An Apology for the Beethoven Violin Concerto
I defend Beethoven's Violin Concerto, a piece which I ardently love.
First of all, music speaks to everyone differently and it may be that the Beethoven concerto just isn’t for you. There’s nothing wrong with that. You’re allowed to dislike the concerto. However, I do have to ask whether every masterpiece immediately reveals the fullness of its brilliance to its audience. Some do, perhaps; I imagine that it would be difficult to NOT be immediately compelled by the first movement of Beethoven 5, for example. But, what did you think of Hamlet the first time you read it? Did you have a full grasp on the Donne sonnets after a cursory read-through? Did you immediately comprehend The Four Quartets? I doubt it, and not because these pieces are deliberately esoteric but because they are masterpieces. Like people, masterpieces do not generally divulge the fullness of their brilliance on first acquaintance. The more masterful something is, the more it has to reveal over time.
The first time that I listened to Beethoven’s Op. 61 I did not like it. In fact, I adamantly opposed it: the piece seemed to me to be long winded, pedantic, and boring. The repeated D-sharps certainly didn’t add much appeal. But, I loved Beethoven, and I refused to entirely reject his only concerto for my instrument so soon.
After a few years I returned to the piece. I still didn’t like the D-sharps, the first movement still seemed long, and the violin part still didn't seem horribly exciting. But, for the first time, I was drawn into the melodies. The second theme seemed to me exquisitely crafted, luminous, and full of a joy which I could not perhaps fully comprehend. The more I listened to the piece the more I was taken with it. Gradually the violin’s upward arpeggiations wound themselves about my soul much as a flowering vine winds itself about a trellis: delicately, yet inextricably. I became increasingly fascinated with the purity, the joy, the humility, and the power of the piece. Humbly, it sings of beauty. In D Major, the “key of the people,” it walks through a tearful valley yet still sings of beauty even as the tears are still wet upon the face.
Now, far over a decade since our first acquaintance, I consider this piece to be more than a masterpiece: it is an image of what I hope to become, not just as a violinist but as a person. I wish to be a humble messenger of beauty. I wish my only song to be one of joy. I wish to be, as the American poet Josiah Gilbert Holland put it, “a rose-lipped shell that murmur[s] of the eternal sea – a strange bird singing the songs of another shore.”
But enough. Let me discuss a few things which you mentioned. You struggled with the form of the piece; it was “too geometric” with an apparently imposed “formal tidiness.” But how tidy is this concerto? Sonata-concerto form, yes, but tidy? This piece is actually much less tidy than the Mendelssohn Octet! Beethoven, as he usually prefers to do, stays within the bounds of the form but he pushes the form to its limit. There are many examples of this but for now, two.
Unconventionally, the “main” theme of this concerto is actually the second theme. Usually, the second theme in sonata form is supporting material meant to contrast the primary theme. But, when at long last, the violin returns to sing the melody alone after the cadenza, it chooses the second theme for its song:
Also unconventionally, Beethoven not only introduces new thematic material in the development of the piece – a part of sonata form which traditionally works only with material from the exposition – but this new thematic material actually serves as the heart of the piece. This is the most intimate moment in this movement; arguably it could be one of the most intimate moments in much of classical music.
But, despite these (and other) formal “variances,” you are right in seeing that this concerto is symmetrically organized and laid out. But, I question whether this is really a problem. You say that the form feels too geometric, but do you say this also when Shakespeare speaks in iambic pentameter? You say that the form is imposed, but do you consider the sonnet form to be restrictive or, perhaps, does the nature of its form provide a harmony and a greater freedom of expression? You desire messiness, but must everything be messy? In all of the angst, passion, and intensity of Beethoven's music are we loathe to find a resting place in beauty?
This is for you to ponder. Listen to different recordings. Watch the expression on Stern's face during the end of the development section. Come back to the piece in a year, and then again in another year. It may speak to you more in the future or it may not. But, I ask, at least give it this opportunity; I did, and my life is all the richer.