Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Up Close & Personal: Beethoven's Violin Concerto (Part 1)

This weekend's concert with the Harrisburg Symphony – Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm at the Forum – features Augustin Hadelich (see left) returning to Harrisburg to play perhaps the greatest violin concerto ever written – Stuart Malina considers it possibly the greatest concerto ever written – the Violin Concerto in D Major by Ludwig van Beethoven.

(You can hear Stuart talk about the concerto and about the soloist in our podcast for the January concert, recorded last week.)

The concerto was not always so highly thought of. In fact, it was a failure at its premiere. Apparently it was never played again during Beethoven's life time and it was only 17 years after his death that it was “revived” and made its triumphant entry into the standard repertoire.

Beethoven wrote it specifically for one of the best violinists in Vienna at the time, Franz Clement. Ten years Beethoven's junior, Clement first performed in public a concert when he was 9, and a year later performed in London with another child prodigy, George Bridgetower (for whom Beethoven would later compose a violin sonata that would eventually become known as the “Kreutzer” Sonata). At the age of 11, Clement played a concerto on the program at Oxford when Haydn was given his honorary doctorate.

Beethoven first heard Clement play in Vienna when the boy was 14 not long after he himself had arrived in Vienna as a hopeful concert pianist intending to study composition with Haydn.

In 1802, then, Clement became the orchestral director of the Theatre an der Wien, the leading theater and opera house in Vienna. Out of gratitude for Clement's advice while he was working on his opera Leonore (to be premiered at the theater in November, 1805, but only later to be renamed Fidelio), Beethoven agreed to conduct his “Eroica” Symphony – labeled, for some reason, in the program as the Symphony in D-sharp Major rather than E-flat – at a benefit concert for the violinist in April, 1805, the first public performance of Beethoven's newest symphony. This program also included Clement playing his own concerto in D Major (one of at least six he composed) and Beethoven was so impressed with his technique and intonation, he agreed to compose a violin concerto for Clement which they would premiere the following year.

A contemporary critic described his playing in 1805:

"His is not the marked, bold, strong playing, the moving, forceful Adagio, the powerful bow and tone which characterise the Rode-Viotti School; rather, his playing is indescribably delicate, neat and elegant; it has an extremely delightful tenderness and cleanness that undoubtedly secures him a place among the most perfect violinists. At the same time, he has a wholly individual lightness, which makes it seem as if he merely toys with the most incredible difficulties, and a sureness that never deserts him for a moment, even in the most daring passages.”

Clement was famous for being able to play complex music from memory after just a little preparation. He also tended to complement his more “serious” performances with light-hearted showmanship.

This may have backfired for Beethoven's concerto: the work was barely completed in time for the performance (not an unusual issue with the composer) and apparently Clement had to sight-read the finale without a rehearsal! Since the concerto was extremely long and far more serious than the standard fare the audience would have been used to – and presumably this audience was ill disposed toward new music – Clement “broke” the concerto into two more manageable chunks by playing a sonata of his own in between the first and second movements – a sonata that he improvised, played on one string with the violin being held upside down.

It's pretty easy to realize why the concerto might not have been a success.

I'm not sure what impact this had on Beethoven's relationship with Clement who, in 1811, decided to branch out into a career as a traveling virtuoso, Clement was on an extended tour of Russia where he ran into difficulties – not the least of which was Napoleon's invasion of Russia in 1812 and all the war's subsequent impact on the Russian economy and social life. He finally returned to Vienna in 1813 and was forced to take an inferior playing “gig” outside the city before going off to Prague where he became the concertmaster there. Now 38, he returned to Vienna in 1818 and spent six years conducting at Theatre an der Wien again, but never regained the potential of the career he'd exhibited when he was 26 and Beethoven had composed a concerto for him. He died in Vienna in 1842 at the age of 62, largely forgotten.

As for the concerto itself, it too was largely forgotten. We tend to think of it as this great masterpiece striding across the repertoire like a colossus, if not just the greatest violin concerto ever written but quite possibly one of the finest concertos – period – ever composed.

