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- Practising Performing
- Review of a DVD by Simon Fischer
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Composer Intention vs. Violinist’s Interpretation in the Beethoven Violin Concerto
The Beethoven Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 61, is undoubtedly one of the great pieces of the violin repertoire. Basil Deane describes it as one of the composers “ most sheerly beautiful compositions.”  In The Beethoven Companion, Deane goes on to explain its importance saying, “its greatness lies in the integration of lyricism with symphonic structure on the largest scale.” At the time of its premiere it was innovative, romantic and presented the concerto in a way that no composer had done before. However due to a late accent into the standard repertoire, the Concerto in D as we know it is surrounded by a degree of ambiguity raising questions of historical accuracy regarding interpretation, tempo markings and cadenzas.
Prior to the concerto, Beethoven had completed two romances for violin and orchestra. It is unclear exactly what the inspiration for his concerto was, but Beethoven began writing it in 1806 and the piece was premiered at the Theater an der Wien, Vienna, in a benefit concert for Franz Clement in December of that year. Beethoven wrote the concerto for Clement who was leader of the opera orchestra and the autograph manuscript even bears a rude pun made by the composer relating to Clement’s name. Work on the concerto seems to have been quick and perhaps less than conventional. The manuscript has four staves on which the solo violin part hops around due to a multitude of edits and changes. Furthermore, it is said that the concerto was finished so late that Clement ended up sight-reading entire sections during the premiere. It is unclear whether or not this was a contributing factor but audiences did not take to the concerto. It’s poor reception may have been the end of the D major Concerto had a young Joseph Joachim, age 12, not revived it in 1844 at a London concert under the baton of Felix Mendelssohn. Audiences loved Joachim’s interpretation and from this point onward it became a staple of the violin’s standard repertoire.
It would be an over exaggeration to say that following its premiere, the concerto was “lost.” There were a scattering of performances between 1807, and 1844. Yet, the work was not even picked up by a publishing house until 1894. Lost or not, it is clear that the concerto did not exist in the much loved way audiences know it today until Joachim. This seemingly 40 year “gap” in the concerto’s life results in a number of interpretive discrepancies. Twelve-year-old Joachim certainly did not hear the concerto’s premiere and there is no documentation substantiating that his conductor and mentor Felix Mendelssohn heard it either. What history tells us is that at the very closest, Joachim received interpretive advice from someone who knew someone who may have heard the concerto in Beethoven’s time. Yet the twelve-year-old boy who grew up into one of history’s most famous violinists seems to have left a huge imprint on Beethoven’s concerto.
One of the most evident examples of Joachim’s imprint is in the famously romantic G Minor passage. It is at this point, bar 330, where the violin writing is at it’s most moving and romantic. Roger Fiske speculates in the BBC Music Guide to the Beethoven Concertos & Overtures that it is Joachim who began a tradition of dropping the tempo to Andante. Of course we don’t have an audio record of Joachim’s performance but the clues surrounding Fritz Kreisler’s performance very concrete.
Kreisler was the first violinist to record the concerto in 1926. In his recording, he drops the tempo of the G minor passage from 112 crochets per minute to a leisurely 66 and almost every violinist from Heifitz to Vengerov follows this convention to some degree. Yet, nowhere in the original score is there an indication of a tempo change for the passage.
Today the modern G minor passage is usually played at a moderate 80 beats per minute as in Janine Jansen’s recent 2009 recording. However, the modern violinist’s following of this convention would seem to then indicate that more loyalty is shown to the performance traditions of Joachim and Kreisler than to the that of Beethoven’s actual intention.
Cadenzas are undoubtedly an important issue one faces when attempting to interpret any concerto. Originally, baroque and classical cadenzas were an opportunity for the soloist to demonstrate their virtuosity, brilliance and skill at their instrument. However, as the Romantic Era dawned, composers began to transcribe their cadenzas rather than leaving them to the performer’s discretion. The cadenza for the Beethoven Violin Concerto is intriguing due to the fact that Beethoven is one of the few composers to bridge the gap between the Classical and Romantic Periods. In the romantic convention Beethoven transcribed cadenzas for his piano concertos but in the case of the Violin Concerto we are left almost completely in the dark.
No cadenza for the Concerto in D survives earlier than that of Joachim’s. An original Beethovian cadenza may have been lost in the jumble that is the autograph manuscript, or simply may not have been written as in the classical fashion. Either way, the end result is that we have no way of knowing how the concerto as a whole would have sounded as Beethoven heard it. Though Joachim’s cadenzas are widely published and accomplished works, today the Kreisler cadenza is most often used.
Yet, there is another aspect to the story of the Concerto in D that many listeners are not aware of. Beethoven’s influence over the work did not end in 1806 after it’s premiere. In the spring of 1807 Muzio Clementi visited Vienna in hope of trying to buy the rights to some of Beethoven’s works. He was preparing to set up in London as a music publisher and was immediately impressed by the beauty of Beethoven’s concerto. However, considering the concerto’s poor reception following the premiere, Clementi felt that it would not go over well in England. His solution was to ask Beethoven to rewrite the piece as a piano concerto, later published as Op. 61a.
