What makes The Beethoven Violin Concerto so good

March 6, 2018, 6:47 PM · At my last lesson, my teacher asked me what my favorite piece of violin music was. I answered her with Beethoven Violin Concerto, it's not only my favorite violin piece, but it's my favorite piece of music in general. Her next question was "Why is it your favorite?" And I had no response other than the typical "Oh, because it's beautiful!" It really bothered me that I couldn't describe why I like this piece so much. So I would like to know what your thoughts on this piece are.

Replies (30)

March 6, 2018, 9:43 PM · The Beethoven Violin Concerto has that simple yet majestic melody that picks you up strongly and gently brings you down in a peaceful and calming way.
March 7, 2018, 2:16 AM · Beethoven violin concerto requires a lot of humility. There is nothing worse that playing this piece arrogantly (as some of the biggest stars do).
March 7, 2018, 2:41 AM · Totally agree with the two keywords: majestic and humble. And it’s insanely difficult to achieve both of these qualities in one musical piece - which is what makes the Beethoven concerto special.

To me, at the one end it’s majestic and magnificent; at another end it’s humble, honest, and peaceful; at yet another end it’s noble and victorious.

It isn’t as playful as Mozart. It isn’t as dramatic and exaggerated as Sibelius. It isn’t as intense as Brahms. It isn’t as sad as Bruch. But it has everything, but not too much of anything. To me it’s the best concerto that has ever graced this earth.

March 8, 2018, 11:46 AM · For me, the Beethoven concerto is like a very long Mozart concerto, perfectly constructed, that requires great maturity and technical control.
Superficially it appears to be just a collection of scales and arpeggios, but somehow is great music. It is an example of what I would call Beethoven's "magical minimalism"; he squeezes great music out of the smallest ideas. [exs. the melody of Moonlight Sonata, motif of Symph. 5, the harmony of Symph. 7, 2nd mvmnt...] Teachers don't assign it often enough, possibly because each movement is too long for the typical audition or contest. The Kreisler cadenzas are great. I, admittedly a 3rd-rate player, have played the whole thing a grand total of once, as substitute soloist at an orchestra rehearsal. I was sore for two days after.
Edited: March 8, 2018, 12:14 PM · “Teachers don't assign it often enough, possibly because each movement is too long for the typical audition or contest.”

That is interesting. Among the major concertos, Mendelssohn, Tchaikovsky, and Sibelius ( Brahms, to a less extent) are most often played by pre-college students. The Beethoven is almost never played by pre-college students based on my limited observation.

March 8, 2018, 12:13 PM · Teachers don't assign it very much because it is really, really hard. I have students currently playing Wieniawski, Saint-Saens, and Bruch. In the past I have also taught Sibelius, Brahms, and Tchaikovsky. Not one of those students, past or present, would have been ready for the Beethoven.
March 8, 2018, 12:51 PM · This great Beethoven work is one of the great violin concertos, but for that very reason-as well as for Beethoven's traditional worship as the Best Composer Who Ever Lived-it is widely regarded as the Epitome of Violin Playing-ehich ironically means that it doesn't get as perfoemed as the other "lesser" concertos.

This is where "tradition" gets in the way of the purity of just enjoying music, in my opinion. It is hard, musically and technically, but it needs not be feared as unapproachable. I think this fear of touching this work "before you are 40" is unfounded and doesn't help-don't the other "lesser" works get butchered daily by students throughout the World?

(In short-all are worthy of respect, Beethoven or otherwise. And no, I do not hate it at all-it's an amazing work that deserves to be experienced far often than it actually is.)

Disagree, don't argue, please. This subject is sensitive for most, and I do not mean to battle for what is a mere minority opinion.

March 8, 2018, 1:12 PM · @David, I thought the four major concertos that are frequently mentioned were Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Tchaikovsky, and Brahms? Is Sibelius in place of Brahms?

As a concerto audience member I repeatedly hear that the Beethoven concerto is really difficult, like what Mary said.

March 8, 2018, 1:47 PM · There are five major concertos. Take your list and add Sibelius to it.
March 8, 2018, 2:16 PM · @jason yes in my personal observation, people mostly say the above 4 but when the fifth is mentioned, opinions on the fifth seem to be a bit more diverse. Sibelius seems to get the most nomination, followed closely by Bruch and Mozart.
March 8, 2018, 2:39 PM · Will, I tend to agree with Jason. Everyone has her own choice. Mine, for example, changes from time to time : )
March 8, 2018, 3:10 PM · I think your reason for liking it is a great one. Sometimes stuff just appeals to you - Maybe it's melodies or structures, or it all just comes together in a way that resonates with you. It wasn't a piece I initially cared for much, but I never get tired of it, and it just gets better with more listening.
March 8, 2018, 3:44 PM · David, you’re right!
March 8, 2018, 5:20 PM · I think Will's "majestic and humble" summed it up very well, I completely agree with it.
March 8, 2018, 7:44 PM · The Beethoven concerto is so demanding because it combines most of the technical challenges of later Romantic concertos with much of the transparency of Classical pieces. More recent concertos may be more technically difficult, but if something is just a little bit off in Beethoven, it sounds much worse.

