Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Up Close & Personal: Beethoven's Violin Concerto (Part 2)

Augustin Hadelich performs Beethoven's Violin Concerto with the Harrisburg Symphony this weekend - Saturday at 8pm, Sunday at 3pm at the Forum - on a program called Winterscapes which includes Jennifer Higdon's SkyLine (the exciting opening of CityScape, composed in 2002) and Sergei Rachmaninoff's valedictory Symphonic Dances, a nostalgic look at the dances of Imperial Russia composed in 1940, 23 years after the Bolshevik Revolution swept away Rachmaninoff's familiar world.

This post continues a look at one of the greatest concertos of all times.

In so many ways, Beethoven's only violin concerto – and after all the work he must have put into it only to have it become an “epic fail” at its premiere may explain why he never bothered to write another one – is on a whole different level from most of the virtuosic concertos we're familiar with written later in the 19th Century. It is an expansion on the form he inherited from the previous generation – mostly Mozart's, since Haydn was a very limited supplier of concertos to the repertoire – just as his symphonies were expansions on what that form had been before him.

That the idea of the concerto would go in a different direction isn't so surprising, considering the almost four decades this concerto was completely unknown. Only Brahms seemed to have taken the Beethoven Challenge - not surprising, after having finally completed his first symphony in the wake of Beethoven's footsteps and, ironically, for the same violinist - Josef Joachim - who brought the Beethoven concerto into the repertoire.

If we listen to Beethoven's Violin Concerto in the context of his other works, we find something equally expansive as the 3rd Symphony, the “Eroica,” which he began working on 1803, a symphony on such a large scale it's usually credited with bringing down the curtain on the 18th Century and opening up the new (the equivalent to New Music as Stravinsky's “Rite of Spring” is to the 20th).

Yet Beethoven's own pupil, Czerny, commented that it was “considered too long, elaborate, incomprehensible, and much too noisy,” containing, as one major journal of the day put it, “an excess of whimsicalities and novelties.”

The comment is often made about Beethoven's odd-numbered and even-numbered symphonies, as if he consciously decided which ones would be more dramatic, more ground-breaking and “greater” than the others, more lyrical, less adventuresome, less likely to engage an audience.

It's not that Beethoven wasn't interested in “engaging his audience,” but writing a work merely to capitalize on an earlier success was not part of his aesthetic make-up, even though he wrote “Wellington's Victory” with an eye to popular success and produced vast amounts of imminently forgettable music geared to making an income (all those folk-song arrangements come to mind, some 125 of them).

Whether the idea was to give his audience a break – thinking in terms of what people hear in the chronological order he was producing them in, not as a body-of-work to be cherry-picked for concerts here or concerts there – or that his mind merely looked for other solutions that interested him, we know that ideas for such contrasting works often occurred to him at the same time. In his sketch books, in the midst of the creative work bringing about one symphony, you can often find a theme that will become part of another symphony he might not begin work on for a few more years: it simply didn't fit this one or maybe hadn't piqued his interest as much at the time.

In 1803, while working on the “Eroica,” he sketched ideas that would eventually find homes in his 5th Symphony (1807-1808) and his 6th Symphony, the “Pastoral” (1808). Yet the first two movements of the 5th Symphony appear to have been fully sketched in 1805, then laid aside for a newer one which became the Symphony No. 4 in B-flat, which he completed in 1806.

Beethoven was a very “organic” composer, building his music out of the simplest building blocks. The opening of the 5th Symphony with its famous “fate-knocks-at-the-door,” “V-for-Victory” motive is the most famous example. He becomes almost obsessive over these small units which he uses to hold things together, something theorists later called “motivic saturation.” For instance, the “turning” motive in the first measure of the Op. 18, No. 1 string quartet is repeated 109 times throughout the first movement, 130 times in the original version!

While the opening of the Eroica Symphony may be more arresting, the opening of the Violin Concert (see score, above right) may seem insignificant by comparison, not the chorale-like melody you hear in the woodwinds but the four bland taps on the kettledrum in the opening measure. Now, initially, you might think that's just a “time-beating” device to introduce the first theme, a kind of up-beat to the important stuff. But then you hear it in the violins as the melody expands and eventually you realize it's repeated 16 times before the solo violinist enters 89 measures into the movement!

