Steven Copes Plays Beethoven’s Violin Concerto
- January 13
Records from a Vanishing City is a tone poem based on my own recollection of the music that surrounded me growing up on Manhattan's Lower East Side in the 80s and 90s. Artists, truth seekers and cultures of all kinds defined our vibrant community. The embracing diversity burst out with an effortless everydayness in block parties, festivals and shin-digs of every sort. Partly because my parents were artists, but also because I just couldn't help it, I soaked up what surrounded me: Latin jazz, alternative rock, Western classical, avant-garde jazz, poetry and Caribbean dance music, to name a few.
A year before completing this work, a very dear family friend passed away and it was decided that I would be the one to inherit a large portion of his eclectic record collection. James Rose was one of the many suns in the Lower East Side cosmos who often hosted parties and generous gatherings for our extended artist family. His record collection was a treasure trove of the great jazz recordings of the 50s, 60s and beyond—he was mad for John Coltrane, but also Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk and-and-and—as well as traditional folk artists from Africa, Asia and South America. In the process of imagining the music for tonight's concert, a specific track on a record of music from Angola caught my ear: a traditional lullaby which is sung in call and response by a women's chorus. This lullaby rang with an uncanny familiarity in me. An adaptation of this lullaby and the rhythmic chant that follows it appears in each of the three main sections of Records. This piece is dedicated to the memory of James Rose.
Jessie Montgomery ©2017
When Beethoven received word that the Viennese audience had not appreciated the finale of the B-flat Quartet at its premiere in 1826, his response—very much in character for him—was to call them “cattle” and “asses!” Maybe some part of him sympathized with their confusion, enough that he did agree to replace that contrapuntal behemoth of a finale with a lighter rondo. The Grosse Fuge or “Great Fugue” thus entered the canon as its own independent work, and one that has earned a mythic status unlike any other. As the music critic Alex Ross aptly wrote, it is “more than a piece; it’s a musicological Holy Grail, a vortex of ideas and implications. It is the most radical work by the most formidable composer in history.”
Like the mythical Hydra, with many heads on a serpent’s body, the Grosse Fuge is a kinetic tangle of ideas and identities. The introductory overture (a surprising element borrowed from theater music) announces the unsettled mood immediately with an angular opening line, declaimed in stark octaves and straining toward the very edges of tonality, until it breaks off suddenly after a trill. On the first page of the score alone, there are three different key signatures and meters, as well as five held pauses, all before the first fugue even begins. That initial course of counterpoint is an unrelenting assault of pounding rhythms, daring leaps and full-throttle volume. A sweet response follows, reusing some of the same themes in a flowing section marked sempre pianissimo (“always very quiet”). Each new section shows another face—a lively dance in triple meter, a hushed chorale, a series of hovering trills—but the distinct music from the fugue binds everything together into one incomparable whole.
Aaron Grad ©2017
Beethoven was not the type of composer to simply “take dictation from God,” to borrow a phrase from the play Amadeus. His compositions often required painstaking effort and re-evaluation, as evidenced by the more than 8,000 pages of surviving sketches. Yet Beethoven was capable of delivering exquisite work on short notice when he had to, as when he accepted a commission from his friend Franz Clement for a concerto for violin and orchestra.
Beethoven had composed two previous Romances for violin and orchestra, but the new work was his first (and only) complete violin concerto. He finished it just in time for the premiere on December 23, 1806, barely leaving Clement time to learn the solo part. The initial reception was tepid, probably because listeners were unprepared for such a profound and symphonic work in a genre known for solo pyrotechnics and subservient orchestral accompaniment. Felix Mendelssohn and the 12-year-old prodigy Joseph Joachim revived Beethoven’s neglected concerto in 1844, and since then performers and audiences have embraced it as a cornerstone of the violin repertoire.
The concerto starts with a quintessential Beethoven theme: a single note, D, struck five consecutive times by the timpanist. This modest tapping motif proves to be the backbone of the substantial first movement, an outcome typical of Beethoven’s “middle period,” when he mastered the art of distilling musical ingredients down to their purest essence. One exceptionally refined moment comes just after the first movement cadenza, when the violin offers a guileless melody over a naked accompaniment of pizzicato strings.
The slow movement continues the rarified mood with a stately theme and variations accompanied only by the lower winds and muted strings. The Rondo finale, reached without pause through a solo cadenza, supplies the concerto with a more extroverted conclusion. Taking a page from Haydn, who loved to introduce a theme softly and then hammer it hard the second time, Beethoven goes a step farther by delaying the impact until after two melodic cycles, the second voiced even more delicately than the first.
Aaron Grad ©2017