Beethoven’s Violin Concerto

Stern Recording of BeethovenBeethoven’s Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 61 set the standard for all violin concertos which followed, but you might not have known it at the first performance on December 23, 1806. According to legend Beethoven finished writing the solo part so late that Franz Clements, the violinist who gave the premier, was forced to sight read part of the concerto in the performance. In addition, Clements may have performed one of his own pieces in between movements, playing on one string with the violin held upside down. These antics suggest that the concert experience in Beethoven’s time may have been slightly less reverential than it is today. Many listeners in 1806 may have been overwhelmed by the scale and power of Beethoven’s shocking new music.

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]The Stern/Bernstein Recording[/typography]

Let’s listen to Isaac Stern’s great 1959 recording with Leonard Bernstein conducting the New York Philharmonic. Pay attention to the way the orchestra and the solo violin interact. This dialogue between tutti (everyone) and solo is what gives a concerto its drama. In this concerto, Beethoven often gives the violin embellishing scale and arpeggio lines which float above the melody in the orchestra. The first movement grows out of five quiet timpani notes. Listen to the way these five notes come back in different forms throughout the movement.

  1. Allegro ma non troppo (0:00)
  2. Larghetto (23:44)
  3. Rondo (34:36)

Find on iTunes Find on Amazon

The first movement is full of surprises. The five notes in the timpani provide a motivic seed, ripe for growth and development. The violins pick up this motive (0:25) but imitate it with a completely “wrong” note. Throughout the movement, Beethoven keeps us off guard, quickly alternating between moods. Just when we get lulled into lyrical complacency, we get a ferocious surprise (listen between 0:57 and 1:41). Beethoven musically provides “two sides of the same coin,” or in this case two sides of the same melody. At 1:40 the melody is sunny, in the major. Notice the way it changes to something slightly darker and more unsettling when it shifts into minor (1:55).

In the mysterious passage following 7:33 the “wrong note” is further developed. Pay attention to the way this moment of quiet musical confusion works itself out. In the tutti section which follows (8:27-10:32), the motive, which started out as five soft timpani notes in the opening, is now transformed into insistent, repeated fortissimo octaves dominated by the trumpets and horns.

Traditionally, the cadenza appears at the end of the first movement of a concerto (19:23). This is the moment when the orchestra drops out and the violinist improvises on the motives of the movement, showing off great technical skill. Later, it became common for performers to use established cadenzas. In this recording Stern plays a cadenza written by the legendary early twentieth century violinist, Fritz Kreisler.

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Additional Links[/typography]

Here is an excellent 1989 live concert performance by violinist Kyung Wha Chung and Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra conducted by Klauss Tennstedt:

In this clip Itzhak Perlman talks about his experience playing the concerto and what makes it so difficult:

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Schnittke’s Cadenzas[/typography]

Twentieth century Russian composer Alfred Schnittke (1934-1998) wrote cadenzas for the Beethoven Concerto which offer a uniquely modern perspective. Interestingly, Schnittke not only uses the motives of the piece, but includes quotes from the Brahms, Shostakovich (First), and Alban Berg violin concertos. Schnittke also incorporates the timpani into the cadenza. Here is Gidon Kremer playing the cadenzas to the First Movement:

Schnittke’s cadenza for the third movement brings back motives from the first movement:

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Coda[/typography]

Share your thoughts on this remarkable piece in the thread below. What was your experience listening to the cadenzas by Schnittke? Do they enrich the piece or do they seem jarringly out of place? Do you have a personal favorite recording of the Beethoven Concerto?

Four Sea Interludes

oceanToday is the 100th birthday of twentieth century English composer Benjamin Britten (1913-1976). Let’s celebrate by listening to Britten’s Four Sea Interludes from the opera, Peter Grimes. Played during scene changes, these interludes express the drama of the opera’s unsettling story. As you listen, consider the mood that Britten evokes and pay attention to the orchestration. You can read the synopsis of the entire opera here.

Here is a recording of a live 1990 performance by Leonard Bernstein and the Boston Symphony at their summer home in Tanglewood. It turned out to be Bernstein’s final concert.

  1. Dawn – Lento e tranquillo (0:00)
  2. Sunday Morning – Allegro spiritoso (3:41)
  3. Moonlight – Andante comodo e rubato (7:42)
  4. Storm – Presto con fuoco (12:42)


Find on iTunes Find on Amazon

As you listened to the first interlude could you sense the shimmering sea, the splash of waves and a vast expanse of unbroken water stretching into the horizon? The music reflects a calm sea, but underneath there is a sense of foreboding. In the second interlude we hear church bells ringing and the sounds of seagulls. Towards the end of the final interlude as the storm subsides, the eternal presence of the sea brings a feeling of calm and safety…or is there still something slightly menacing lurking below the surface? The final lines sung by Peter Grimes are:

[quote]“What harbor shelters peace, away from tidal waves, away from storms? What harbor can embrace terrors and tragedies?”[/quote]

You can learn more about the life and music of Benjamin Britten here and here.

