Beethoven at 250: The Violin Concerto

 I’ve been listening to Beethoven’s Concerto in D Major for Violin and Orchestra a lot over the last few months, and I’ve been struggling to frame how I want to write about it. It’s such a scintillating work, full of wit and sparkle–qualities one doesn’t always associate with a composer who, while on his deathbed shook his own fist at the thunderstorm raging outside–that stands out all the more when one considers that the Concerto was a failure in Beethoven’s lifetime and did not take its rightful place in the repertoire until several decades after his death.

But last month, Edward Van Halen died, and that gave me a new way to think about this piece. Bear with me!

Mr. Van Halen was a self-taught musician, but he was also a curious one who had a strong love of classical music. He would even sprinkle quotes from favorite classical works into his solos on occasion. While his father, a musician himself, encouraged Eddie (and brother Alex) to learn music, Eddie never learned formally; he never learned to read music from the page. Everything for him was done by ear, and he had the kind of ear that only the very greatest of music virtuosi can boast.

Not unlike the inner ear of Ludwig van Beethoven, who would continue composing his greatest works even after his own physical ears had stopped working entirely.

My main thought in drawing Eddie Van Halen into a discussion of Beethoven’s Concerto for Violin and Orchestra isn’t just that both men had amazing ears, though. A concerto is as much a work designed to put a performer’s virtuosity on display as it is a musical work with specific architecture. What makes the concerto such a compositional challenge is that the composer must balance the virtuoso’s need to display their skill with the task of crafting a work that is satisfying musically. Plenty of less successful concertos exist that allow for all manner of virtuosic pyrotechnics, either from the piano or the violin or some other solo instrument, while failing to incorporate the soloist into the musical aspects of the work.

(Then there are works that go the other way: Hector Berlioz’s second symphony, Harold In Italy, had been specifically commissioned by Nicolo Paganini, who wanted to show off his skill on a new viola he’d acquired, but Berlioz turned in a symphony with little to offer by way of virtuosic display opportunities. Paganini never performed the work.)

Beethoven’s Violin Concerto does for the violin what Eddie Van Halen would do with all of his blazing guitar solos. Even when Eddie was “shredding” as hard as he could, there was always melody in his playing. You can always pick out the tune in an Eddie Van Halen solo, and sometimes a Van Halen song will feature a second solo, shorter this time, that is nothing but pure melody (“Dreams”, which might well be my favorite Van Halen song, does this to wonderful effect).

Beethoven does the same thing in his Violin Concerto. Whenever the violinist plays, even during the cadenzas, you never get the sense that they are simply showing off. Every note that Beethoven writes contributes to the whole, for one of the most complete concertos I know. The concerto begins surprisingly, with five soft taps of the timpani before the woodwinds give us our first hint of melody. Beethoven’s symphonic hand is firmly guiding us, to the point that when the soloist finally enters, it’s almost surprising as we remember that we are actually hearing a concerto and not a symphony.

The first movement, comprising more than half the entire concerto’s total time, is an epic movement in itself, and yet it teems with the kind of optimism that we don’t always associate with Beethoven. This is assuredly the same composer who wrote the Seventh Symphony, and if the inner movement isn’t as meditative as that great symphony’s amazing second movement, it is still a lovely movement of introspective beauty before it closes not with a resolution but with an unresolved minor chord that leads to a short cadenza that is likewise unresolved–until the soloist brings us into the rondo of the last movement. And that last movement is full of Beethoven’s humor. Again, a facet of Beethoven’s that is often overlooked–but listen to how that rondo theme seems somehow to put the beats in the wrong place (until you hum it and realize that it’s quite correct). Hear the way the soloist must make very wide leaps in the violin’s register, and one musical joke where the soloist has to pluck two notes, pizzaicato, before bowing the next immediately.

Near the end of the work, when Beethoven almost gives the soloist free rein, there is a remarkable sequence of passages in which the soloist plays three brief flashy runs that soar into the upper register, alternating with brief orchestral passages. Even there you can hear melody, as those soaring runs are a part of the work’s musical fabric and are clearly not just there for a violin virtuoso to enjoy. Even the concerto’s very last bars contain good humor, as the soloist leads the orchestra to its final chords.

This approach to writing for a soloist in a concerted work, in which the soloist is musical partner first and virtuoso second, really does put me in mind of Eddie Van Halen’s best work as a rock guitarist. There really is a line that connects the two. So it seems to me, anyway.

Here is violinist Hilary Hahn, performing Beethoven’s Concerto in D for Violin and Orchestra, with Leonard Slatkin conducting the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.

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One Response to Beethoven at 250: The Violin Concerto

  1. Roger Owen Green says:

    I almost missed the coda. But I thought, "Five minutes of applause?"

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