Beethoven Violin Concerto in D major
Beethoven's Violin Concerto in D major was originally composed at the end of 1806 and belongs to the middle period of his life, when he wrote so many of his most stirring and popular works including the Emperor Concerto, the Fifth and Pastoral Symphonies, the Archduke Trio, the three Razumovsky String Quartets, the Kreutzer Sonata and the Appassionata Sonata. Around 1802 the composer had gone through a serious depression brought on by the new realization that there was indeed something very wrong with his hearing. But by 1806, he had, at least temporarily, come to terms with the reality of his encroaching deafness. His productivity was spurred on by the realization that he could triumph over his misfortunes and still be a productive musician in spite of his serious and potentially debilitating handicap. It is not for nothing, then, that this incredibly fruitful time of his life is also known as his “heroic” period. Total deafness had not yet caused him to retreat within himself (as it would in the music after about 1815) and the middle period utilizes the bold and direct harmonic and melodic gestures found in the early works from the 1790s and combines these features with a new depth of feeling that was the product of his increasing maturity and life experience.
The Violin Concerto occupies a very special place in this time of Beethoven's life, not least because it downplays the heroic aspect considerably and instead finds the composer at his most peaceful and serene. During its composition, inspiration flowed with a freedom that was rare for him (except, of course, when he was improvising at the piano), and the Concerto was both written and premiered in the remarkably short space of about a month. Publication had to wait for more than a year, however, as the composer had been asked to set the work as a piano concerto as well. And so, in the next year he went about producing a solo piano part while also taking the opportunity to extensively revise the violin version – which in any case had been rather hastily written in the first place. According to Beethoven authority Barry Cooper, the composer worked on both versions of the concerto in parallel, with the result that passages from the piano version also found their way back into the revised violin part as well.
The Concerto, despite its very considerable difficulties of execution and intonation, is certainly less showy than the general run of violin concertos at that time. Unlike with the five piano concertos, Beethoven never bothered to write out a first movement cadenza, which in any case would have been delivered on the spot by the popular virtuoso Franz Clement, for whom Beethoven had the greatest respect, both as a musician and as a player. Clement, who also composed several of his own violin concertos as well, commissioned Beethoven's work and was also responsible for its first performance.
In addition to being more on the contemplative and lyrical side, Beethoven's concerto also noticeably increases the orchestra's role in the musical argument, making the work more symphonic than was the norm for concertos at that time. Indeed, Beethoven's work eventually went on to inspire a whole new tradition of symphonic concerto writing (as represented by the violin concertos of Schumann, Brahms, and Reger). And when, after Schumann, music history eventually came to be seen from the German rather than the Italian perspective, Beethoven's Violin Concerto could thenceforth be held up as a work that had triumphed over the shallowness of the virtuoso French and Italian violin schools. The latter were still very dominant throughout Europe during Beethoven's time, as the stellar careers of Rode, Kreutzer, and Viotti showed.
As befits a more symphonically conceived concerto, the entire first movement of Beethoven's work is dominated and held together by the tympani's opening motive, which consists of nothing more than four repeated quarter notes. The motive eventually appears in all sorts of other orchestral guises and musical situations, and this, combined with the movement's subdued atmosphere and intensely poignant main theme, ensures that the result will be something other than a mere showpiece for the soloist.
The second movement, too, gives much of the musical weight to the orchestra, with the violin often merely providing slow decorative runs while the ensemble carries the melody. This is in great contrast to, say, a typical Viotti slow movement (all 29 of his concertos have now been recorded), which invariably assigns much more of the melodic burden to the soloist. Beethoven's dance-like finale, on the other hand, finally allows more unfettered virtuosity to shine through and brings the concerto to an exciting conclusion.