Program notes by Linda Shaver-Gleason (www.shavergleason.com)
Legendary violin virtuoso Joseph Joachim proclaimed, “The Germans have four violin concertos. The greatest, most uncompromising is Beethoven’s.” Joachim himself was responsible for Ludwig van Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 61 becoming a staple of violin repertoire alongside the concertos of Mendelssohn, Brahms, and Bruch. For decades it had been mostly forgotten, until Joachim, just twelve years old at the time, played it at an 1844 concert in London, with Felix Mendelssohn conducting. It took a prodigy to bring the concerto new life, and it was a different prodigy who called the work into existence. Franz Clement was thirteen years old in 1794, when he first met Beethoven and requested a concerto. By 1806, when Beethoven finally composed the work, Clement had become the principal violinist and conductor of the Theatre an der Wein. According to rumors, Beethoven was so late in completing the solo part that Clement had to sight read its premiere in late December 1806, but there is no evidence to substantiate this myth—at most, we know that Clement did not rehearse his solo with the orchestra. The premiere was poorly received, and the concerto faded into obscurity until young Joachim revived it.
Nearly half the length of the concerto itself, the Allegro ma non troppo first movement manifests Beethoven’s expansion of classical forms during his middle “Heroic” period. It begins with five strokes on the timpani followed by a woodwind chorale. The introduction is peaceful, with creeping strings and rising winds, until vigorous chords call the whole ensemble to attention. The woodwinds present a graceful melody, which turns tragic as it passes to the violin. As the melody spreads across the orchestra, it grows louder and thicker until suddenly dropping away, allowing the solo violin to make its delicate yet brilliant entrance. The violin joins a reprise of the opening woodwind chorale, soaring above the rest. As the concerto revisits the earlier melodies, the solo violin takes every opportunity for virtuosic embellishment, gilding each passage with intricate chromatic runs, stratospheric trills, or swooping string crossings. Even as the development allows the violin to wander from the established themes, the steady pulse of the orchestra, subtly echoing the timpani from the opening, nudges the violin back to familiar territory for the recapitulation.
The Larghetto begins hesitantly, with muted strings presenting the gentle melody phrase by phrase; the movement is a series of variations upon this simple theme. The solo violin appears in an accompanimental role for the first few variations, decorating each phrase as various solo woodwinds take turns with the melody. After a variation where the violin is absent, it returns to the center of attention with a lyrical new theme before settling back into a set of dreamy variations. Suddenly, the strings interject with a sterner version of the theme, launching the soloist’s cadenza. This leads directly into the Rondo finale, featuring a boisterous, galloping theme. True to the form of a rondo, this theme recurs throughout the movement, interspersed with contrasting passages that provide the violin with ever more opportunities to display dazzling techniques.
The other work on tonight’s program similarly languished in obscurity for years before becoming a staple of orchestral repertoire. Unlike Beethoven’s concerto, however, the “Great” Symphony in C Major was never publicly performed in its composer’s lifetime. Franz Schubert was best known by his contemporaries as a composer of short art songs, but toward the end of his brief life he attempted to establish a legacy in more “serious” genres like the symphony, despite not always having the resources to mount performances of them. Though the autograph score of this symphony bears the date 1828, the year in which Schubert died, sketches reveal that he had written most of it three years earlier. (Problems of chronology have led to much confusion over the numbering of Schubert’s last symphonies; the “Great” has been labeled in various catalogues as 7, 8, or 9.) In October 1827, Schubert sent the symphony to the Vienna Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde (“Society of Friends of Music”). In return for dedicating the symphony to the society, they gave Schubert a small payment and arranged an unofficial play-through. The society kept the manuscript in their archive, and ten years after the composer’s death, his brother Ferdinand showed it to Robert Schumann. Schumann was so impressed with the work that he encouraged Felix Mendelssohn to conduct a proper premiere in Leipzig in 1839. Schumann also promoted the symphony as a music critic, helping it achieve its “Great” status.
The symphony begins unusually, with two French horns in unison stating a noble Andante theme. The woodwinds repeat the theme, which the cellos and violas thoughtfully continue. The orchestra soon dismantles the melody, distributing fragments among the various instrument families and recombining them in a grandiose crescendo that accelerates into an Allegro ma non troppo. The Allegro is less melodic than the introduction, but its rhythmic alacrity drives it forward, careening through the exposition to a development where the movement’s motives are spun into sequences. After a thrilling recapitulation, the horn theme returns in triumph, ultimately realized by the entire orchestra.
The Andante con moto immediately strikes a more serious bearing as the strings ominously pace back and forth. The solo oboe seems just as stern, though clever harmonic twists hint at humor. The strings soften and the oboe becomes lyrical, but an abrupt outburst from the entire orchestra shocks them back to their unrelenting march. Eventually, the orchestra breaks free to find a tranquil place where time seems suspended, but they must return to their arduous task, driving toward a calamitous chord that stops them dead in their tracks. Pizzicato strings quietly restart the pulse, and the cellos and oboe help the orchestra rebuild. The march returns, but after the catastrophe it remains much more subdued.
With a unison rumbling in the strings echoed in turn by the woodwinds and timpani, the Scherzo begins playfully. The movement features the interplay of two simple ideas: the rapid “rumbling” figure, and broad, swinging arpeggios initiated by the violins and cellos. Schubert imaginatively sets these motives in a variety of contexts, sometimes cheerful, sometimes stormy. A single repeated pitch in the horns separates the Scherzo from the Trio section; in this contrasting passage, the woodwinds’ easygoing melody glides along like a boat propelled by tiny waves from the strings. The fourth movement, Allegro vivace, begins with an eager fanfare that spins off into the frenetic first theme of a sonata form. Even as the woodwinds attempt to present a contrasting second theme that is stately and reserved, the strings’ energy simmers just beneath the surface, waiting to explode for an exuberant finale.