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Beethoven @ 250

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Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 61
Ludwig van Beethoven
Despite the customary long gestation of his music, when pressed, Beethoven could work fast. In a letter to his publisher in mid-November 1806 there is no mention of the Violin Concerto as work in progress, but on December 23 it was premiered by Franz Clement, a friend of the composer and leader of the orchestra at the Theater an der Wien. As was common with Beethoven, he made continual changes in the manuscript after the premiere until publication in 1808, but the changes were mostly in detail and not in the fundamental conception of the work.
Franz Clement was a formidable musician with a prodigious musical memory, lauded both for his technique and his impeccable intonation and musicianship. From manuscript sources it becomes clear that he tried to advise Beethoven on phrasing and the technical possibilities of the instrument, but that the composer took only some of his suggestions. In the Concerto Beethoven provided him with immense challenges, both technical and musical. In retrospect, it is clear that the Concerto was the first major violin concerto of the late Classical period, acting as a model for the subsequent works of Felix Mendelssohn, Johannes Brahms and Max Bruch.
The premiere, however, was not a success, nor did the work fare much better the following year. The public simply didn’t get it. The turning point for the Concerto came in 1844, when 13-year-old Joseph Joachim performed it in London with the Philharmonic Society, Mendelssohn conducting. For the occasion, the Society set aside its rule against the appearance of child prodigies. Joachim at 13 was considered a fully mature artist.
It is an amusing – and often educational – exercise in virtual time travel to put oneself in the shoes of an audience who rejected a work of art that subsequently went on to be haled as a masterpiece. So what did Beethoven’s audience object to in the Violin Concerto?
First of all, there is the sheer heft of the piece; even Mozart’s five violin concertos were significantly shorter and lightweight by comparison. Then there’s the opening; Beethoven was no newcomer to controversial openings. Was it the four repeated identical solo timpani beats that form part of the main theme that amazed Beethoven’s contemporaries? Haydn had done the same thing in the Symphony No. 103, the “Drum Roll,” but that was a symphony, not a violin concerto. At the fifth beat, the woodwinds, and particularly the oboe, chime in with a gentle melody, but the four notes return immediately, now a motto that carries over as a part of all of the subsequent themes.
The Concerto contains cadenzas for all three movements, but it also contains many cadenza-like passages. Clement’s virtuosity and pinpoint accuracy of intonation inspired the composer to give special prominence to the high E-string. The soloist’s entrance in the first movement is a telling example, and passages in all three movements occupy the instrument’s stratosphere where even Vivaldi had seldom trod.
The second movement, Larghetto, is a chorale-like gentle theme with a set of four variations. The theme is not the standard sequence of two repeated strains. Rather, it is a long melody with no internal repeats. Moreover, the soloist doesn’t simply embellish the melody with increasingly acrobatic and elaborate decoration, but rather builds the emotional intensity. Near the end of the movement, Beethoven provides a section of new material and a short cadenza, leading without a break into the Rondo Finale. This, a lively bravura movement based on a dancing folk-like theme, is the technical counterbalance to the emotional intensity of the first two movements. Brahms was to imitate the ebullient good humor in the finale of his own Violin Concerto.
One other reason for the initial rejection of Beethoven’s Concerto resides in the violin concertos of the Classical period. Like Mozart’s five concerti, these were modest – although elegant – in their requirements of the soloist. Unlike twentieth-century music lovers, who revere the music of centuries past more than contemporary music, the challenging Italian-style concerti of Vivaldi or Bach had long since become passé in nineteenth-century Vienna. Beethoven was virtually reinventing the genre, setting the stage for a rash of challenging virtuoso violin works by such performer-composers Niccoló Paganini that soon took Europe by storm.
Adagietto from
Symphony No. 5 in C-sharp minor
Gustav Mahler
Gustav Mahler, one of the last great figures of the late Romantic Movement, was at the same time one of the harbingers of twentieth-century music. His volatile, complex personality and his display of emotional and physical suffering in his music, were out of sync with the mood in turn-of-the-century Europe, which hid behind a façade of political and emotional stability. The public revered him more as a conductor of the prestigious Vienna Opera, than as a composer. Most of Mahler’s music expresses his ongoing battle with fate and the uncertainty of existence – which may explain how he could have written two of the Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Death of Children) immediately following the birth of his second daughter. Perhaps it is our uncertainty in the future that has made Mahler’s music so popular since the mid twentieth century.
Mahler completed his Symphony No. 5 in the summer of 1902, the final work in a burst of creativity that included the six Rückert Songs. It was the first composition following his marriage to the scintillating 22-year-old Alma Schindler, the daughter of a famous Austrian landscape painter and a talented pianist and composer in her own right. Gustav and Alma had met in Paris in November 1901 and were married four months later. This marriage – which lasted for 10 stormy years until the composer’s death – was the subject of endless gossip. It was definitely considered a social advancement for Mahler, a Jew (although converted to Cat...

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