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Beethoven's Violin Concerto in D Major: Am I Allowed to Dislike It?

  
  
  

In last week's series of letters, Alberta Barnes and I discussed Saint-Säens's Symphony No. 3 in C Minor, Op. 78. This week we're tackling Ludwig van Beethoven's Violin Concerto in D Major, which, for some reason, left me feeling indifferent. Want to defend Ludwig? Have a favorite piece you want us to write about? Leave a commment below or send me an email at joec@sharmusic.com.


Ludwig van Beethoven

Dear Alberta,

You're going to be angry with me: I struggled with Ludwig van Beethoven's Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 61. Everyone says it's a masterpiece, but after marvelling at the sonata form of Mendelssohn's Octet and coming to the conclusion that Saint-Säens pretty much laid bare my emotional life, Ludwig left me cold.

Is he this cruel to other novice listeners?

Perhaps Hilary Hahn's precise performance with the Balitmore Symphony Orchestra of the Concerto subdued whatever it is I thought I would feel. And although I'm confident in my ability to appreciate most art forms – at least as a novice – I'm starting question my indifference to the Concerto. (Is this like going to a fancy dinner party and not liking the two-hundred dollar bottle of wine? Am I the guy who just wants a little more box wine?)

I recognized the sonata form, and I could hear Hahn's violin repeating and revising theexposition and development. The structure of the Concerto struck me as too geometric, though; formal tidiness descended, imposed itself on the piece. I wanted a little messiness. I wanted, in the metaphor the Russain poet Osip Mandelstam uses to describe Dante's Divine Comedy, a beehive the musician constructs from the inside. I heard an algebra equation here: if you multiply one side by 6, you do the same to the other side.   

Walt WhitmanI don't know where my head is these days, but I kept longing for an American sound while listening to the Concerto. It was hard to hear anything but the score of a costume drama set in Old Europe. There was a verticality to this piece that felt undemocratic; the progression ascended and descended over and over, and I found myself wanting the lateral, wide sweep of an American voice like Walt Whitman's

I'm not a total boor, even though I do like Whitman. I was taken with the vulnerability and audacity of a lone violin going up against a whole string section, timpani, a basson, and all the rest. There seemed to be a brave individualism here, the fatalism of pitting one voice against a multitude. And I liked knowing, more or less, how the plot was going to turn out. Similar to watching the opening scene of an old black-and-white detective movie, you know how this one is going to end. 

I'm not all complaints and sour grapes. If there was something that moved me so much I wanted to cry during the Concerto, it was the suddennes of its quiet. In between the orchestra's exposition (or maybe it was the development?) and the violin's response, there was a moment of stillness I felt I could disappear into.

That's something to write home about.

Yours,
Joe   

Comments

If you're looking for an "American" sound, I recommend Dvorak's "American" Quartet or something by Aaron Copland.
Posted @ Thursday, April 19, 2012 2:43 PM by Alberta Barnes
I recently attended a program which included (as the highlight!) Beethoven's violin concerto. I had never heard it before so I had no idea what to expect. It was impressively difficult for the soloist to perform. The first movement was a formidable foe which, once conquered, earned the soloist a well-deserved standing ovation. But I couldn't help shaking the idea that the audience was not celebrating an artistic achievement as much as it was expressing appreciation for the athleticism displayed during her precise and subtle performance. She had dared to look this magnificently oversized beast in the eye and had outlasted it, emerging unscathed. There was palpable relief written upon the faces of those around me as the first movement finally drew to a close. About 25% of the audience exited the building at the conclusion of the first movement! Were these complete Philistines? No. This was simply an audience of novice listeners who had responded very favorably to the Vivaldi, Mozart and Bach pieces which had preceded the concerto. But this composition's first movement had simply depleted their patience and they said "thank you very much, I'm giving you a standing ovation, and then I'm leaving the auditorium." They were polite and kind but were also too uneducated to know that they were expected to revere and to love this wonderful concerto. As they voted with their feet, I remained for the entirety of the performance of course. In the end, however, the concerto, and the first movement in particular, had been far too long and repetitive for my taste. It sounded like a work which had been composed too quickly, with good ideas which had not been sufficiently edited. I honestly believe it would have been 400% more effective had it been half as long.  
 
Beethoven seemed to have a penchant for wanting to make things bigger, louder or in this case... longer. He was a master, no doubt. But it was in spite of his predisposition to excess, not because of it. Despite the sublime sections and inspired moments, by the time the first movement was complete, I felt as though I had been bludgeoned by the same idea having been stated far too many times over and over with repetive sameness that varied only somewhat in its continued restatement of similar likenesses not entirely dissimilar to the way you may now sensce a swelling exhaustion with this runon sentence's lack of ability to stop saying parallel equivalences of sameness again and again in a repetive manner with no end in sight simply restating the same thing over and over and over again....
Posted @ Monday, July 29, 2013 10:27 PM by Mark Stephens
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