Beethoven’s Violin Concerto
Beethoven’s only violin concerto remains one of the most widely played and popular works for the instrument. Famous for its spirited final movement, the work reveals the amazing melodic and technical range of the violin. Also featured is Edward Elgar’s regal Symphony No. 1, a work that was performed over 100 times within a year of its premiere and was hailed by The Musical Times as an "immediate and phenomenal success."
Preview Talk with Alan Chapman included.
To learn more about Music Director Carl St.Clair, click here.
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MICHAEL FRANCIS • CONDUCTOR
RAY CHEN • VIOLIN
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827)
Concerto in D Major for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 61
Allegro ma non troppo
I N T E R M I S S I O N
Edward Elgar (1857–1934)
Symphony No. 1 in A-flat Major, Op. 55
Andante; nobilmente e semplice – Allegro
Lento – Allegro
The Saturday night concert is generously sponsored by The Board of Counselors.
Concerto in D Major for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 61
LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN (1770–1827)
Instrumentation: flute, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons; 2 horns, 2 trumpets; timpani; strings; solo violin
Performance time: 42 minutes
Beethoven composed his sole violin concerto 15 years after the death of Mozart, who wrote five of them, the last coming three decades before Beethoven’s. Still, as always, the comparison between these very different composers is instructive in appreciating Beethoven’s achievement—especially in the concertos.
We can see all the clichés about classical composers of the Romantic era in the portraits of Beethoven that have come down to us over the generations. With his burning eyes and rock-star hair, he seems to be ignoring us as he listens to the ideas in his head, struggling through insuperable difficulties to achieve a beautiful result.
Composing was a Promethean struggle for Beethoven. Yet, the concerto was a form that seemed to fit him like a glove: grand in scale but formally congenial to him, offering a forum for discourse between a single soloist and the massed forces of the orchestra that reflected his concern with the individual’s place in society.
Even in the early piano concertos, openly modeled on Haydn and Mozart, we can detect playful competitiveness in this alternation between soloist and orchestra. But the glorious Violin Concerto in D Major is all ease and grace as it invites the solo instrument to sing out. Beethoven’s affectionate respect for the instrument is far different than Mozart’s, who was on much more intimate terms with it.
We sometimes forget that while Beethoven and Mozart were both major pianists, Mozart was also one of the best violinists of his age; if he’d demonstrated no other talent, his feats as a child prodigy of the violin would have allowed father Leopold to capitalize on his son’s abilities. But while Mozart continued to draw upon his knowledge of the violin, he lost interest in playing it. His five concertos for the instrument are intimate affairs that draw us close to the soloist.
Beethoven offers something far grander, and asks us to stand back. This concerto, probably the most beloved and certainly the most frequently programmed in the repertory, possesses the majesty of his piano concertos.
It exceeds the scale of any violin concerto that preceded it, and begins with the longest introduction of any violin concerto preceding the soloist’s entrance. These are familiar hallmarks of Beethoven the form-breaker and innovator—signs of the new level of serious utterance that Beethoven brought to the concerto form. But we love this concerto more for its sheer beauty than for its innovations.
Tellingly, Beethoven wrote this work three years after his Piano Concerto No. 3, when analysts hear him emerging from the influence of Mozart and Haydn, and in the same year as No. 4, which some analysts consider the acme of his reinvention of the concerto form.
Franz Clement, aged 8 by Henri Hessell, The Tully Potter Collection
He produced it for another Austrian prodigy, the violinist and composer Franz Clement, whose spectacular showmanship was like the young Mozart’s (though by this time Clement was in his mid-20s). Beethoven and Clement were friends, and Beethoven was said to be so confident of the concerto’s lasting merit that when he wrote it at age 36, he made a rash boast, predicting that violinists would still be playing it 50 years after his death.
