Program Notes: Beethoven's Violin Concerto

Friday, March 15, 2019 at 8:00pm

Saturday, March 16, 2019 at 8:00pm

Sunday, March 17, 2019 at 3:00pm


Anthony Marwood, leader and violin


BEETHOVEN Romance No. 2 in F major for Violin and Orchestra, op. 50 HAYDN Symphony No. 44 in E minor (Trauer-Symphonie) BEETHOVEN Violin Concerto in D major, op. 61


Cadenzas by Anthony Marwood, based on material by Robert Levin.


Learn more about the performances here.



Program Notes

By Yvonne Frindle

LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN

Born: December 16, 1770, Bonn, Germany

Died: March 26, 1827, Vienna, Austria


Romance No. 2 in F major for Violin and Orchestra, op. 50


Whatever motivation Beethoven had for composing a pair of romances for violin and orchestra, the results were certainly “on trend” in 1790s Vienna.


The romance – or Romanze as Beethoven called it – had its roots in the vocal ballads of 15th-century Spain. By the end of the 18th century, the instrumental romance had become fashionable, especially among French violinist-composers attracted to its lyrical qualities and directness of expression.


The definition for a vocal romance in Jean Jacques Rousseau’s Music Dictionary of 1768 emphasizes its simple, affecting style and sweet, natural melodies. “A well-made romance…” writes Rousseau, “does not move one right at the outset, but each strophe [verse] adds something to the effect of the preceding ones, and the interest grows imperceptibly; and the listener finds himself moved to tears without being able to say where the charm lies that has produced this effect.”


Appropriated by instruments, the romance lost the sung words but retained the narrative spirit and song-like character. The mood could be passionate, tragic, or sentimental, but never merry, because the tempo was always slow. In this, Beethoven’s Romance in F major conforms to expectation: it’s marked Adagio cantabile – literally, a slow movement in a singing style. The instrumental romance also borrowed the structures of narrative song, most frequently a recurring refrain alternating with “verses” (rondo form).


Beethoven was influenced by the French school but he also greatly admired Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor (K.466) with its deeply expressive Romanza second movement. His violin romances are elaborate and intricately worked-out music (no embellishments left to chance), with a highly developed sense of dialogue between soloist and orchestra. And he achieves this without losing any of the characteristic simplicity and serenity.


In the F major Romance, Beethoven spins his elegant melody high in the violin range, underpinning its ornate turns with the simplest of string accompaniments before introducing the woodwinds and horns. The main theme appears three times, alternating with episodes in which Beethoven deftly introduces virtuosic leaps and runs and, in the second, an agitated mood by shifting to a minor key. Courteous pronouncements from the orchestra mark key moments as Beethoven builds lyrical and emotional interest.


You may not necessarily be moved to tears, but the charm of Beethoven’s “well-made” Romance will surely reach you with its simple beauty and subtle effect.


First Performance: This romance was most likely the “Adagio by Beethoven” that violinist Ignaz Schuppanzigh played at a concert in Vienna on November 5, 1798.

First SLSO Performance: December 3, 1908, Max Zach conducting with Hugo Olk as soloist

Most Recent SLSO Performance: November 16, 2014, Jun Märkl conducting with Xiaoxiao Qiang as soloist

Scoring: solo violin, flute, 2 oboes, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, and strings

Performance Time: approximately 9 minutes


JOSEPH HAYDN

Born: March 31, 1732, Rohrau, Lower Austria

Died: May 31, 1809, Vienna, Austria


Symphony No. 44 in E minor (Trauer-Symphonie)


Two hundred years before Facebook, the premature reporting of celebrity deaths was already a thing – the news just took a little longer to circulate. Early in 1805, word of Haydn’s death reached Paris via a London newspaper report. Cherubini responded by composing a cantata quoting Haydn’s Creation and a memorial concert with Mozart’s Requiem was planned – until advice to the contrary arrived from Vienna. Haydn wrote: “I am greatly indebted to [the good gentlemen] for the unusual honor. Had I only known of it in time, I would have travelled to Paris to conduct the Requiem myself.”


When, in 1809, the most famous composer in Europe really did die, Mozart’s Requiem was again the music of choice for the memorial service. Haydn had supposedly asked that the slow movement of his Symphony No. 44 be played at his funeral. It wasn’t, but this is probably how the symphony acquired its nickname Trauersinfonie (“Mourning Symphony”). Certainly, the work’s association with mourning was established in Haydn’s lifetime: in 1804, two of its movements were played as an overture to a concert performance of Mozart’s Requiem in Breslau.


When its publication was announced in 1772, however, it was simply a symphony in E minor. But what a symphony! This is the work of a composer who has been working in sumptuous isolation, “forced” by his own admission to be original, now reaching a brilliant maturity. A fiery first movement, the intellectual sophistication of the minuet, that luminous slow movement, the nervous concentration of the finale – together they conspire to shape a symphony of astonishing intensity and drama.


That drama comes in part from the key of E minor, which in Haydn’s time had associations with grief and restlessness. The first movement (Allegro con brio) sets out with the oboes and strings in unison – an emphatic gesture immediately followed a sighing idea. The first four notes, it turns out, are not there simply for rhetorical effect but will provide the thematic drive for the whole of this fiercely urgent movement.


