MasterWorks 04: Beethoven Violin Concerto
Ludwig van Beethoven’s influence was far-reaching and ushered in a movement of music that was picked up and further developed by composers like Wagner and Strauss. Beethoven’s one and only Violin Concerto has become an audience and performer favorite, filled with delicate melodies and stunning poignance. This concert opens with a premiere by Los Angeles-based composer Sarah Gibson, which the League of American Orchestras commissioned with the generous support of the Virginia B. Toulmin Foundation. The concert scampers to an exciting finish with Richard Strauss’ Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks, a lively, comic work about the conflict between stern forces of repression and the irrepressible spirit of freedom.
to make this mountain taller (Michigan premiere)
Commissioned by the League of American Orchestras with the generous support of the Virginia B. Toulmin FoundationProgram notes by John Varineau
Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 61
Concerto in D Major for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 61
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Style: Classical and Romantic
Duration: 42 minutes
Many of us share a personality flaw with Beethoven. In spite of his greatness, Ludwig van Beethoven was a procrastinator, especially when somebody was paying for his work. Consider poor Franz Clement and Beethoven’s Violin Concerto.
Franz Clement was a virtuoso violinist who made his fame as a child prodigy. Later he became the concertmaster and conductor of the prestigious Theater an der Wien. Clement conducted the premiere of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony and was the concertmaster at the premiere of his only opera, Fidelio. His “ear” was legendary; there are tales of Clement’s ability to play back almost any piece of music after only a single hearing. Unlike many violinists of the day who were known for “bold, robust, powerful playing,” Clement was known for an “indescribable delicacy, neatness, and elegance, and extremely delightful tenderness and purity.” He was “indisputably . . . among the most perfect violinists.”
One way to make money as a musician during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was to hold a benefit concert—for yourself. Clement held his benefit concert on December 23, 1806. In spite of his “delicacy and neatness,” he wasn’t above mere showmanship; he ended the concert playing a piece while holding the instrument upside down and using only one of the violin’s strings! For that same concert, he asked Beethoven to write a concerto. Beethoven barely finished it in time. Legend has it that Clement’s first time through the concerto was when he sight-read it at the concert, in front of the paying audience! Pity the poor orchestra players who were also sight-reading. One might feel some pity for the conductor, except that it was Beethoven himself!
Beethoven’s Violin Concerto reflects the qualities of Clement’s playing, making it “among the most perfect” violin concertos. Nevertheless, it is not a typical concerto: (i.e., a technical show-off piece for a soloist). Performing it is difficult but, even in the more robust sections, it has a sweet, serene character. Beginning with the timpani—which play a central role throughout the first movement—the orchestra plays for an extended period and gets to introduce all of the melodies before the violinist even enters. After he finally comes in with a short cadenza, he embellishes everything that has come before. Even the cadenza at the end of this movement finishes without the typical soloist flourish. Instead, it gently melts into the final orchestral utterance.
The second movement is a series of variations on a simple little theme resembling a chorale. A short cadenza at the end leads directly into the finale. Like the beginning of the concerto itself, it begins delicately. This time, however, it builds into a vigorous and virtuosic showpiece.
©2023 John P. Varineau
Tristian and Isolde: Prelude and Liebestod
Prelude and Liebestod from “Tristan und Isolde”
Richard Wagner (1813–1883)
Duration: Seventeen minutes
The legend of Tristan and Isolde—that tale of intense romantic yearning—is probably of Celtic origin, but it was the decidedly Teutonic composer Richard Wagner who re-invented it for the world of opera. He was in the midst of writing his monumental four-opera The Ring of the Niebelung when he first read the legend of Tristan. He was also in the midst of an intense relationship with the very-much-married Mathilde Wesendonk. Soon he was taking a sabbatical from The Ring and working on a new opera: Tristan und Isolde.
It is difficult to encapsulate all of the psychological sub-texts of the opera, but the basic plot is this: Tristan goes on a journey to bring Isolde back to wed his master, King Marke. Of course, Tristan falls in love with Isolde, and somehow the two drink a love potion that was meant for the King and Isolde. Their eyes are opened and, in the words of Wagner’s own synopsis,
For the future they only belong to each other. . . . The World, power, fame, splendor, honor, knighthood, fidelity, friendship, all are dissipated like an empty dream. One thing remains: longing, longing, insatiable longing; forever springing up anew, pining and thirsting. Death, which means passing away, perishing, never awakening, is their only deliverance.