Will, Sibelius has to be considered a major concerto, no question. Possibly even at #1, because at least in the places I've lived, I've seen Sibelius programmed more often than any other violin concerto in the repertoire, with Tchaikovsky a close second. (But I think even five isn't enough to cover the "major" concerto repertoire.)

March 8, 2018, 9:24 PM · “Teachers don't assign it very much because it is really, really hard.”

And that makes the recording made about 4 decades ago by the then teenager Anne Sophie Mutter (and the Berlin Phil under von Karajan) all the more amazing.

March 8, 2018, 10:59 PM · Andrew, I would think each person has his own choice. For example, Itzhak Perlman (who is perhaps the best contemporary expert and soloist on violin concertos I suspect) dismisses Sibelius outright from the top 4 ‘main’ concertos in one of his YouTube videos. Link below, at 0:19 secs.

https://youtu.be/J7VD43tJRcM

Personally I really like Sibelius, but not as much as the other 4, because it’s somewhat exaggerated in the first movement. But it’s a show of technical prowess to impress the audience for sure.

Edited: March 8, 2018, 11:07 PM · I'm not talking about personal preference, I'm talking solely about the frequency with which professional orchestras program the concertos... at least in the places where I've lived. I'm actually a little tired of constantly seeing Sibelius and Tchaikovsky programmed (and outright dislike Tchaikovsky's), but I have to assume that the most frequently performed concertos on professional orchestra programs are "major" ones.
Edited: March 9, 2018, 12:29 AM · Andrew, I know our experience is shaped by the types of concertos being played most in our places, but I also doubt if everyone would agree that being played regularly would equate to being the ‘major’ concerto. From when I was born, I have been exposed to Vivaldi’s Four Seasons countless times in various settings, from orchestras to schools to movies to restaurants and supermarkets :-)

Note in the video I quote, Perlman talked about the big four (Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Tchai, Brahms) as not only the ‘main’ four, but also four most played, perhaps in an orchestral setting. Of course he represents only his opinion, but he’s the global soloist for maybe half a century.

I agree there’s absolutely no question that Sibelius has to belong to one of the greatest and most popular violin concertos ever written. Sorry for this sidethread, I think I’ll just leave it here.

March 9, 2018, 12:31 AM · Just for the record, I'm talking about concert programming in three major cities in two US states over about 20 years, including 10 years in Los Angeles.

But I'll stop the tangent too, since the topic is Beethoven.

Edited: March 9, 2018, 6:54 AM · I posted the following on a previous discussion about the Beethoven Violin Concerto. I think it's appropriate here, too. So.....enjoy:

==============

The main theme of the first movement IS the first 5 drum-taps. Almost every phrase of every melody has a natural "resting" point on a 5th beat. And the tempo parallels a normal breath - inhale on beats 1-4, and exhale (and release of tension) on beat 5.

And beat 5 overlaps with beat 1 of the next breath, so there is an everpresent, ongoing feeling of exhaling, of serenity. Even the 16th note phrases are in beats of 5.

And the violin both joins the melodies at some points and goes off on it's own (just one note after another) in other passages, which is how the violin stands out (melodically) from the orchestra. In some of the solo violin passages, it's actually hard to find the beat, because it's just "one note after another." That's how it contrasts from the orchestra. And, remember, nothing was more important to Beethoven than "freedom."

Beethoven knew exactly what he was doing. And so, that initial solo 5 taps of the drum is crucial, because THAT'S the melody. Even those dramatic measures where there is almost nothing but rests, the silence of the measure has that 5-beat motif.

If you don't believe this, just listen to that first movement again, and this time listen to how each and every phrase (from 16th notes on up) come to rest on a 5th beat.

And when you get it, you'll notice that you can't possibly hear that first movement (or "breathe" it) the same way twice.

So, given all that, it's no wonder that he started the piece with 5 gentle drum-taps. It is the basis of the piece, and it is serenity personified. It is the breath of life. So, as a performer, you give that fifth beat a sense of rest, like a sigh. It's hypnotic.

If this movement isn't one of the greatest artistic achievements of Western civilization, I don't know what is.

Hope that helps.
Cheers,
Sandy

March 9, 2018, 5:42 PM · I have held off a few days in responding to this thread because the Beethoven Violin Concerto has meant so much to me for so long.