The second movement is nothing like the graceful court minuets of its heritage. At the top of the movement Haydn writes “Canon in Diapason,” indicating what is effectively a special kind of round: each new part enters when the previous has reached the fourth note of the theme. And so, you’ll hear, in close succession, the violins, the bass instruments, and the violas. In the more lyrical central Trio section, the key shifts from E minor to the brighter E major and the first horn has a solo.


For the Adagio, Haydn returns to E major. If he wanted this gravely beautiful slow movement played at his funeral, it would suggest a desire to comfort his mourners with music conveying radiance and hope.


How do you end a symphony as compelling as this? Haydn keeps the emotional temperature high with a wild and at times alarming Presto (as fast as possible). As in the first movement, he begins with the instruments in stark unison, setting out the sole main theme. This is typical of the stripped-down style that enabled Haydn to put his more complex music in high relief, as he does in the middle of the finale, where insistent, thrusting phrases carry the music forward. If at this point the music is “mourning,” then it mourns with the turbulence and impulsiveness of extreme emotion.


LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN

Born: December 16, 1770, Bonn, Germany

Died: March 26, 1827, Vienna, Austria


Symphony No. 44 in E minor (Trauer-Symphonie)


Beethoven’s Violin Concerto stands alone. Completed in 1806, it was the only major concerto for the violin between those of Mozart from 1775 and Mendelssohn’s of 1844. And in this concert, its stature and scale see it take the role of concerto-as-symphony, occupying the second half.


Beethoven had never completed a violin concerto when Franz Clement, the popular concertmaster of the orchestra at the Theater an der Wien, approached him with a commission. The result, completed in the nick of time, was premiered in a benefit concert for the violinist on December 23, 1806. Johann Nepomuk Möser expressed mixed views in his report for a Viennese theatrical journal:


  • The excellent violinist Klement also played…a violin Concerto by Beethofen, which on account of its originality and many beautiful passages, was received with much approbation. Klement’s genuine art and gracefulness, his power and perfect command of the violin…were greeted with deafening applause. As regards Beethofen’s Concerto, the verdict of the experts is unanimous; while they acknowledge that it contains some fine things, they agree that the continuity often seems to be completely disrupted, and that the endless repetition of a few commonplace passages could easily prove wearisome.


Evidently the Viennese public – the superficial brilliance of concertos by Viotti and Spohr in their ears – were puzzled by Beethoven’s contribution, even as the performance pleased them. Here was a violin concerto of unprecedented substance. Even though the movements were split up, with the second and third movements played after interval, the sheer duration of the first movement (more than 20 minutes) would have given the game away.


Furthermore, the concerto was lyrical and serious rather than brilliant and showy, as if tailor-made for Clement’s playing style – a little old-fashioned and not particularly robust but imbued with “elegance and luster”. The solo part is by no means easy, but Beethoven downplays the “confrontation” between virtuoso and orchestra that’s expected in a concerto. Instead he highlights the dramatic contrasts between the thematic ideas and builds an expansive structure. The effect is of a symphony with the solo violin taking a principal part.


This “concerto-symphony” is announced by five taps from the timpani, a motif which, like a heartbeat, dominates the whole of the first movement (soberly marked Allegro ma non troppo: fast but not too much). As was customary, the orchestra presents the main themes in a long and lyrical exposition, beginning with a radiant theme in the woodwinds, before the solo violin enters with a poised flourish of octaves and its serene interpretation of the same material. The soloist must wait almost until the end of the movement, however, before Beethoven hands over the beautiful second theme, played to rich effect on the lowest string of the violin.


The Larghetto second movement has some of the character of the early romances, together with a quality that Donald Tovey described as “sublime inaction”. Listening to the suspended filigree arabesques of the solo part, it’s easy to imagine the “indescribable tenderness” of Clement’s playing, and equally easy to forget that the soloist never really has the tune.


Clement himself had written a violin concerto, also in D major, which had been premiered in 1805, sharing the program with Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony. No doubt this work provided a technical model for Beethoven, and tradition has it that Clement supplied the leaping refrain for the hunting rondo that concludes Beethoven’s concerto. (The story goes that Yehudi Menuhin’s wife, Diana, added words to this jaunty tune: “At last it’s over, at last it’s over!”) This rondo theme is introduced by the solo violin, again using just the low G string, perhaps echoing Clement’s fondness for party tricks: after the first movement of the concerto, Clement played a piece of his own, on one string, holding the violin upside down!


No such gimmick would have been possible between the second and third movements, which are linked by a solo cadenza that carries the music between the ingeniously orchestrated variations of the Larghetto and the energy of the boisterous finale.


The concerto received a second performance in 1808 but was then more or less neglected until 1844, when the 13-year-old Joseph Joachim performed it in London with Felix Mendelssohn conducting. Since then it has assumed its rightful place, not just as a staple of the repertoire but as a musical touchstone that stands alone, even in the company of the great violin concertos.


First Performance: December 23, 1806, Vienna, Franz Joseph Clement as soloist

First SLSO Performance: February 27, 1905, Alfred Ernst conducting with Fritz Kreisler as soloist

Most Recent SLSO Performance: March 20, 2016, Jun Märkl conducting with David Halen as soloist

Scoring: solo violin, flute, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and strings

Performance Time: approximately 42 minutes


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