Ludwig van Beethoven, named after his illustrious grandfather, Kapellmeister to the Archbishop Elector of Cologne, was born in Bonn in 1770, the son of a singer employed by the Archbishop. Beethoven’s father was to prove inadequate paternally and professionally, although he saw to it that his son was trained, in one way and another, to assume his due position in the archiepiscopal Kapelle. It was with the encouragement of the Archbishop, a younger son of the Empress Maria Theresia, that the young musician made his way to Vienna in 1792, armed with introductions to the leading aristocratic amateurs of the day. He was to remain in Vienna for the rest of his life, at first establishing a reputation as a pianist and composer and later, after increasing deafness had barred him from performance and, to a large extent, from society, as a genius of known and tolerated eccentricity, a giant among composers.
Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D major, Opus 61, his only completed concerto for the instrument, was written in 1806 and at first dedicated to Franz Clement, the principal violinist and conductor at the Theater an der Wien, who gave the first performance of the work, adding a further item of variations played with the violin upside down, an unusual testimony to his technical proficiency. A later edition of the concerto carried a dedication to Beethoven’s friend Stephan von Breuning.
The concerto was well enough received in Vienna, although some complained of the excessive length of the first movement, one critic writing of the endless repetition of unimportant passages, which he alleged produced a tiring effect. It was not until 1844 that the work became part of the standard repertoire, when it was performed by Brahms’s friend Joachim in London, with the orchestra conducted by Mendelssohn. Since then it has become a favourite with audiences and players, its position unassailable.
Beethoven, with more than usual assistance from a copyist, transcribed the Violin Concerto for piano and orchestra, adding cadenzas, the whole undertaken in response to a commission from the pianist and composer Clementi in London. Although Beethoven’s piano cadenzas have been transcribed for violin, it is usual for soloists to prefer cadenzas from other sources better suited to a string instrument.
The first movement of the concerto opens with five ominous drum-beats, in a long exposition, goes on to introduce the principal material of the movement, leading to a treacherously exposed opening octave arpeggio for the soloist. The movement, in all its beauty and variety, continues in broadly classical form.
The Larghetto allows the violinist an accompanying role, before he finally comes into his own with a fine, singing melody, later to be embellished, before the weighty chords that introduce the final Rondo. Here the soloist introduces the first and principal melody, playing on the lowest string of the violin. An episode of peasant simplicity follows, and the movement continues in the prescribed form, the first theme re-appearing between contrasting sections. As the concerto seems about to end in a whisper, the composer re-asserts himself with two forceful final chords.
The two Romances for violin and orchestra were earlier works. The F major Romance was written in 1798 and the G major work apparently in 1801-2, possibly as slow movements for a C major violin concerto that had been started some years earlier, but was never to be finished. The Romances were published in 1803 and 1805, in Leipzig and Vienna, after being refused by the distinguished firm of Breitkopf & Haertel, to which they had been offered. They both have a perfection of their own and remain a significant part of the solo violin concert repertoire.