Born just before 1935, I grew up in the era of 78rpm recordings and 2 weekly half-hour national-radio classical music broadcasts. By the time I reached my teens we had the concerto recordings of Heifetz playing Perlman's "big 4" (Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Tchaikovsky and Brahms) in our home - and not much else (only 5 minutes would fit on each side of a 12-inch disk).

I was 15 and had been working on the Mendelssohn for some time when my father told me he would be taking me to hear Heifetz play "The Beethoven" with the Baltimore Symphony for my 16th birthday present (it was a nearly 2 hour one-way drive in those pre-freeway days). So I immediately switched to working on that concerto for the next few months so I knew every note by concert day and I continued to work on it for a long time thereafter - and from time to time for the next 40 years although I never reached performance level. I can still visualize that day, more than 67 years ago, where we sat in the balcony above Heifetz and the pistol-shot sounds of his pizzicato in the 3rd movement. I was amazed that the balance of soloist and orchestra seemed the same in that live performance as they did on our recording at home.

I acquired many additional recorded (LP and CD and streamed) performances of the Beethoven Concerto over the decades since then (but never attended another performance of it) and I came to appreciate how these great musical works sort of form their own universes that can be looked at, heard, performed from different perspectives. When I am "in to" a particular piece of music either as a player or a listener I tend to regard it as a "force of nature" and accept the performer's work without judgement unless he really botches it - or goes to far outside the boundaries of my stylistic judgements. I do recall a couple of botches on TV performances of the Beethoven; one by the elderly Menuhin, who should have stayed home that day and another when Perlman had a missed "jump" and produced a grimace on his lips and a twinkle in his eye that I could so identify with.

Nowadays I sometimes just play what I remember of the first page from memory and then give up in disgust but with remembrance and reverence.

March 9, 2018, 7:16 PM · Andrew, thanks! I have always enjoyed your wonderful posts.
March 10, 2018, 10:52 AM · The other day i came across this video of Perlman talking about the Beethoven violin concerto and some aspects that make it special for him.

Edited: March 10, 2018, 12:44 PM · Thanks for the link to the Perlman video, David -- it's great to hear his comments and perspective on it. But one might conclude from it that it should simply be played technically perfectly with the least amount of variance from the score, which though valid, could be greatly misleading about the expressive beauty and potential of this piece.

Here's a video of Hahn with the Detroit Symphony let by Slatkin which shows that better.

Edited: March 10, 2018, 3:44 PM · I think opinion on how something like a concerto should be played is diverse. Personally I’m not a fan of Hahn playing the Beethoven (and her general playing style up to now) for two reasons.
1. She plays it a bit evenly in terms of sound volume and rhythm.
2. She sometimes lengthens the end note of each melody.

That said most people actually like how she plays, and it’s a great thing that you could sometimes recognise her playing even when listening to radio, like when listening to Heifetz, or to a lesser extend Sarah Chang. It’s a rarity in classical music - a distinguishing style separating the artist from the rest that is recognized and approved.

March 10, 2018, 2:21 PM · I really enjoyed that performance and think Hilary Hahn is amazing. I'm slightly less enamored of her Bach for some reason but I applaud her for playing something so clean and simple as an encore–-it didn't get in the way of the Beethoven.

And hey! That's my good buddy/cabin mate from Brevard sitting second chair first violin. Never really noticed that she had a Russian bow hold, but then again, that wasn't what we were really talking about when we were 14. :-)

March 10, 2018, 3:41 PM · Stable, even, and unvaried is how I feel about Hahn’s style. J Ray, did you say Hahn shows some variance in her Beethoven concerto rendition? I wonder what that is.
March 10, 2018, 5:03 PM · Stern's recording with Bernstein is my favorite, but I do enjoy Hilary and Perlman as well. Hahn is my favorite Bach player by far, however. I love her vibrato, bowing, and general measured-ness in Bach.
March 13, 2018, 6:07 AM · There are so many wonderful performances - past and present - of this masterpiece. So many are different from each other, but each valid and great in its own way. But to say that one or a handful of them are "the best" is not the way I look at it.

I do, however, have my own personal favorites. Live performance, I'd have to say it was when I heard David Oistrakh in Chicago many years ago.

Recorded? My favorite of all time is the 1950 (I think) classic recording of Zino Francescatti and the Philadelphia Orchestra (conductor Eugene Ormandy). The performance has unapproachable elegance, warmth, technical clarity, rhythmic precision, musicality, ensemble, and depth. And maybe one factor that gives it something special - a sense of the spontaneous -is the fact (which I found out only decades later, and from a contributor to violinist.com) that it was recorded in only one take. It is, in fact, a live performance without an audience. Perhaps that accounts for the one or two whistled notes here and there.

Cheers,
Sandy

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