Here is a YouTube video with Itzhak Perlman recorded in 1992 with Daniel Barenboim conducting the Berlin Philharmonic in the opening half of the concerto's first movement:
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Though it seems like just another rhythmic device, it actually becomes an important piece of the fabric, like a bit of glue that holds things together and underlies both the first and the second themes. I count about 85 statements of that little “bup-bup-bup-bup” figure in a movement that is 535 measures long – perhaps not the kind of saturation you hear in the 1st quartet or the 5th Symphony, but too many times to be just a coincidence.

When Beethoven arranged the concerto for piano and orchestra, he wrote out the cadenza for the first movement – nothing unusual in that, except, unlike most cadenzas which were to be improvisatory in nature if not actually improvised, here the piano is accompanied by – the kettledrums! Perhaps he thought more of that little opening figure than we might imagine?

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Now, let's track the other works he'd completed during 1806, leading up to the composition of the Violin Concerto, premiered just before Christmas Day that year.

As I'd mentioned in Part 1 of this post, he'd completed the three Razumovsky Quartets during that year. They may not have been written in order and he probably worked on them more or less simultaneously, at least in the opening stages of composition. Though he'd been working on them in some way or another since the previous year, on the first page of the autograph copy of Op. 59, No. 1, Beethoven writes “begun on 26th May – 1806,” the day after his brother Carl married Joanna Reis (who was already three months pregnant with the son who would later become famous as Beethoven's Nephew). Though I found nothing specific about the date he completed them, most sources mention it was “late in the year, 1806.”

That year, he also put the finishing touches on one his greatest piano sonatas, the “Appassionata” Sonata in F Minor, even though he'd begun work on it in 1804. He had revised his opera Leonore (only in 1814 did it become Fidelio) writing a new overture, the one we know as “Leonore Overture No. 3” though it was the 2nd one to be composed and which was such a grand symphonic conception in itself that it swamped the first act of the opera. This version was performed in March of 1806 and proved only less of a failure than its first version the year before.

In addition to the quartets, he also wrote his 4th Piano Concerto in G Major (completed that summer) and then the 4th Symphony – having put aside the C Minor Symphony which would now become No. 5 – which he completed in the fall.

If one writer put it later that the symphonies are “speeches to the nation, to humanity,” so in a way we have gone from the public personality of the “Eroica” and the beginning of the 5th (including the heroic nature of the opera that would become Fidelio) to the more introspective world of the three quartets, Op. 59, which by contrast exhibit the more personal, individual side of Beethoven, like “interior monologues addressed to a private self,” as Solomon writes in his biography.

By comparison to its fellow concertos, the G Major Piano Concerto is a similar “even-numbered” contrast to the dramatic C Minor Concerto (1800) and the extroverted, brilliant “Emperor” Concerto (1809). Some have quipped the 4th Concerto should be called the “Empress” Concerto, since it is more lyrical and elevated: where the “Emperor” is militaristic, the 4th is more poetic, especially in its incredible slow movement.

The 4th Symphony, by comparison to its two closest companions, seems a let-down, more conservative (the curse of the even-numbers) and perhaps the least well-known (or well-liked) of The Nine. The circumstances that went into his composing it (mostly during the summer) and most of the sketches have not survived. Schumann likened it to “a slender Greek maiden [thinking in terms of the classically lined statues we might see in ancient Greek temples] between two Norse giants” [burly symbols of Teutonic romanticism long before Wagner turned them into characters in his operas of “The Ring”]. Regardless, this symphony is on a whole different, more interior plane than the 3rd and 5th – looking at different ways to approach the idea of what a symphony could be.

And it is in this context that Beethoven composed his Violin Concerto – and fairly quickly, apparently, since most sources mention it was begun in November and completed barely in time for its December 23rd premiere (I can find no mention of themes appearing in earlier sketch books). For Beethoven, this is a remarkably short amount of time for such a large-scale work.

