Ludwig Van Beethoven: Violin Concerto in D

After having worn out my copy of the Brahms violin concerto (see second to last post here), I turned to Beethoven’s. My ex-wife, who was British, ance told me about the BBC radio show,”Desert Island Disks,” which was aped for a while by Robert Aubry Davis of WETA in Washington, DC. Should I ever be asked to appear on such a show, Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D would be my first choice, hands down.

I don’t know what acoustic properties make it so, but I find the violin one of the most appealing and expressive of all the instruments. That you find it used in nearly every type of music in almost every country–from classical to country, from Indian to Arabic, from gypsy to jazz–bespeaks of its versatility. Maybe it has to do with its ability to express a wide range of emotions. Indeed, the violin can sound happy, sad, haunting romantic, energetic, precise, lush, sparse and above all joyous.

Beethoven’s complex use of this instrument in his concerto seemed to capture and distill for me so much of what it was like to be alive during my last few years of high school–40 years ago. I find the piece passionate, but unlike Brahms, whose Romanticism sometimes seems almost over the top, Beethoven managed to keep things under control. Not quash them, mind you, just manage them.

It starts out with four ominous sounding drum beats, on whose heels quickly follows a statement of the theme by the wood winds. The orchestra then picks up the theme, introduces a second one and plays variations on them for a good three minutes before the violin begins. It immediately launches into a number of variations that embroider around the four drum beats and the melodies stated earlier. It seems for a while that the movement will have a sad tone to it, but eventually the violin becomes more and more soaring and you realize it will rescue the piece from wallowing in sadness.

To me the second movement, though slow and full of long, slow and lyrical violin work, still manages to remain upbeat. It conveys a kind of spiritual sense, the kind you get walking along a brook by yourself or watching a beautiful sunset. It is calm, dignified, and intensely beautiful

As for the third movement, marked Rondo (Allegro), I can’t think of a more exciting piece of music. The violin just skips along, threading its way in and out of the melody around the orchestra with endless variation. I find it so life affirming. When I lie on my death bed, breathing my last, I want someone to put this movement on. It will make the going so much easier.

I do not say this to be morose. To me it would be a perfect cap on a life well lived. Think about Beethoven. He was devastated by his deafness. Up until it struck him, he had a career as a successful pianist-with the status of a superstar of today. But his deafness ruined his career as a performer. After his last concert as a performer, which was reportedly a disaster, he sank into a non-productive depression for two years. When he emerged he went on to write his greatest works, starting with the Fourth Symphony and the Fourth Piano Concerto. Rather than sink into self-pity, ruing his fate, he just said “Yes” to life and became great.

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