Everything about the circumstances of the concerto’s creation seems to have contributed to a circus-like atmosphere at the premiere. Clement was by all accounts a remarkable soloist whose playing was truly spectacular, but he never outgrew his penchant for daredevil showmanship.
There are no definitive firsthand reports of his first performance, but according to some hearsay accounts he insisted on sight-reading it and inserting a sonata of his own composition in the middle or at the end of Beethoven’s work. In performing his own sonata, he is said to have held the violin upside-down and played on one string. That kind of stunt would have been consistent with his past performances.
Another surprising circumstance was the haste of the concerto’s composition. We know that Beethoven often agonized over his music. But for this benefit concert (with Clement himself as beneficiary), there was no time for indecision or even for preparatory conferences with the soloist. The orchestra, too, was said to be virtually unrehearsed.
Small wonder that the initial commentary was unenthusiastic. One contemporary critic, Johannes Moser, described Beethoven’s thematic material as commonplace, confused, wearisome and repetitious. It’s difficult to reconcile that description with the concerto that we know and love today, but not with its performance history—which included only three public hearings between 1806 and 1844.
What to Listen For
In addition to the characteristic grandeur and dignity we hear in Beethoven’s piano concertos, the violin concerto is also written with a sympathy for the instrument that is not always evident in Beethoven. It’s no accident that “against the instrument” is a phrase we often read in analyses of Beethoven’s compositions; some of his compositions for piano, voice and strings (in the quartets) seem written to challenge or contradict the usual modes of expression for these instruments.
In the violin concerto, by contrast, a cantabile quality prevails that is the very essence of violinistic writing, like a song without words. The bow gets to dance, but also to caress the strings.
This sense of instrumental sympathy and singing line is achieved without cliché. The first movement declares its gravitas by opening with four startling beats on the timpani, and though it is marked Allegro, there is an air of stateliness and a poetic introduction to the much-loved main theme—a six-note ascending scale that begins on the third note of the scale, F-sharp, and ascends to the tonic of D before dropping back down to the dominant A.
This simple melody, one of the most familiar in the violin repertory, could have been built around a central triplet, but Beethoven achieves a more poetic effect by using only half-, quarter- and eighth-notes without triplet figures.
While the concerto’s second movement, a larghetto, is in G major, the third (and final) returns to D major, framing the concerto in moods of similarity and contrast.
The opening movement Allegro is dignified and almost solemn (the Allegro pace is marked “ma non troppo”—“but not too much”), built grandly upon a four-beat motif that sings. But the closing rondo, with a full-out Allegro, dances—with a six-beat motif that is charged with energy and a sense of celebration. Its finale, a soaring arpeggiated phrase that ascends an octave and a fourth to end on a single blast of the tonic D major, is a short summation for Beethoven, but powerfully emphatic.
Arabella Steinbacher, Violin
Walter Weller, Conductor
2009, Madrid, Spain
Symphony No. 1 in A-flat Major, Op. 55
EDWARD ELGAR (1857–1934)
Instrumentation: piccolo, 3 flutes, 2 oboes; English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon; 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba; percussion; 2 harps; strings
Performance time: 50 minutes
One can only wonder what went down—aside from Sir Edward Elgar’s spirits—at the premiere of his The Dream of Gerontius, the hugely ambitious and deeply religious oratorio that preceded his Symphony No. 1 in A-flat Major. Conducted by Hans Richter, music director of the Hallé Orchestra, it was apparently something of a fiasco, baffling the audience and eluding critics.
Richter had been so loyal an advocate of Elgar’s work that the composer long planned to dedicate a work to him. But after the disappointment of the Dream’s introduction at the Birmingham Festival in 1900, Richter—as TV chef Ina Garten might say—turned up the volume in praising Elgar and his importance.
Richter’s public statements about Elgar were more than just a matter of friendship. Though Elgar tried to hold himself aloof from England’s classical music establishment, he was actually a party to its musical controversies. English music had always proudly—not to say eccentrically—gone its own way, developing in isolation from continental Europe.
