Beethoven is one of the major pioneers in classical music and probably the most influential of all time. When it came time to decide on whom to choose for my concert review it made the most sense to choose someone that has shaped classical music into what it is now. I have personally been to many concerts, however, I have never attended a classical production before. In choosing this composer, I knew that I would be guaranteed to listen to a little piece of history. Unsurprisingly, I was not let down by the composition, performance, and execution of one of Beethoven’s highly regarded concertos.
On one Saturday night of October 6th, 2018 I attended the Schermerhorn Symphony Center in Nashville. I observed Beethoven’s Violin Concerto come alive with the Nashville Symphony. Giancarlo Guerrero conducted this Concerto and this also featured solo violinist James Ehnes. The venue was organized to where the orchestra and the conductor are on an elevated stage and the audience is located in front of them, behind them, and on their sides divided into different levels. I was located behind the conductor and in front of the orchestra in one of the first rows. The lights dim and shine on the orchestra for the show to begin.
In order to understand this composition I need to provide a little backstory. In history some pieces received immediate love from the audience, however, when it comes to this particular case, the Violin Concerto went through a rough start. Beethoven completed this piece just two days before its premier in 1806 and this did not allow Soloist, Franz clement enough time to rehearse. (Eulenburg) This was Beethoven’s first and only Violin Concerto and after nearly four decades later, this piece finally began to gain popularity due to the performance of 13-year-old Joseph Joachim in 1844. (Stowell) Today this piece is considered one of the most beautiful and beloved concertos, according to Beethoven’s biographer Jan Swafford. Its greatness lays not in its technique but in its cantabile, it’s signing.
Beethoven was influenced by the military and heroic gestures of music from the French Revolution and his knowledge of the French Violin School for this particular concerto. (Stowell) Robin Stowell observed that, Beethoven’s familiarity with the compositions and playing styles of leading figures of the French violin school led to his transforming some of their idiomatic features from simple bravura to embellishments of profound musical ideas.
The concerto was divided into three sections with the first being concerto in D major for Violin and Orchestra in allegro ma non troppo. This particular Beethoven violin concerto is constructed symmetrically: each section has the same outline (two dialectically opposed parts) containing the complete motif (A+B, C, D, E). The movement follows the standard “sonata form” of Beethoven’s predecessors almost to the letter. It is divided into three parts: the Exposition (orchestra and soloist), Development, and Refrain (with Coda). This concerto is scored for not only the solo violin, I also observed an array of instruments composed of: flutes, oboes, timpani, strings, trumpets, horns, bassoons, and clarinet.
The timpani is the first sound we are hit with taking center stage to play a motif of four beats that returns again and again in the opening movement. Biographer, Jan Swafford, notes that the simplicity of this gesture, heralds a piece that is going to be made of radically simple elements: rhythms largely in quarters and eights, most of the phrasing in four bars, flowing melodies made largely out of scales. The first movement is very serene and asks for the listener to contemplate rather than depict an epic adventure or drama. The soloists’ entrance is delayed by a lengthy orchestral introduction in order to create the leisurely aspect of the theme.
The allegro ma non troppo does an excellent job of keeping the piece at a steady pace where it is fast, but not overly fast. The introduction and contemplation is made with a beautifully pieced together technique ending with a knocking motif. Expert in Beethoven’s concertos, Leon Plantinga, observed that this gesture could be read as, military metaphor, and emblem of struggle that illumines the joys of tranquility. He also notes that it, anticipates a pivotal moment in Beethoven’s masterpiece of sacred music, where piece is defined by the invocation of its opposite.
The second section of the concert is in Larghetto, which is a slower tempo. This is started at a slower pace with increasing and lengthy notes that fall and pick up. The violin is very prominent in here and is the one leading with a measured touch of the orchestra in the background. The calm of this section centers on a gentle theme in G major. This reappears in different instruments as a framework around which the soloist weaves capturing scenes. In this movement the strings play with “sordina” (while flute, oboe, trumpets and timpani are not included in the score), so to give the overall sound a soft, mellow, and warm color. This section is the most touching due to its celestial notes invoking the soul’s communion with high powers. It is very magical and asks the listener to get in touch with their most deep emotions.
The third and final section is followed by a brief cadenza as the bridge that leads into the Rondo. The main theme, known as the Refrain, is repeated in an entwined cycle and also includes a number of classic Sonata features like: the three-part symmetry, harmonic structure, and the fact that the first episode (which returns as the third episode) acts as the 2nd theme of the Sonata. This varied form, known as the Rondo Sonata, was frequently used in the last movements of the works of Beethoven’s second period. The tune is envisioned after a hunting call. This section assigns the tune to the violin’s low register compared to the heights of the preceding movements. Leon Plantinga writes, Forthright good humor and uncomplicated rejoicing may rank high as human values, quite fit to stand together in the artistic enterprise with expressions of the most profound sort.
As the concerto geared towards the ending I couldn’t help the overall sensation that I had just been taken through a storybook, however, no words were spoken. It is incredible how melodies can transport the mind and soul to a different dimension on notes alone. This was my first live concerto and I will have to say that it was one of the most beautiful to listen to. Although, I did not have much interaction with the audience, as everyone was completely enveloped with the concerto, I could sense they felt the same amazement I did. There are no signs of inner struggle or unneeded harsh tones throughout the concerto. It moves at just the right pace during each section and has the ability to develop emotion throughout.
As the lights undimmed, the audience had nothing but a huge round of applause for the performance. The musicians played beautifully and really demonstrated their technical ability as they captured what I believe was Beethoven’s essence. I really enjoyed each section of this piece as each brought forth its own world of sounds and awoke intricate individual emotions. Attending this live performance made me realize that in order to understand the artist, especially when it comes to classical music, you have to immerse yourself into their world. Beethoven is regarded as one of the pioneers of classical music for a very good reason and I am glad I was able to finally witness some of his classical work first hand.
– Beethoven, Ludwig van: Concerto for Violin and orchestra in D major op. 61. Score. Eulenburg 2007. EAS 130
– Stowell, Robin (1998). Beethoven Violin Concerto. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
– Stowell, Robin, ed. (1994). Performing Beethoven. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
(Ten essays by various authors)
– History of Classical Music – Eras, www.naxos.com/mainsite/blurbs_reviews.asp?
item_code=8.501058&catNum=501058&filetype=About this Recording&language=English.
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