Beethoven's Violin Concerto

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Ludwig van Beethoven is considered one of the greatest and most influential composers in the history of music. His Violin Concerto in D Major has been played by nearly every soloist in the past 150 years and, today, it is one of the major works in violin repertoire. Since its premiere by Franz Clement in the winter of 1806, many aspects of the violin, bow, and performance have undergone changes. This paper discusses the modern day knowledge of Beethoven's Violin Concerto, and how it is influencing the way violinists interpret and perform the concerto. It also points out some of the different performance styles starting from Clement's time to the present day.

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827) was born in Bonn, which is part of modern Germany. He was a great talent as a child; some even said he was a successor to Mozart. At the age of twenty-two, he moved to Vienna, Europe's great center of music, to learn from Joseph Haydn. Throughout his life, Beethoven struggled emotionally with his gradual loss of hearing. As his hearing became worse, so did his mood. Compounding the problem was the medical treatment, which often contained high level of poisonous heavy metals such as lead. He moved to Heiligenstadt in 1802 at his doctor's encouragement to seek solitude and rest. When he realized that his hearing was not improving, he again contemplated suicide. At the depth of despair, he wrote the Heiligenstadt Testament. Addressed to his brothers, this letter was also a will, and suicide note. He concluded that “the only thing that held me back was my art. For indeed it seemed to me impossible to leave this world before I had produced all the works that I felt the urge to compose.”1 Fortunately, Beethoven never sent it to his family. A few months later, his spirits lifted considerably with the success of two premieres, his second symphony and third Piano Concerto, which he soloed with the orchestra.2 The Violin Concerto came directly from the urge that he expressed in the Heiligenstadt Testament: the urge to compose all the works within him.

When the French Revolution ended, Beethoven was a great admirer and supporter of the military leader Napoleon Bonaparte. But the love ended abruptly when Napoleon crowned himself emperor in 1804. Beethoven was said to have torn off the dedication page to Napoleon of his Third Symphony, and renamed it the Eroica Symphony, according to Ferdinand Ries.3

Before the violin concerto, Beethoven's earlier violin works included a sketch for a violin concerto in C, two Romances for solo violin and orchestra Op. 40, the Triple Concerto, Op. 56, and many chamber pieces. During his lifetime, the French Violin technique was the leading school. Famous practitioners included violinists Pierre Rode (1774 – 1830), and G. B. Viotti (1755 – 1824). It is known that Beethoven had contact with them, and even dedicated his last sonata to Rode. Beethoven was influenced largely by their style since the French were known to have mastered not only opera, but specifically the violin concerto.4 The opening four notes by the timpani in the Violin Concerto, are considered in the French military style. The broken octaves in the beginning of the solo part is also taken from the French school.5

In 1806, Beethoven finished his Violin Concerto in D Major two days before its premiere performance. It has been said that the violinist Franz Clement sightread the performance. Clement had been an Austrian child prodigy. No doubt, Beethoven was attracted to the “indescribable delicacy, neatness, and elegance; an extremely delightful tenderness and cleanness in playing which indisputably places Clement among the most perfect violinists”.6 At the premiere, the concerto received mixed reviews and was not played very much for some years afterwards. It wasn't until 1844, when the young Joseph Joachim, conducted by Felix Mendelssohn, revived the concerto to wonderful reviews. Joachim was known for clear technique and great...
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