Following the Ninth

A new film is out which explores the legacy of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Following the Ninth: In the Footsteps of Beethoven’s Final Symphony, directed by Kerry Candaele, highlights the timelessness of the music and its political and social significance. From Pinochet’s Chile to Tiananmen Square to the fall of the Berlin Wall, the final movement’s Ode to Joy has emerged as a universal response to oppression. Its themes encompass freedom, liberation, and the universal brotherhood of man. Here is the trailer to the film:

Read about the film in this New York Times piece and watch this clip with Bill Moyers. Here are a few excerpts from reviews:

[quote]Thrilling…….smartly assembled and gracefully paced. -The New York Times[/quote]

[quote]The reach of Beethoven’s final great work extends way beyond the concert hall, as this stirring documentary attests.-Film Journal[/quote]

[quote] A captivating portrait of how art can serve as an inspiration for struggle for freedom….around the world.-Santa Cruz Sentinel[/quote]

Premiering in 1824, Beethoven’s Ninth, with chorus and elements of opera, was the most expansive symphony ever written. Composers who followed Beethoven would struggle to come to terms with this mysterious and daunting work.

The symphony emerges out of silence. We have the sense that the piece began sometime before the volume was turned up. In the last movement, Beethoven quotes the first three movements, musically negating each in favor of the Ode to Joy. In this way, the final movement moves to a higher plane, transcending everything which came before.

We’ll give Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony the full Listeners’ Club treatment at some point in the future. For now, enjoy this performance by Daniel Barenboim and the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. Also check out Leonard Bernstein’s historic performance celebrating the fall of the Berlin Wall. Keep an eye out for the movie and consider the ways in which the Ninth Symphony’s powerful universal themes still have meaning today.

The Rite of Spring Turns 100

Stravinsky, sketched by Picasso
Stravinsky, sketched by Picasso

This week marks the 100th anniversary of the premier of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, one of the twentieth century’s most important and influential pieces. It was written as a ballet score for Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in Paris and originally choreographed by Vaslav Nijinsky.

The Rite of Spring was revolutionary. Its dissonant sounds, complex rhythms and ferocious musical primitivism had never been imagined. The first audience, expecting the elegant classical ballet of the nineteenth century, was rudely confronted with the violent cacophony of a new twentieth century reality. The premier on May 29, 1913 at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees was so shocking that a riot broke out. You can read the New York Times’s account of the evening here.

The Rite of Spring shakes off the civilized world and offers a glimpse at raw nature in all of its earthy, potent glory. In this clip from a rehearsal, Leonard Bernstein suggests that the music conjures up primal feelings of connection to a living earth-the feeling of laying on the grass and hugging the earth on a warm day or wrapping your arms around a tree trunk. Disney’s use of the music in the soundtrack of Fantasia suggests something equally primordial. Stravinsky said that his unifying idea was “the mystery and great surge of the creative power of spring.”

Let’s listen to an excellent concert performance by conductor Jaap van Zweden and the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic (video below). Elements of the music may remind you of jazz and even rock. Early jazz musicians were influenced by composers such as Stravinsky and Maurice Ravel. At the same time, composers were becoming interested in the music of Asia and Africa which fed into jazz. You might also hear music that reminds you of Bernstein’s West Side Story.

Many of Stravinsky’s melodies for The Rite of Spring grew out of folk music from the most rural reaches of Russia. You may notice that the music is often constructed on an ostinato, or repeated motive or phrase. Listen closely to the way Stravinsky layers chords to create shocking new harmonies. Most importantly, enjoy the feel and groove of the rhythm. At times you will hear Stravinsky layer competing grooves on top of each other to keep us feeling off balance. For one especially exciting example of this, listen to the base drum beat at 13:30 and what follows.

The Rite of Spring is divided into two parts, The Adoration of the Earth and The Sacrifice (starting at 16:03). Listen to the way the piece grows out of a single high bassoon line. More and more instruments join and interrupt. Consider the mood that is set in this opening. Do you feel a sense of anticipation, as if something shocking is just around the corner? Does the music take sudden turns which surprise or even scare you? Can you feel a sense of motion and raw emotion in the music?

The second part centers around the tribe’s selection and sacrifice of a young girl (16:03). Listen to the way Stravinsky musically builds tension and anticipation as this ritual unfolds (25:44). The ballet ends with a Sacrificial Dance as the girl dances herself to death (29:09).

For more background and analysis of The Rite of Spring, watch this episode of Michael Tilson Thomas’s Keeping Score. Also hear the thoughts of composer/conductor Pierre Boulez and watch this video. Share your own thoughts about this monumental piece in the thread below. Tell us what you heard. What aspects of the music do you find particularly interesting? What emotions do you feel as you listen? What are your favorite moments in the piece?