Born in Bonn, December 16, 1770
Died in Vienna, March 26, 1827
Beethoven’s only contribution to the repertoire of violin concertos proved to be a landmark. Not only was it longer and more complex than any previous work of its kind, but in symphonic thought and expansiveness it eclipsed all predecessors. It is still considered one of the most exalted of all concertos for any instrument; its only peer in the pantheon of violin concertos is the Brahms concerto (also in D major).
Beethoven wrote the concerto in late 1806, the year he worked on or completed such other masterpieces as the Fourth Symphony, the Fourth Piano Concerto, the three Rasumovsky Quartets, the first revision of Fidelio and the 32 Variations in C minor for piano. As was common in that era, Beethoven wrote for a specific soloist, the virtuoso Franz Clement (1780–1842). Clement was, by all accounts, one of the most gifted musicians in all Vienna, with a musical memory that rivaled Mozart’s. His stellar career began when he was still a child, performing at the Imperial Opera House in Vienna and under the direction of Haydn in London. In his adult years he became concertmaster and conductor of the Vienna Opera. Beethoven’s concerto resulted from a request from Clement for a concerto to play at his benefit concert scheduled for December 23, 1806 at the Theater an der Wien. The deeply lyrical quality of this concerto, the finesse of its phrases and its poetry all reflect the attributes of Clement’s playing, which according to contemporary accounts was marked by perfect intonation, suppleness of bow control, “gracefulness and tenderness of expression” and “indescribable delicacy, neatness and elegance.”
Five soft beats on the timpani usher in the concerto. These even, repeated notes become one of the movement’s great unifying devices, occurring in many contexts and moods. The inner tension of this movement is heightened by the contrast of this five-beat throb and the gracious lyricism of its melodies. The two principal themes are both, as it happens, introduced by a woodwind group, both are built exclusively on scale patterns of D major, and both are sublimely lyrical and reposed in spirit.
The Larghetto is one of Beethoven’s most sublimely beautiful, hymn-like slow movements. Little “happens” here in the traditional sense; a mood of deep peace, contemplation and introspection prevails while three themes, all in G major, weave their way through a series of free-form variations.
A brief cadenza leads directly into the rollicking Finale – a rondo with a memorable recurring principal theme, numerous horn flourishes suggestive of the hunt, and many humorous touches.
Program notes by Robert Markow