If Beethoven can be regarded as the most universally admired composer in Western music history, it is the aspiration of his music that has thus installed him. Consider that he composed nine symphonies to Haydn’s 104—but each of those nine aspires to profundity, to express the human condition in a way that Haydn, for all his genius and originality, did not. This quality of Beethoven’s music is especially salient to his celebrated “heroic” period, and the Violin Concerto dates from the height of that chapter of his career. Though it has, to be sure, stiff competition (the Eroica, Fifth, and Ninth Symphonies; the Emperor Concerto; any number of sonatas, string quartets; et cetera ad infinitum), the Violin Concerto might be considered Beethoven’s quintessential work.
Certainly, it shares the broad aspirations of its siblings. (In the year 1806 alone, Beethoven completed, in addition to the Violin Concerto, the Razumovsky Quartets, Appassionata Sonata, Fourth Symphony, and Fourth Piano Concerto.) The Concerto’s first movement alone outlasts most Haydn symphonies in their entirety. Moreover, the concerto medium—virtuoso in front of the orchestra: leader of the masses, perhaps, or revolutionary, or messiah—presents an ideal manifestation of the Beethovenian concept of heroism.
But the psychological complexity of the Violin Concerto challenges the paradigm. The solo writing—which, make no mistake, ranks among the most technically demanding in the violin repertoire—does not gratify the soloist with blazing pyrotechnics. The protagonist of this heroic journey is not your standard-issue knight in shining armor; Beethoven creates a more elusive character.
The Concerto begins in famously unorthodox fashion, with the timpani presenting a five-beat rhythmic motif. This seemingly innocuous gesture is immediately revealed to be a powerfully consequential germinal cell (foreshadowing Fate knocking at the door in the Fifth Symphony). It surfaces in different manifestations in quick succession: now regal, now quickened and breathless, now lyrical.
This is Beethoven’s signature motivic developmental technique: obsession over simple motives catalyzes a sweeping sense of drama. Beethoven’s very compositional vocabulary, in the composer’s penchant for building something great from something humble, thus explicitly represents heroism.
Yet the soloist’s first entrance is startlingly unassuming; neither fearless leader nor conquering hero, but something more nuanced. Against tutti music of heroic breadth, the soloist offers unaffected stream-of-consciousness musing.
Thus does Beethoven set the scene for the remarkable journey that is this triumphant Violin Concerto. Having built the stage from a blueprint set out in the Concerto’s opening measures, based on that germinal five-note rhythmic motif, and having established the character of the soloist and its relationship to the orchestra, Beethoven subsequently uses the solo writing—in other words, masterfully exploits the very concerto medium—to three-dimensionalize his blueprint.
This is indeed music of great expressive aspiration. The Violin Concerto is also music of great insight and empathy. The arc traced from the splendid opening Allegro through the sublime Larghetto and ultimately to the ebullient finale places it alongside Beethoven’s final piano sonata, his Ninth Symphony, and others of his most deeply human utterances. It is music that expresses on the listener’s behalf something otherwise inarticulable, but unmistakably resonant and truly universal.
Patrick Castillo ©2015