Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Concerto Guide: Beethoven Violin Concerto in D major, op. 61

I am going to start with a musical example:

Those five notes for tympani (actually the same note, five times) is, believe it or not, the beginning and core motif of probably the greatest violin concerto ever written. The idea of starting a great work of the most profound lyricism with five taps on the tympani is both brilliant and audacious and one that only Beethoven would have come up with.

The Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D major by Beethoven, a middle-period work written in 1806, absolutely transformed the genre. The concerto genre actually began with examples for violin and we have hundreds of brilliant ones by Vivaldi and a few magnificent ones by Bach and later, Mozart. But all of those concertos are relatively brief. The ones by Vivaldi are typically between six and ten minutes in length and those by Bach and Mozart not much longer. Mozart wrote five concertos in one year, all for his own use, and the longest of them is around 28 minutes. What Beethoven did was elevate the genre to the level of a major symphonic work, the equal of any of his symphonies, and he did this first of all by hugely expanding the form. This concerto is nearly twice as long as any previous one for violin. The first movement alone is 25 minutes long, roughly equal to a whole concerto in three movements by Mozart. The Beethoven Violin Concerto comes just a couple of years after his similar transformation of the symphony with his Symphony No. 3, "Eroica".

Hillary Hahn, who recorded this concerto when she was only eighteen years old, has said that it stood at the pinnacle of the massive hierarchy of studies and repertoire assigned to her when she entered the Curtis Institute to study with Jascha Brodsky. Others have accorded it first place in rank among all violin concertos. I would not disagree. Ever since this piece, every composer of stature has tried to write at least one violin concerto that would be worthy to be set aside the Beethoven. Brahms was the first and he adopted not only the great length, but also the great passion, lyricism and depth of the Beethoven. Since then a succession of great violin concertos by Tchaikovsky (the piece that turned me on to classical music), Sibelius, Berg, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Bartók and Esa-Pekka Salonen have all strived to match the Beethoven for both its power and sensitivity.

How did Beethoven achieve so much with so little? I offer that tiny musical motif again for your consideration:

Even for Beethoven that is pretty minimal, but that is one of the great secrets of both his music and that of Joseph Haydn: they achieved great things with the most minimal of materials. Mozart, from whom melodies, rhythms and harmonies seemed to flow like a river, was quite different!

Before we go any further I urge you to purchase the Hillary Hahn recording of the concerto which is likely to bring tears to your eyes. Go ahead, I'll wait. Oh, here is the Amazon link. Now let's listen. This is the Hahn recording, but the video has no connection to the soundtrack, so don't watch it. And you should still buy the recording!

The music is so wonderfully expansive and unhurried. The violin can skip around furiously with the best of them, as Paganini demonstrated all too many times, but its even greater strength is its incredible capacity for nearly vocal expressivity and nuance. That is what Beethoven will exploit to the fullest here and what has inspired so many other composers to see if they could do the same. Those opening beats on the tympani are answered by the briefest phrase in the woodwinds:

This, along with the simplest expansions of the tympani motif:

and some scale passages seem to be all Beethoven needs to build his opening exposition for orchestra. There is a very simple secondary theme:

We don't hear the solo violin for three minutes until it enters with this:

Click to enlarge

Notice that, except for the occasional sf, the prevailing dynamic is piano. Pretty much everything we hear from here on is based on these simple ideas, but delivered with the maximum of creative brilliance and expressive depth. That repeated note pattern keeps coming back, uniting the whole structure, but each time with some twist that enlivens it. Here it is turned into a diminished third:

As I was saying, this is a very expansive first movement. An Allegro, yes, but an Allegro ma non troppo (not too much).

Why are so many violin concertos in D major (or sometimes G major or A major)? The answer lies in the tuning of the violin: G D A E. These open strings give you not only the tonic of D, but also the dominant and subdominant. In A the same is true. This greatly increases your ability to do double-stops in those keys using open strings.

I think I am going to save the second and third movements for a subsequent post. So let's end by listening to that first movement again. Here is Itzak Perlman playing just the first movement:


Craig said...

I enjoyed this post and I'm looking forward to its successors. The Beethoven violin concerto may be great, but I confess I rarely listen to it. It's that third movement: I can't stand it! There may be no single movement of "core repertoire" music that irks me more. Something about that initial theme for the violin gets under my skin. I have to make it stop.

Bryan Townsend said...

The first movement is certainly my favorite, but I don't mind the other two. I am going to do another post on the 2nd and 3rd movements so maybe I can figure out what is annoying about that theme.

And thanks for the encouragement. This is a fun project and I'm getting to know some pieces I hardly knew before.

Anonymous said...

Craig: I am with you. The theme of the 3rd mvt is academic, uninspired, conventional. The movement has touches of the Pastoral symphony but with none of the melodic genius of the latter.

Anonymous said...

The third mvt sucks but the first one is sublime.

I think Beethoven was never comfortable with the genre (remember: 5 piano concertos vs. 1 for the violin). Same with the opera. Composing Fidelio (a great opera!) was root canal for Ludwig. The man was a genius (more so than Mozart in my view) but he was not a natural gift to music the way Bach and Mozart were.

Bryan Townsend said...

And the Music Salon commentariat rises up and gives me a good start on my next concerto post! Yes, Beethoven seems to have had problems with last movements and I'm looking forward to digging into this one.

Rickard Dahl said...

The 1st movement is simply put amazing. It has wonderful themes and it all flows incredibly well. Interesting analysis. I look forward to your analysis on the other movements.