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Length: c. 45 minutes
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, Walter Henry Rothwell conducting, with soloist Albert Spalding
Beethoven’s was the first of the big – call it “Romantic,” if you must – violin concertos. It can be distinguished from its predecessors in at least three obvious respects: its length, at some 45 minutes, a good quarter-hour longer than the concertos of Mozart; orchestration, calling for a woodwind band, trumpets, horns, timpani, and strings, vs. the small ensemble (usually strings plus a pair of oboes and horns) of the Classical-era concerto; and the difficulty of the solo part, particularly in its unprecedented utilization of the violin’s highest register.
It is in all these respects an experimental work, as is so much of Beethoven’s ear-stretching output. So, it’s hardly any wonder that it proved puzzling to its first audience. Furthermore, as we’ve read countless times, the work was not completed until shortly before the performance by its dedicatee, Franz Clement, in December of 1806 – while the composer was engaged in creating or tidying up his Fourth Symphony, the G-major Piano Concerto, and the “Razumovsky” Quartets.
The Violin Concerto’s premiere on December 23, 1806, has come down to us as a circus show, featuring one of history’s great desecration-of-genius episodes: between the first and second movements of the Concerto, Clement played something of his own devising, for violin held upside down. Whether that really annoyed anyone (including Beethoven) unduly has not been recorded. Or even whether this was worse than the common practice of inserting, say, a couple of opera arias sung by the impresario’s girlfriend or a piano improvisation by his nephew, in an era when audiences were a lot less serious than today’s about concert protocol, is open to speculation.
Nor should such shenanigans lead us to suppose that Clement was a hack. The Vienna-born (in 1780) Clement was in the estimation of his contemporaries among the foremost violinists of the time and the most celebrated child prodigy since Mozart. He achieved a reputation for playing that was “elegant and aristocratic, tender and songful, rather than exhibitionistic,” and his feats of memory were legendary.
There could have been no question of lack of sympathy, personal or artistic, between Beethoven and Clement. They were friends and colleagues. As concertmaster and conductor of the orchestra of the Theater an der Wien, Clement was in charge of the premiere of the first version of Beethoven’s only opera, Fidelio, in 1805, encouraging the struggling composer through every agonizing turn of the project; and it was Clement who provided the impetus for Fidelio’s subsequent revision and revival. The orchestra backing Clement in the Concerto was his own Theater an der Wien ensemble, accustomed to his and Beethoven’s methods and demands, and it is reasonable to assume that Clement collaborated with the composer in creating the Concerto.
None of which proves that the premiere went any better than the somewhat vague reports indicate. Of one thing we can be certain, however: the critics found the work difficult to swallow. Beethoven’s Concerto was stigmatized as “unplayable,” and indeed its reputation frightened off most violinists until nearly a half-century after its creation, when the great Austro-Hungarian virtuoso Joseph Joachim brought it permanently into the repertory, where it has occupied a central position ever since.
— Herbert Glass, after many years as a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, has for the past decade been the English-language annotator and editor for the Salzburg Festival.