Elgar identified more closely with the European tradition. This, along with his reclusive lifestyle and his Catholicism, was enough to widen the gulf between him and other English composers. His Symphony No. 1 and its international success made this composer, who in retrospect seems quintessentially English, even less so to his contemporaries.
Things might have gone differently if Elgar had stayed with his original plan to compose his first symphony as a biographical tribute to General Charles George Gordon, the English military leader revered as the hero of Khartoum. He sketched ideas along those lines as early as 1898.
The masterly Enigma Variations date from 1899 and include musical portraits of people from Elgar’s circle; General Gordon is not among them. In 1907, when Elgar focused intensively on the work we now know as his Symphony No. 1, General Gordon was not within his view.
For Beethoven and the symphonists who followed him, Vienna was the center of the musical word. Richter made much of his career in London, but was clearly of central-European mindset when it came to musical tradition, and deeply immersed in the controversies over the future of music composition—the raging debate over Brahmsian traditionalism versus Wagnerian radicalism and the struggle that symphonists faced in trying to follow Beethoven’s Ninth.
After fretting about it for 20 years or so, Brahms waited until he was in his early 40s to compose his first symphony, which was anticipated as “Beethoven’s Tenth.” But for those who followed him—think of Mahler and Bruckner—pushing the symphony forward was even more problematic.
Photo of Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom / Empress Victoria of India, London, 1897.
Brahms did not live to see the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the point of collapse, the dissolution of cultural norms, the onrush of modernist ideas and the calamity of World War I like the lights of an oncoming train in a dark tunnel. Things seemed more settled in England, where Victoria’s reign endured to the end of the 19th century.
But by the time Elgar composed his first symphony, the Second Viennese School composers such as Berg and Schoenberg had published explorations of full-on atonality, Richard Strauss was confronting Freud’s ideas in his operas, and Mahler and Bruckner were stretching symphonic form to create profound, questing musical utterances. Could a great international symphony come from an English composer?
That is for you to judge. But in listening to Elgar’s Symphony No. 1 we hear not only a daring composition that holds its own today, but one that turned the music world inside-out when it was written.
The conductor Arthur Nikisch, a son of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, told the Leipzig press that “When Brahms produced his first symphony it was called ‘Beethoven’s Tenth’ … I will therefore call Elgar’s symphony “the Fifth of Brahms.” Rehearsing his players, Richter pointedly called it “the greatest symphony of modern times, written by the greatest modern composer—and not only in this country.”
The internationalist theme was even echoed in the English press: the critic for the Birmingham Post, for example, declared the symphony to be “a work not merely of English but of European significance.” In the year following its premiere, the symphony was performed more than 100 times in Europe and the U.S. for enthusiastic audiences.
What to Listen For
In the Symphony No. 1 Elgar offers us something old and something new, but nothing—this listener would argue—that is borrowed, though his contemporary critics claimed to hear quotations from Brahms, Wagner and Verdi.
The construction is traditional: four movements of alternating pace beginning and ending with brisk tempos, though both outer movements are launched by unusually long, slow introductions before they put on speed. “Introduction” might be the wrong word for these themes, as Elgar is in no hurry to give them up. His development of thematic materials meanders and turns back on itself, now whimsical, now majestic, opening musical expanses like vistas of English countryside.
For listeners of analytic bent, the Symphony No. 1 is a field day beginning before the first bar with the key signature: A-flat major, a rarity in any form and the only symphony so keyed in the standard repertory. In every movement, from the expansive opening to the grandly scaled allegro molto finale, Elgar takes us through remarkable modulations on the way back to A-flat major.
Yet the prevailing sense is not of craft or of European compositional technique, but of lyricism. Elgar alone among English symphonists united the traditions of European symphonic construction with the English pastoral tradition. This artistic fusion is abundant in great English lyric poetry and landscape painting; in music, far less so.
