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Composed: 1806
Length: c. 42 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, with soloist Albert Spalding, Walter Henry Rothwell conducting

The four drum taps that open Beethoven’s Violin Concerto are one of the most surprising and audacious ideas that the composer ever committed to paper. What was he thinking? Is this an echo of the military music that emanated from the French Revolution and was to be heard all over Vienna in those warlike years? Is it an easy way to set the tempo, like those audible 1-2-3-4 counts that jazz musicians rely on? Is it a suggestion of menace or coming thunder? Is it a way to attract the audience’s attention? Or is it a tune?

The Concerto is so familiar in our concert life that it’s no longer easy to imagine the shock waves those four notes should have set off at its first performance in 1806. In fact the Concerto came into the world with very little fanfare and made little impression on the Viennese or anyone else. Not for some 50 years was it treated as the great work we now know it to be, when Joachim, David, Vieuxtemps, and other virtuosos began to play it everywhere.

Beethoven may have had no knowledge of Mozart’s five early violin concertos, but he certainly knew a D-major concerto by Franz Clement, a young Viennese violinist who had played it in a concert in 1805 at which Beethoven had presented the “Eroica” Symphony. Beethoven’s own concerto was written “par Clemenza pour Clement” as we read on the autograph score, and the dedicatee gave the first performance in December 1806, an event colored by the anecdote that he was sight-reading from Beethoven’s messy manuscript and by the program’s inclusion of a sonata to be played by Clement on a single string and “mit umgekehrten Violin” – with the instrument upside-down.

What makes Beethoven’s Concerto different from all the other violin concertos of his time is its enormously enlarged sense of space. With four symphonies behind him he now thought instinctively in the extended paragraphs of symphonic structure and was able to create a broad horizon within which his themes can be extended in leisurely fashion and adorned by graceful elaborations from the soloist. For the four drum taps are a theme, or at least a crucial part of a theme, to be taken up by the soloist and the orchestra at various points, sometimes soft, as at the opening, sometimes brutally loud, and always highly distinctive. The other themes are elegant, often built out of rising or falling scales and usually moving in stepwise motion, avoiding wide intervals and sustaining a calm dignity.

The slow movement is a group of variations on a theme of surpassing simplicity and beauty, ten measures long. First played by the strings alone, it passes to the horns and clarinet, then to the bassoon, then back to the strings with strong wind punctuation. The soloist, who has offered only decoration up to this point, then introduces a second theme, even more serene than the first, also treated to a variation. Just when a final variation seems to be hinted at by the horns, a violent series of chords sets up a cadenza-link to the finale. Since Beethoven left no cadenzas himself, every great soloist from Joachim onwards has composed his own set.

The Rondo’s catchy theme releases a burst of energy and an inexhaustible flow of lively invention. The bassoon is favored in a minor-key episode that is heard, regrettably, only once. At the end, the coda plays with the theme like a kitten with a ball of wool and rounds the work off with a light touch quite at odds with the image of a surly, stormy composer that we often take to be the real picture.

— Hugh McDonald