And that large-scaleness is also surprising, compared to what concertos were usually like, both in Beethoven's day and in the generations to follow. But then, don't forget that while his symphonies influenced composers almost immediately – pro or con – the Violin Concerto was virtually unknown to the general public (or perhaps even a private one) from its premiere in 1806 to its triumphant revival with Joachim and Mendelssohn in 1844.

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Let's consider Vienna's reaction to Beethoven's newest music in 1806. We've already seen how Leonore failed twice in 1805 and 1806. Beethoven's pupil, Czerny, commented that the 3rd Symphony at its 1805 premiere was “considered too long, elaborate, incomprehensible, and much too noisy,” containing, as one major journal of the day put it, “an excess of whimsicalities and novelties.”

His later biographer, Thayer, commented that “Perhaps no work of Beethoven's met a more discouraging reception” from musicians and audience than the three Razumovsky Quartets. More discouraging than the Violin Concerto's?

Then there's this review, from a Viennese newspaper on Sept. 11, 1806, quoted in Nicholas Slonimsky's wonderful collection of bad reviews, “The Lexicon of Musical Invective”:

“... and all impartial musicians and music lovers were in perfect agreement that never was anything as incoherent, shrill, chaotic and ear-splitting produced in music. The most piercing dissonances clash in a really atrocious harmony, and a few puny ideas only increase the disagreeable and deafening effect.”

He was writing about the Leonore Overture No. 3.

And so the audience awaited the new violin concerto, performed 3½ months later.

Considering a typical concerto was maybe a half-hour long, how would that audience react to one where the first movement alone clocked in at about 25 minutes? How did they react to this new concerto just on this scope alone? Perhaps the way a London critic reacted to the “Eroica” when he heard it in 1829 (also quoted in Slonimsky's Lexicon):

“The Heroic Symphony contains much to admire but it is difficult to keep up admiration of this kind during three long quarters of an hour. It is infinitely too lengthy... If this symphony is not by some means abridged, it will soon fall into disuse.”

I have been unable to find any contemporary reaction to that first performance of Beethoven's Violin Concerto, but length aside, the fact Franz Clement was supposedly sight-reading the finale and had no rehearsal with the orchestra for the last movement – not to mention adding his improvised “sonata played on one string with the violin upside down” between the first and second movements – how could the performance have won it any fans?

Even today, an orchestra can play Beethoven badly and be chewed out in the press, but play an under-rehearsed world premiere on the same program and suddenly it's the composer's fault!

So let's consider Beethoven's work in the context of what other people had the chance to listen to during those years. Maynard Solomon mentions that these composers were more frequently heard than Beethoven in 1806:

Mozart – Haydn – Paer – Cherubini – Mayer – Righini - “and several other fashionable composers” which he does not name.

With the exception of Mozart and Haydn, these are exclusively composers of opera.

Frankly, I'd never even heard of Righini before I read this and while Mozart and Haydn would make sense to us now, it is very unlikely any of our concertgoers today will have heard much of Simone Mayer's music. Ferdinando Paer, who composed 55 operas, might be known as a historical footnote: in 1804, his opera Leonore was a success, setting the same story Beethoven used in his opera the following year which was not a success. Cherubini, at least, was one of the reigning monarchs of the European operatic stage at this time, but he wrote only one symphony and that wasn't until 1815.

As for Vincenzo Righini, a ontemporary of Mozart's most famous as a footnote for having written a Don Giovanni in 1777, a decade before Mozart's, he was also primarily an opera composer whose last work I could find mentioned was composed in 1803, though most of his work dates from the 1770s and '80s. You can hear two arias from his “Birth of Apollo” (apparently more a cantata than an opera) on Diana Damrau's recent Virgin Classics CD, “Arie di Bravura” - listen to tracks 2 and 4. Damrau made quite an impression on a TV broadcast as the Queen of the Night a few years ago.

But really – these composers were more POPULAR or more FREQUENTLY PERFORMED in Vienna the year Beethoven composed his Violin Concerto – which was such a disaster at its premiere, it remained almost completely unperformed for 38 years!?

But such are the whims of history. I keep this in mind whenever I hear people discussing ratings, a new movie's box-office success or the latest winner on American Idol.

- Dr. Dick

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