Only Elgar builds bridges to painters such as J.M.W. Turner and to the great Romantic poets (though the underrated Gerald Finzi does so in song). In the first movement, for example, the initial melody emerges from the bass depths of the orchestra, building in power and brightening in mood until it can engage in a vibrant discourse with the vigorous motifs that build the allegro.
As we listen we can imagine the chiaroscuro of the sun breaking through the clouds in an English landscape after a rainstorm. In the second movement there is a sense of almost martial grandeur in the spirited speed of the music; it has inspired some analysts to envision military maneuvers, perhaps an echo of the indomitable General Gordon.
The slow movement, in the traditional third position, is a lento of surpassing beauty and dignity. It can suggest the light of the gloaming hour, or—to listeners who find a military subtext in this symphony—an elegiac meditation on fallen soldiers like Wilfred Owen’s “Anthem for Doomed Youth,” with “…each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.” Some subjects remain tragically current regardless of musical styles.
Michael Clive is a cultural reporter living in the Litchfield Hills of Connecticut. He is program annotator for Pacific Symphony and Louisiana Philharmonic, and editor-in- chief for The Santa Fe Opera.
Elgar, Symphony No.1 London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vernon Handley.
I. Andante. Nobilmente e semplice
II. Allegro molto
III. Adagio IV. Lento — Allegro
Recorded at Abbey Road Studios (London) - March 1979.
Meet The Conductor
Michael Francis has quickly established himself as an international conductor, forging collaborations with the world’s leading orchestras. Known for maintaining a diverse repertoire while paying particular homage to the composers of his native Britain, Francis enjoys a great reception throughout North America, Europe and Asia. This season, Francis debuts with the Atlanta and Montreal symphony orchestras and Cincinnati’s May Music Festival, and returns to Toronto Symphony Orchestra with Emanuel Ax.
Abroad, he appears with Deutsche Radio Philharmonie Saarbrücken, Komische Oper Berlin, Dresden Philharmonic, Tampere Filharmonia and Trondheim Symphony Orchestra. Other guest appearances have included The Cleveland Orchestra, The New York and Royal philharmonics, with return engagements to the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, BBC Philharmonic, RTÉ National Symphony of Dublin, Ulster Orchestra, Dresden Philharmonic, and the symphonies of Cincinnati, Ottawa, Oregon, Houston, Indianapolis and Pittsburgh.
His European engagements have included the London Symphony, BBC Scottish Symphony, Orquesta Sinfónica de RTVE Madrid, Helsinki Philharmonic, Mariinsky Orchestra, Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte-Carlo and Stuttgart Radio Symphony. In Asia, Francis has conducted the NHK Symphony, and has returned to Malaysia and Seoul philharmonics.
Working with young musicians has always been a priority for Francis. Aside from a six-city Canadian tour with the National Youth Orchestra of Canada, Francis has made frequent visits to Miami’s New World Symphony and recently performed with the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland.
After several years as a tenured double-bass player in the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO), he came to prominence as a conductor in January 2007, replacing an indisposed Valery Gergiev for concerts with the LSO during the BBC’s Gubaidulina festival at the Barbican Centre. Just one month later, Francis was asked, this time with only two hours’ notice, to replace the composer/ conductor John Adams in a performance of his own works with the LSO at the Philharmonie Luxembourg and soon after in January 2009, he replaced André Previn leading a German tour of the Stuttgart Radio Symphony.
Soloists that he works with include Lang Lang, Arcadi Volodos, Christian Tetzlaff, Anne-Sophie Mutter, Vadim Gluzman, Nicola Benedetti, Baiba Skride, Jamie Barton, Alisa Weilerstein, Truls Mørk, Håkan Hardenberger, Daniel Müller-Schott, Miloš and Rufus Wainwright. Francis’ discography includes the Rachmaninoff piano concertos with Valentina Lisitsa and the London Symphony Orchestra, Wolfgang Rihm’s Lichtes Spiel with Anne-Sophie Mutter and the New York Philharmonic, and the Ravel and Gershwin piano concertos with Ian Parker.