But it wasn't always so. Very few violinists took it up after that premiere when it was judged a failure. In order to salvage it, Beethoven even turned it into a piano concerto – his rarely acknowledged Piano Concerto in D Major, Op.61a – which he published in 1808 at the same time he published the original Violin Concerto as Op. 61. The violin concerto was dedicated not to the violinist who commissioned and performed it but to his old friend, Stefan von Breuning; the piano arrangement was dedicated to Breuning's wife, Julie.

It wasn't, actually, till 1844 – two years after Clement's death and seventeen years after Beethoven's and 38 years after the premiere – that the Violin Concerto began to “enter the repertoire.” A few other violinists did play it but with no great success. Then Felix Mendelssohn conducted it in London with the violinist Joseph Joachim, a name we recognize as one of the greatest violinists of the 2nd half of the 19th Century. It was basically “a triumph” for both the violinist and for Beethoven's long-neglected work.

However, it's important to note that Joachim at the time of this “revival” was all of 12 years old.

It's hard to imagine such a major work by a composer so highly regarded as Beethoven (even then) being overlooked for almost forty years!

Despite its initial entrance into the world, Beethoven's Violin Concerto was written at a very busy and very happy time in the composer's life. He wrote the concerto in 1806 (when this portrait, right, was painted), the year he also composed these works:

- the String Quartet in C, the 3rd of the Three Razumovsky Quartets (completed in the spring of 1806)
- the 2nd version of the opera Leonore (later, Fidelio) with the “Leonore” Overture No. 3 (premiered in March, 1806)
- the Piano Concerto No. 4 in G (completed in the summer of 1806)
- the Symphony No. 4 in B-flat (completed in the fall of 1806)
- the 32 Variations in C Minor for solo piano (written in the fall of 1806)
- the Violin Concerto in D Major (completed in December of 1806)

The following year may not seem as productive, perhaps almost fallow by comparison, but he did write the “Coriolan” Overture, the Mass in C Major and began work on his Symphony No. 5 in C Minor as well.

*** ***** ******** ***** ***

This busy period of Beethoven's creative life is often referred to as his “Heroic” Decade, beginning with the maturity of his first quartets, stepping out into the new century with his first symphony and the third piano concerto, all completed in 1800 and basically ending with the “Emperor” Concerto in 1809. While not everything he composed during this time fits such a generic description, it seems to be the driving force behind most of the major works: grand in scope if not majestic, positive at least in outcome, assured and forward-looking.

Perhaps surprisingly, it coincides with the awareness of his impending deafness and concludes with the end of his career as a performer.

As his career as a composer began to establish itself, Beethoven seemed to fear some impending catastrophe as if he'd be destroyed by his own success.

In 1801, he writes home to Bonn about his success, how he is offered more commissions than he can accommodate, that publishers are vying for his works and that, instead of coming to an agreement with him, he states his price and either they pay or don't. And then he tells him about “that jealous demon, my wretched health, [which] has put a nasty spoke in my wheel.” Since his friend, Dr. Wegeler, is also a physician, Beethoven goes into considerable detail about these general issues and some of the treatments he has undergone, but also how, despite this, his hearing is getting weaker and weaker and how he at times gives way to despair. “Sometimes, too, I can scarcely hear a person who speaks softly; I can hear sounds, it is true, but cannot make out the words. But if anyone shouts, I can't bear it.”

A few days later, he wrote to another friend how “my most prized possession, my hearing, has greatly deteriorated.” While he'd been aware of the symptoms a few years earlier, they had recently “become very much worse.” “I must withdraw from everything; and my best years will rapidly pass away without my being able to achieve all that my talent and my strength have commanded me to do.”

These thoughts were written down the same year he composed, among other works, the “Moonlight Sonata” and had begun work on his 2nd Symphony.

But later that year, he found a new doctor and wrote to his friend Dr. Wegeler, “the humming and buzzing is slightly less than it used to be, particularly in my left ear, where my deafness really began.” He adds, though, that his hearing is certainly not a bit better, maybe even a little weaker. More than just being “hard-of-hearing” (which is what we normally think of when we hear someone is “going deaf”), he divides the symptoms into two categories: difficulty in hearing as clearly as before and the humming and buzzing that also afflicts him.