That longing is what the Prelude is all about. In a long, slow crescendo, the tension builds to a tremendous climax and then slowly subsides. The never-resolving harmonies of the Prelude themselves imply that insatiable longing. As the Prelude subsides, the Liebstod (Love-death) begins. It contains melodic material from the famous second act duet between Tristan and Isolde. That duet is the longest in all of opera, lasting nearly 40 minutes—with nearly no action. The gist of those 40 minutes? “Thus we died, undivided, one forever, without end, never waking, never fearing, embraced namelessly, in love, given entirely to each other, living only in our love!”
Wagner’s affair with Mathilde Wesendonk didn’t last. She couldn’t leave her husband. But Wagner was soon at it again, this time wooing and eventually marrying Cosima von Bülow, the daughter of Franz Liszt and the wife of the man who conducted the premiere of Tristan und Isolde. While Cosima was still married to Hans von Bülow, she and Wagner had two daughters. One of them was named Isolde.
©2023 John P. Varineau
Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks, Op. 28
Till Eulenspiegels Lustige Streiche, Op. 28 (Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks)
Richard Strauss (1864–1949)
Duration: Fifteen minutes
A short spin through the collected tales of the medieval prankster Till Eulenspiegel demonstrates that teenage bathroom humor has a long and “colorful” history. The “real” Till is said to have been born in Kneitlingen, Germany and to have died in 1350 C.E. in the province of Schleswig-Holstein where the locals still point out his gravestone. Folk and literary tales associated with Till and his pranks appeared in German, Dutch, French, Latin and English starting in about 1500. Most of these tales are about the practical jokes Till plays, and they depend upon the sort of slapstick violence still found in today’s children’s cartoons. And in the unexpurgated versions of the tales, there is a good dose of obscene and scatological humor. Fortunately for us, Richard Strauss’s version of Till’s merry pranks is “G” rated. It is a hilarious musical romp.
Throughout the nineteenth century, composers and critics debated whether music could or even should portray such concrete characters as Till and his tricks. On the one hand there were the “absolute” composers, like Johannes Brahms, who felt that although music was a profound emotional language, its purpose was not to portray such things. Then there were those composers of “program” music. Franz Liszt invented the symphonic tone poem— complete symphonic works that could musically detail specific people, places, things and ideas. As a young man, Strauss wrote a series of brilliant tone poems: Don Juan; A Hero’s Life; Don Quixote; Death and Transfiguration. These works are not just descriptive. They are also brilliant showcases for orchestras. Every player must rise to the level of a virtuoso.
Strauss was careful not to print (in words) exactly what was going on in his Till Eulenspiegel. He explained, "It is impossible for me to furnish a program to Eulenspiegel. . . Let me leave it, therefore, to my hearers to crack the hard nut which the Rogue has prepared for them. By way of helping them to a better understanding, it seems sufficient to point out the two “Eulenspiegel” motives, which, in the most manifold disguises, moods and situations, pervade the whole up to the catastrophe, when, after he has been condemned to death, Till is strung to the gibbet. For the rest, let them guess at the musical joke which a Rogue has offered them."
You’ll hear those two motives immediately after a short introduction by the orchestra which seems to say, “Once upon a time . . .”. The first is a roguish tune played by the horn. It gets all twisted up in the rhythm. Other instruments come in with the tune and soon the whole orchestra is a-tumble. Out of the chaos comes the little piccolo clarinet with the second motive, a sneering little giggle. Those two motives form the backbone for the entire work. As soon as they are introduced, we are off on our merry way. For most of us who aren’t familiar with the list of all of Till’s pranks, here are a few hints: Till rides his horse through a busy marketplace upsetting everything in his wake; he dons the robes of a priest and poses as a preacher of morals; Till becomes a lady’s man but storms away in a rage when his advances are spurned; he makes fun of professors—here by a fugue which goes awry. Finally Till goes too far with his jesting and is hauled before the court. To the ominous condemnation from the low brass, the piccolo clarinet pleads for mercy. Till is strung up (unmistakable in the music). The orchestra ends the piece as it began as if to say, “It is really only a story.”
©2023 John P. Varineau