Now entering his second season as music director of the Florida Orchestra, Francis’ contract has already been extended to 2021. He is also music director of the Mainly Mozart Festival in San Diego, where he has launched an ambitious multi-year exploration of Mozart’s life. He was recently chief conductor and artistic advisor of the Norrköping Symphony Orchestra from 2012 to 2016. Francis makes his home outside of Tampa, Fla. with his wife Cindy and 2-year-old daughter Annabella.
Meet The Guest Artist
Ray Chen is a violinist who redefines what it is to be a classical musician in the 21st century.
With a media presence that enhances and inspires the classical audience, reaching out to millions through his unprecedented online following, Chen’s remarkable musicianship transmits to a global audience that is reflected in his engagements with the foremost orchestras and concert halls around the world.
Initially coming to attention via the Yehudi Menuhin (2008) and Queen Elizabeth (2009) competitions, of which he was first prize winner, he has built a profile in Europe, Asia and the U.S. as well as his native Australia, both live and on disc.
Signed in 2017 to Decca Classics, the summer of 2017 has seen the recording of the first album of this partnership with the London Philharmonic as a succession to his previous three critically acclaimed albums on SONY, the first of which (“Virtuoso”) received an ECHO Klassik Award. Profiled as “one to watch” by the Strad and Gramophone magazines, his profile has grown to encompass his featuring in the Forbes list of 30 most influential Asians under 30, appearing in the major online TV series Mozart in the Jungle, a multi-year partnership with Giorgio Armani (who designed the cover of his Mozart album with Christoph Eschenbach) and performing at major media events such as France’s Bastille Day (live to 800,000 people), the Nobel Prize Concert in Stockholm (telecast across Europe) and the BBC Proms.
“It’s hard to say something new with these celebrated works; however, Chen performs them with the kind of authority that puts him in the same category as Maxim Vengerov.” (Corriere della Sera)
He has appeared with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, National Symphony Orchestra, Leipzig Gewandhausorchester, Munich Philharmonic, Filarmonica della Scala, Orchestra Nazionale della Santa Cecilia, Los Angeles Philharmonic, and upcoming debuts include the SWR Symphony, San Francisco Symphony, Pittsburgh Symphony, Berlin Radio Symphony and Bavarian Radio Chamber Orchestra. He works with conductors such as Riccardo Chailly, Vladimir Jurowski, Sakari Oramo, Manfred Honeck, Daniele Gatti, Kirill Petrenko, Krystof Urbanski, Juraj Valcuha and many others. From 2012-15 he was resident at the Dortmund Konzerthaus and in 17/18 will be an “Artist Focus” with the Berlin Radio Symphony.
His presence on social media makes Chen a pioneer in an artist’s interaction with their audience, using the new opportunities of modern technology. His appearances and interactions with music and musicians are instantly disseminated to a new public in a contemporary and relatable way. He is the first musician to be invited to write a lifestyle blog for the largest Italian publishing house, RCS Rizzoli (Corriere della Sera, Gazzetta dello Sport and Max).
He has been featured in Vogue magazine and is currently releasing his own design of violin case for the industry manufacturer GEWA. His commitment to music education is paramount, and inspires the younger generation of music students with his series of self-produced videos combining comedy and music. Through his online promotions his appearances regularly sell out and draw an entirely new demographic to the concert hall.
Born in Taiwan and raised in Australia, Ray was accepted to the Curtis Institute of Music at age 15, where he studied with Aaron Rosand and was supported by Young Concert Artists. He plays the 1715 “Joachim” Stradivarius violin on loan from the Nippon Music Foundation. This instrument was once owned by the famed Hungarian violinist, Joseph Joachim (1831-1907).
To learn more about Music Director Carl St.Clair, click here.