Baethoven violin concerto

Edited: June 28, 2020, 7:41 PM · Itzhak Perlman once said this piece was one of the main concertos that are performed by violinists, however I barely see people learning this piece. Does anybody know why? It's so beautiful and is virtuosic.

Edit:changed one letter in title

Replies (36)

June 25, 2020, 3:16 AM · Because its really hard...
Edited: June 25, 2020, 6:07 AM · I have no idea why people don't learn it. In fact I didn't know they didn't.

After I had worked on the Mendelssohn my father told me he was going to take my to a concert where Heifetz would perform the Beethoven with the Baltimore Symphony for my 16th birthday about 3 months later, so I started to work on that concerto. I wanted to be "ready." This was in 1950, the days of 78rpm recordings and the only recordings I recall we owned were of Heifetz playing the Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Brahms and Tchaikovsky concertos.

It was one of the things I continued to "practice" for as many years as I was able to. I can no longer play that well.

June 25, 2020, 8:38 AM · It's not typically learned until college or later, usually after many of the other "big" concertos are learned. Its challenges are somewhat unique. Like Mozart, it must be played with perfect inflection and style to sound good, which means your bow control must be immaculate, and your interpretation mature. It also must be played with absolutely perfect intonation -- nowhere to hide. While it isn't technically as hard as some other pieces, it still has some challenging parts.
June 25, 2020, 10:31 AM · Because it is freaking hard.
June 25, 2020, 10:41 AM · For one, all three of the movements are too long to use for a lower-level audition or competition, and not flashy enough to win at an upper level audition or competition. It is very much like doing two Mozart concertos back to back, without an intermission, with some typical Beethoven awkwardness added. After playing for about 40 minutes you encounter the last page. I have enjoyed wrestling with it off and on for a lifetime, including right now during the shut down. I would disagree with those that would put it in the very difficult technical box. It is within my technical limits, while the Brahms and Tchaikovsky are out of my league.
I will never perform it, but I did it once as substitute soloist for an orchestra rehearsal. I was sore for the next two days.
Unlike some concertos; Mendelssohn/David, Lalo/Sarasate, Brahms/Joachim,.. we are not constrained by a definitive performance tradition. We have a lot of freedom of choice for bowings and fingerings.
The Kreisler cadenzas are terrific.
Edited: June 25, 2020, 11:10 AM · I have heard talented highschoolers play Saint Saens 3, Khatchaturian, Prokofiev 2, and even Sibelius, but never Beethoven or Brahms.

I think it's because their teachers know better than assigning them. Of course, there will be occasional 10 year olds that can play all the above, but those two pieces are really hard to pull off convincingly. I've heard college students make a hash out of the Beethoven, and it should not be taken lightly.

Come to think of it, a LOT of kids play Mozart concerti, but I've never heard a kid winning a concerto competition with one, and it's not because the music is bad. I have heard the symphonia concertante though.

Edited: June 25, 2020, 12:55 PM · Beethoven's concerto is considered by many to be the pinnacle of the repertoire. Rightly or wrongly it also carries an aura of "sanctity", which is to say some regard it as a work that should not be played badly, indifferently, casually in case the gods are offended. I don't subscribe to that view, but I would run a long way to escape hearing it slaughtered whereas with other repertoire pieces I might just shrug my shoulders. God knows, I've slaughtered a few pieces in my time, including this one
June 25, 2020, 1:52 PM · Around here, at least, high school students do play the Brahms, and I'd wager that's also true in the other major cities of the US.

But it's extremely rare to hear high schoolers do Beethoven. My guess is that it doesn't suit their needs well. It is very difficult to play well, but it is not overtly impressive, and virtuosic flash tends to be a big part of youth violin-learning, which is almost always inherently highly competitive at the advanced level.

Edited: June 25, 2020, 2:11 PM · Xuanyuan:

Have you ever played in a public masterclass, and suddenly the presenter tells you to stop everything, and play a D-major Flesch scale for the audience? Everything you do is transparent and on full display. The Beethoven concerto is like that.

Most experienced teachers understand this and don’t assign the Beethoven until later. Some teachers assign it earlier, however.

I occasionally hear students say that they’re working on the Beethoven concerto. When they claim, “It’s not very hard,” I can guess accurately what they will sound like. I try to be supportive, but sitting through 20+ minutes of “slaughter” (as Steve Jones put it) in the first movement is pretty tough for an audience member.

