing, which Beethoven said exemplified “an extremely delightful tenderness and purity.”

The concerto begins with five repeating notes in the timpani, an unconventional opening for any piece of music written in 1806. This simple knocking is repeated, like a gentle but persistent heartbeat, throughout the movement, and becomes a recurring motif. In another distinctive break from tradition, the soloist does not enter for a full three minutes, and then begins a cappella (alone), before reiterating the first theme in a high register.

The Larghetto’s main melody is stately, intimate, and tranquil, and becomes an orchestral backdrop over which the solo violin traces graceful arabesques in ethereally high registers. The soloist takes center stage in this movement, playing extended cadenzas and other passages with minimal accompaniment.

The final Rondo: Allegro flows seamlessly from the Larghetto; the soloist launches immediately into a rocking melody that suggests a boat bobbing at anchor. Typical rondo format features a primary theme (A), which is interspersed with contrasting sections (B, C, D, etc.). Each of these contrasting sections departs from the (A) theme, sometimes in mood, sometimes by shifting from major to minor, or by changing keys entirely.





COMPOSER: born December 10, 1913, New York, NY; died February 21, 1996, Orlando, FL
WORK COMPOSED: written for cellist, conductor, and music educator Mstislav Rostropovich and the National Symphony Orchestra, to commemorate Rostropovich’s retirement as conductor of the NSO
WORLD PREMIERE: Mstislav Rostropovich led the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D. C., on March 10, 1994.
INSTRUMENTATION: string orchestra

Composer, arranger, conductor, pianist, child prodigy: Morton Gould answered to all of these. His life and career traced the eclectic course of 20th-century American music, from vaudeville and Tin Pan Alley to Broadway and concert halls around the world. Gould made over 100 recordings, many of which became bestsellers, and a number of his compositions, including Stringmusic, are now part of the standard orchestral repertoire.

In January 1995, Gould told his biographer Peter Goodman, “I would love the Pulitzer Prize, which I will never get, by the way.” Three months later, Stringmusic won the prestigious composition award, much to Gould’s surprise and delight.

Stringmusic, which Gould composed for his friend and colleague Mstislav “Slava” Rostropovich, showcases all the possible sounds and colors of a string orchestra. In his program notes, Gould wrote, “Stringmusic is a large-scale suite, or serenade, for string orchestra . . . I have been especially concerned with contrasts in terms of color and texture; there is a great deal of antiphonal writing – sometimes to the extent of suggesting two separate string orchestras. Frequently I have one section playing entirely pizzicato (plucked strings) while the other plays arco (bowed). Basically, Stringmusic is a lyrical work, built entirely on original themes and reflecting, in a way, the many moods and many facets of a man and musician we have all come to know for the intensity and emotion of his commitment to music and life.”

“When Slava conducted my Latin American Symphonette in 1990 . . . he told me he especially liked the second movement, a Tango, because he is ‘a tango expert,’” Gould recalled. “ . . . After a somewhat strident Argentine-style tango episode, with its pronounced rhythm, there is a striking change to a languorous, voluptuous episode for four violins, in the old Mitteleuropa cafe style – a sort of parody, but not quite.”

The Dirge reflects “not only the intensity but in particular the sense of sorrow, loss, and even anger that must be associated with so much that Slava has experienced in consequence of his ideals and his loyalties,” said Gould. “The cortege-like quality of this elegiac music, I feel, is in keeping with a prominent part of his personality.” In the Ballad, which Gould describes as “a Lied for string orchestra, a sort of love note,” the emotional tension dissipates, and the concluding Strum “starts very fast, with tremolo effects and double notes and lots of contrast, and takes off as a real virtuoso piece, unreservedly jubilant.”



Islamey: Oriental Fantasy, Op. 18


COMPOSER: born January 2, 1837, Nizhniy Novgorod; died St. Petersburg, May 29, 1910
WORK COMPOSED: Mily Balakirev began writing Islamey for solo piano on August 21, 1869, while visiting his friend and colleague Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, and completed it on September 25 – “at 9:30 in the evening,” according to a note in the original manuscript – of that year in St. Petersburg. Balakirev published a revised version in 1902 and dedicated Islamey to pianist Nikolai Rubinstein.
WORLD PREMIERE: Rubinstein gave the premiere of the original piano version on December 12, 1869, in Moscow. Alfredo Casella created his orchestral arrangement between 1907 and 1908. Balakirev approved it, after making two revisions, and Casella premiered his orchestrated version in Paris in 1908. Casella dedicated his orchestration to Russian conductor Alexander Siloti.
INSTRUMENTATION: Piccolo, 3 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, E-flat clarinet, 3 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, antique cymbals, bass drum, cymbals, glockenspiel, snare drum, tambourine, tam tam, triangle, 2 harps, and strings

One-upmanship sometimes plays a part in musical composition. In 1908, when Maurice Ravel began working on Gaspard de la nuit, considered the most technically challenging piano composition in the solo repertoire, he said he wanted to compose a piece “more difficult than Mily Balakirev’s Islamey.”

Balakirev wrote Islamey during a white-hot spate of inspiration in August and September 1869 for pianist Nikolai Rubenstein. Balakirev had traveled several times to the Caucasus region of Russia, where he heard the music that became the main theme of Islamey. In a letter to a friend, Balakirev shared his impressions of the area:

“ . . . the majestic beauty of luxuriant nature there and the beauty of the inhabitants that harmonises with it – all these things together made a deep impression on me . . . Since I interested myself in the vocal music there, I made the acquaintance of a Circassian prince, who frequently came to me and played folk tunes on his instrument, which was something like a violin. One of them, called Islamey, a dance-tune, pleased me extraordinarily and . . . I began to arrange it for the piano. The second theme was communicated to me in Moscow by an Armenian actor, who came from the Crimea and is, as he assured me, well known among the Crimean Tatars.”

Balakirev was an outstanding pianist in his own right, and much admired by his colleagues. Together with César Cui, Modest Mussorgsky, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, and Alexander Borodin, Balakirev was known as one of the Mighty Five (Kucha), a group of Russian composers who established the Russian national sound. In his memoir My Musical Life, Rimsky-Korsakov wrote of Balakirev, “His personal fascination was enormous . . . He remembered every bar of music he had ever heard, memorized instantly all compositions played to him.”

Not long before Balakirev died, Italian conductor and composer Alfredo Casella arranged Islamey for orchestra. In this version, Casella, also a virtuoso pianist, preserves Islamey’s breakneck speed and high spirits, and his deft orchestration emphasizes Balakirev’s brilliant colors and dazzling effects.

© 2017 Elizabeth Schwartz

Elizabeth Schwartz is a free-lance writer, musician, and music historian based in Portland. In addition to annotating programs for the Oregon Symphony, the Oregon Bach Festival, Chamber Music Northwest, and other organizations, she has contributed to the nationally syndicated radio program “Performance Today,” produced by American Public Media. Schwartz also writes about performing arts and culture for Oregon Jewish Life Magazine. www.classicalmusicprogramnotes.com


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