The first performance of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D major, December 23, 1806, was certainly an inauspicious occasion for what, at the time, seemed to be a risky work. As the story goes, the work was actually not complete until shortly before its premiere. During the first performance, violinist Franz Clement, to whom the Concerto was dedicated, practically had to play the notes at sight. Additionally, Clement inserted his own spontaneous cadenza – complete with upside-down violin playing – between the first and second movement. Such “showboating” might be expected by a 1990s audience at a rock concert, but certainly not by contemporary audiences at the world premiere of a classical concerto. (As a matter of fact, Viennese audiences in Beethoven’s day probably wouldn’t have been so shocked. They might even have demanded a spontaneous encore if they liked what they heard!)
The “riskiness” of this Concerto had little to do with the performance atmosphere of its premiere. Rather, it was, at the time of its writing, risky as a concerto. The work is considerably longer than any preceding violin concerto of Mozart, for example, by almost 15 minutes. In addition, Beethoven (1770-1827) wrote for a much larger orchestra than previous concerto composers – another chancy venture to the minds of his musical contemporaries.
Perhaps most importantly, the solo violin part is exceedingly difficult. Beethoven demanded a level of virtuosity that few violinists of the era, save for Clement, could come close to. And it was also a very fussy work, with frequent changes in dynamics, sometimes from moment to moment. Critics deemed it unplayable. It would be nearly 50 years, in fact, before the Concerto would begin to join the standard concert hall repertory (thanks in great part to the efforts of Joseph Joachim, whose remarkable performance of the work at age 13, under conductor Felix Mendelssohn, brought it to greater attention in 1844, and eventually brought it into the standard repertory).
The Concerto is vintage Beethoven. The first movement, Allegro ma non troppo, opens with four strokes on the timpani, a gesture which, like the “Fate” motive opening his Symphony No. 5, is reinterpreted and recast – the rhythmic mortar of the entire movement’s musical structure. A long orchestral introduction, summarizing the entire thematic content of the movement, precedes the violin entrance. In sure Beethovenian style, the themes are reinterpreted, restructured, and reworked.
In the second movement, the Larghetto, the orchestra also introduces a theme, stating the principal idea in muted strings. After much embellishing on the first theme by the soloist, the second theme subject is announced by both orchestra and similarly commented on by the violin. After a recap of the themes, a serene coda closes out the movement.
The final movement, a spirited Rondo, begins immediately. Beethoven saves the best for last, as the flashiest, and most virtuosic passagework for the violin soloist come in this country-dance-like movement.
The Violin Concerto in D was a turning point for the violin concerto, perhaps even for the concerto itself; it was surely the first “Romantic” concerto, an expressive work that pushed the limits of the form. And clearly, despite the doomsday chorus that speculated this could mean the death of the concerto as they knew it, it only invigorated the form and showed the way for generations of composers to come.
-- Dave Kopplin, who holds a Ph.D. in composition from UCLA, is the Philharmonic’s Publications Coordinator.
Orchestration: flute, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, strings, and solo violin.
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: December 5, 1919, with soloist Albert Spalding, Walter Henry Rothwell conducting.