After describing the “charming girl who loves me and whom I love” - she is not of his class and so therefore they cannot marry (the timing would lead us to believe he's referring to the Countess Guicciardi to whom he'd dedicated his just-finished Piano Sonata in C-sharp Minor, later to be nicknamed the “Moonlight”) – Beethoven returns to his health and ends by adding, “I will seize Fate by the throat; it shall certainly not bend and crush me completely.” The resignation he had been reluctant to accept in the earlier letters is now being tempered by a resolution to resist, a new determination to overcome what he perhaps saw as the inevitable.

(Instead of moonlight, perhaps one might see a somewhat different “program” for the sonata he'd just completed: resignation (even Berlioz called the movement a “lamentation”); pleasant memories in society; resolution to “seize Fate by the throat”? All of which, of course, is mere conjecture but perhaps a lot closer to Beethoven's state of mind at the time than the critic who saw Moonlight on a Lake...)

But by October, 1802, things had changed. In the midst of completing his 2nd Symphony, Beethoven wrote a letter to his brothers known as “The Heiligenstadt Testament.” This emotional confession details his anxiety about his growing deafness and at times reads like a suicide note though he writes “I would have ended my life – it was only my art that held me back.” Its anguish may at times be tempered by a literary turn-of-style – he perhaps was aware this was a “document” and not just a letter – but still, it is difficult to read and not be moved:

- - - - - - -
“I must live almost alone, like one who has been banished; I can mix with society only as much as true necessity demands. If I approach near to people a hot terror seizes upon me and I fear being exposed to the danger that my condition might be noticed.... what a humiliation for me when someone standing next to me heard a flute in the distance and I heard nothing or someone heard a shepherd singing and again I heard nothing. Such incidents drove me almost to despair.”
- - - - - - -

While the issue of Beethoven's deafness is well known, the details of how it evolved and how it affected him may not be. As Maynard Solomon writes in his 1977 biography, “The data strongly suggest a pattern of progressive, though uneven, deterioration of Beethoven's hearing, which reached a state of almost total deafness only in his final decade.”

In 1804, Beethoven had difficulty hearing the wind instruments during a rehearsal for the “Eroica,” around the same time his friend Stephan von Breuning wrote that Beethoven had become “very withdrawn and often mistrustful of his best friends.” Still, in 1805, he conducted the rehearsals for Leonore (later Fidelio) and in 1808 pointed out some nuances of a musician's performance. But by 1809, he was no longer performing concertos in concerts – his “Emperor” Concerto was eventually performed by his student, Czerny four years after he wrote it – though he did attempt to play his “Archduke” Trio in 1814 with little success. It was after 1812 that people had to raise their voices when talking to him but still it was 1817 when Czerny told a future biographer that The Master “could now no longer hear music, either.” He had begun using an “ear trumpet” in 1816 but the famous Conversation Books only started being used in 1818 so visitors could communicate with him by writing down what they wanted to tell him.

He was apparently totally deaf in his right ear, but still “traces of hearing persisted through the 1820s.” In 1822 and 1823, several visitors could converse with him and Schindler, who acted as his secretary at the time, “described Beethoven listening intently to the Overture to Cherubini's Medea on a music box.” Still, in 1822, he tried to conduct a revival of Fidelio but “was forced to quit the theater.” Even in the last few years of his life, friends reported Beethoven could still understand loud speech and even undertook rehearsals of his late quartets “up to the last.” He could hear high tones (perhaps like the music box) as well as the low frequencies “of wagon wheels, the rumble of thunder, and the sounds of gunfire.”

It is also revealing to note that he wrote in the margin of the sketches for the Razumovsky Quartets, “Let your deafness no longer be secret – even in art.” He wrote that at the beginning of 1806, the year he wrote the 4th Piano Concerto and the 4th Symphony – and that ended with the composition of his Violin Concerto in D Major.

To be continued...

- Dr. Dick

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