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Program Notes: March 10, 2013

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
(Born: Bonn, December 16, 1770; died: Vienna, March 26, 1827)
Violin Concerto in D Major, Opus 61

  1. Allegro, ma non troppo
  2. Larghetto
  3. Rondo

Beethoven’s Violin Concerto is one of the lengthiest written by any composer. Yet, remarkably, it is also one of the quietest, crafted with great serenity and as lyrical as anything Beethoven ever composed. Often, when the music reaches a dramatic moment, it climaxes not with thunder but with pastoral amplitude. It reflects, sometimes contrary to our usual perception of Beethoven, a composer who was compassionate, witty, deeply humane, and understanding of whispered joys.

"One might be inclined to say off-hand that the most mysterious stroke of genius in the whole work is the famous opening with five strokes of the drum which introduces the peculiarly radiant first subject on the wood-wind…." So said the esteemed musicologist Donald Tovey . . . but so said Beethoven. The Violin Concerto is a work filled with unexpected strokes of genius. Another of the more remarkable examples occurs shortly thereafter. Though the piece begins in D major, after the second phrase the violins then play a D sharp. This note, completely unrelated to the key of the work, to the preceding music, or even to what is to follow, is placed in such a way as if it were the most natural note in the whole Concerto. It’s one of the many delights of a masterpiece brimming with delicate surprises.

The second movement, Larghetto, is a beautifully radiant and sentimental set of variations. Beethoven seems to have reached the sublime with its hymn-like opening – so simple, so pure, and so breathtaking – which allows the soloist to daydream in the Elysium fields. Then, without a pause, the third movement Rondo sets out with a respectful energy to the intimate meditation that preceded it, but by measure it gathers exuberance and strength and joyfulness. About midway through the movement, the orchestra is almost giddy drunk in a dialogue with the soloist. Although as a Finale it doesn’t wander too far from the Concerto’s overall tranquillity, it indeed brings some charming twists of energy and off-beat rhythms. The jubilant ending is not so much a grandiose affair as it is a boisterous farewell of good humor and good cheer.

The concerto was premiered by 26-year-old Franz Clement in December 1806. Concert lore tells the story that Clement sight-read most of the performance, the music not having been finished in time for him to practice it. What is not lore is that after Beethoven’s death another violinist prodigy would soon be associated with the Concerto as much as any soloist has ever been linked to any concerto: the famous Joseph Joachim (1837-1907). And the fact that Joachim championed this Concerto with such passion shows that the solo part, as well as being some of the most exquisite solo writing in the repertoire, is also some of the most difficult.

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Symphony No. 6 in F Major “Pastoral”, Op. 68

  1. Awakening of Cheerful Feelings upon Arrival in the Country – (Allegro ma non troppo)
  2. Scene by the Brook – (Andante molto mosso)
  3. Merry Gathering of Country Folk – (Allegro)
  4. Thunderstorm – (Allegro)
  5. Shepherd’s Song. Happy and Thankful Feelings after the Storm – (Allegretto)
Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, the “Pastoral,” is filled with charm and gratefulness, the light of the sun through summer leaves, and the grace and quietude of nature observed. When one regards Beethoven, with all his scowling portraits and the allusions to monumental struggle in his Fifth Symphony, hearing his Sixth comes as a complete surprise.

As with his Fifth, the Sixth’s essence had been germinating in Beethoven’s head for many years. His busy city life in Vienna was increasingly counter-balanced by long sojourns to its parks and out into the countryside, and especially in the lovely town of Heiligenstadt, where in the summer of 1808 he escaped to finish the “Pastoral.” As he wrote to a friend, “No one can love the country as much as I do. For surely woods, trees, and rocks produce the echo that man desires to hear.” The composer, now truly suffering from his increasing deafness and dissatisfaction with human nature, found joy in the purity of nature and captured it in the expression he knew best – music.

The methods of expression Beethoven chose were quietness, repetition and a relaxed pace (or, as musicologist Donald Tovey called, “lazy”). One can hear this marvelously in the first movement, where the mood is exquisitely peaceful, and in which Beethoven seems to blissfully luxuriate in the simple repetition of themes. The harmonic pace of the movement is also on holiday – for example, near the beginning of the development section, the key (Bb) lollygags for some 50 measures before Beethoven moves to the key of D. All of this nurtures us, calms us, and brings us into nature’s realm. And the same spirit pervades the whole symphony. Even as the fourth movement threatens us with a storm, the following song of thanks in the fifth movement is, as essayist Basil Lam astutely observed, a thanks to “ … the Creator …, not for ending the storm, but for the glory of Nature, of which the storm is a part.”

Beethoven himself chose the name for his Sixth, “Pastoral,” as well as each of the movement’s subtitles, and together they suggest a “program,” or series of scenes which the Symphony depicts. Although he cautioned against pictorial precision, in the brief notes he provided for its premiere, Beethoven called the Pastoral “… more of a matter of feeling than of painting in sounds… no picture, but something in which the emotions are expressed that are aroused by the pleasures of the country.” His subtitles evoke, in a spiritual way, the psychological essence of what being in nature meant to him, honoring nature’s “music” with his own. Even so, there are some delightful imitations of nature, including the obvious replications of birdsong (nightingale, quail and the cuckoo played by the flute, oboe and clarinet) in the second movement and the thunderstorm (with timpani and trombones) in the fourth movement. And the result is Beethoven at his happiest and most tenderhearted.