Beethoven fussed relatively minimally with the piano transcription. The orchestration is almost identical and there seem to be only minimal changes in the writing of the solo part. He did however transcribe an original cadenza for the first movement in which soloist is accompanied throughout by the timpani’s five repeated crochet figure.
Donald Francis Tovey writes, “from Beethoven’s queer arrangement of his Violin Concerto for pianoforte we can learn a few interesting details as to what he might have written, or did actually sketch, when unrestricted by scruples of violin technique.” The violinist Max Rostal seems to agree having transcribed the piano cadenza for the violin. However, Rostal’s transcription has not caught on with modern violinists who almost exclusively play the cadenzas of Joachim and Kreisler. Agreeing on superiority of the master violinist’s cadenzas, Tovey concurs, “Even apart from the violin [the pianoforte cadenza’s] details are not improvements.” Thus as with the issues of tempo discussed before, violinists on a whole seem to continue to follow a tradition of performance rather than historic clues surrounding the score.
Tovey presents an interesting way of justifying this attitude. Referring to Joachim’s treatment of the second cadenza’s six grace note crotchets leading to the rondo, in which he proves them with counterpoint in double stops, Tovey says, “This would, I am sure, have delighted Beethoven.”
Yet he also hypothesises that Kreisler’s practice, of combining second-group and first movement themes, “probably would have delighted Beethoven still more.” Tovey’s speculation as to Beethoven’s reaction does raise an important point. Either history has robed us of the original cadenzas or Beethoven did not leave us with clear instructions pertaining to the practical possibilities of his music on the violin. Either way, it is true that both Joachim and Kreisler’s cadenzas solve the same compositional issues Beethoven was presented in interesting, creative and stylistically appropriate ways making them both valid options.
However, when looking at the other interpretive issues such as the G minor section one cannot be so certain they are something that Beethoven would have been “delighted with.” After all, if he had intended these changes wouldn’t he have indicated so in the score? What it all seems to come down to is the perennial question a musician faces in every piece he or she plays: How large can the licence of interpretation be before it begins to interfere with the composer’s intention?
That is not a question I feel qualified to answer for the entirety of classical music’s repertoire. However the conclusion I can come to regarding the Violin Concerto is that when looking at the piece on the modern concert platform, the concerto we have today does not solely belong to Beethoven. Before Joachim’s revival, the concerto was unappreciated and unpublished if not lost and it owes a great deal of credit for its prominence in the repertoire to Joachim who brought its notes to the public. If Beethoven gave birth to the concerto, Joachim is certainly the parent who raised it and Kreisler and each of the violinists who have interpreted it along the way are the experiences that have shaped it. The Beethoven Violin Concerto is a piece which may have been given to us by the great composer, but which today truly belongs to the violinist.
B. Borchard, ‘Joachim, Joseph’, The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, ed. Stanley Sadie (London, 2001) xiii. 125-126
B. Deane, ‘The Concertos’, The Beethoven Companion, ed. Denis Arnold and Nigel Fortune (London 1971) 318-328
R. Fiske, BBC Music Guides Beethoven, Concertos & Overtures (London 1970)
A. Hopkins, The Seven Concertos of Beethoven (Hants England 1996)
B. Schwartz, ‘Kreisler, Fritz’, The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, ed. Stanley Sadie (London, 2001) xiii, 889-890
D. F. Tovey, Essays and Lectures on Music (London 1949)
D.F. Tovey, Essays in Musical Analysis, Concertos (Oxford 1936)
L. van Beethoven, Violin Concerto in D major Op. 61, Janine Jansen, London Symphony Orchestra, Paaco Jarvi [Decca, 2009, CD B002GJ3MRQ]
L. van Beethoven, Violin Concerto in D major Op. 61, Jascha Heifitz, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Charles Munch [RCA, 1995, CD B000003FIO]
L. van Beethoven, Violin Concerto in D major Op. 61, Mazim Vengerov, London Symphony Orchestra, Mstislav Rostropovich [EMI Classics, 2006, CD B000B63IDO]
L. van Beethoven, Violin Concerto in D major Op. 61, Fritz Kreisler, Berlin State Opera Orchestra, Leo Blech [Naxos, 2000, CD B00004SV5F]
 B. Deane, ‘The Concertos’, The Beethoven Companion, ed. Denis Arnold and Nigel Fortune (London 1971) 324
 D. F. Tovey, Essays and Lectures on Music (London 1949) 321.
 D. F. Tovey, Essays and Lectures on Music (London 1949) 321.
 D. F. Tovey, Essays and Lectures on Music (London 1949) 323.
 D. F. Tovey, Essays and Lectures on Music (London 1949) 324.