June 25, 2020, 3:02 PM · My feeling those long 70 years ago - and thereafter - was that the notes in the Beethoven were fairly accessible, the "music," much less so.

I think that is the problem people may have with it.

I hope Hadelich's highly touted interpretation is recorded while I'm still around to hear it!

June 25, 2020, 3:57 PM · Andrew, I was fortunate enough to listen to Hadelich's performance of Beethoven live. Words cannot do justice but if I were to explain it, I'd say it was much like falling in love with a beautiful place and that impression never leaves your heart for the rest of your life. Until then, I thought Beethoven Violin Concerto was so boring.
June 25, 2020, 4:00 PM · Yeah, it is hard. This, being the year to celebrate the 250th anniversary of Beethoven's birth one would assume that it has been programmed for many concerts that are now cancelled.

The actual reason that we don't hear/see it performed is because audiences do not ask for it in sufficient numbers to justify mounting a performance.

That being said, my local chamber orchestra performed it in the 2018/19 season with a bright young (and diminutive) violinist. She also played a non-traditional cadenza which really got my attention.

Music is a business and satisfying the customer is what every business is about because, without customers, they cease to exist. When enough subscribers (and particularly big donors) ask for particular music - that is what gets programmed. Music directors get fired for ignoring the donor and subscriber demands.

Edited: June 25, 2020, 5:25 PM · Nathan Cole wrote that performing the Beethoven Violin Concerto was like going into battle wearing only a pair of Speedos. You have nowhere to hide! And within a minute, you can easily tell if the person playing is a good violinist, a great violinist, or an artist. I’m still “learning” this King of Concertos and doubt I’ll ever have it ready for public consumption.
June 25, 2020, 9:45 PM · "within a minute, you can easily tell if the person playing is a good violinist, a great violinist, or an artist."

I disagree... while one can tell a lot about technique in the first few exposed solo bars, the music takes a bit longer, to my ears, to get really expressive, and you can pass the first technical tests with flying colours and come up short, for various reasons, including, yes, not wishing to expose yourself, later.

June 25, 2020, 10:47 PM · It is deemed as a sort of violin concerto musical summit, and has been respected by violinists from the 19th century until now. It thus has a lot of baggage attached to it, as to whom should or not play it. Agree it should be played well, but disagree one must be 40 in order to do it justice. It must be respected indeed-but it should also be heard.

To be fair, it is still performed and recorded by many great players, though rarely programmed vs the usual Tchaikovsky, Brahms, & Sibelius. But it still is a well-known work that should be listened to live more often (during more normal times, at least.)

June 26, 2020, 2:11 PM · Whether you play it dramatically or seraphically, it has to be totally, cleanly, luminously in tune!

It is "serene" Beethoven, like the 4th piano concerto, the Pastoral Symphony, and the Mass in C

June 26, 2020, 2:24 PM · This piece seems pretty intimidating...
June 27, 2020, 4:27 AM · @Xuanyuan - you say in your OP that Beethoven's concerto is "virtuosic", rightly implying that it demands great technical expertise, but part of its appeal for me is that almost uniquely amongst the great violin concertos it doesn't pander to a player's possible desire to show off and cause the audience to gasp in amazement. Rather, we are left in a state of blissful serenity. Only in the cadenza (which Beethoven left to the player to provide) is virtuosity allowed to come to the fore. I suspect this is what accounts for its neglect in competitions.

Edited: June 27, 2020, 4:58 AM · Is it rarely programmed, though?

According to LAO repertoire lists, Beethoven is the 4th most frequently played violin concerto in the US and Canada, after Brahms, Tchaikovsky, and Mendelssohn. (Sibelius and Bruch No. 1 are 5th and 6th.)

Edited: June 27, 2020, 8:04 AM · No discussion of Beethoven's violin Concerto can be complete without a mention of his own arrangement of it as Piano Concerto in D Op 61a. It seems that the VC was not a success in its first performance (for a start, the soloist had to sight-read his part), and for quite a while after. As a result Beethoven was asked by Clementi to write a piano version. There was probably money involved - c'est la vie.

Piano Concerto Op 61a is still in the performance repertoire - see YouTube and IMSLP for recordings. Imho it is not Beethoven quite at his very best, but I'm probably influenced in my opinion by outstanding performances of the violin concerto.

June 27, 2020, 8:46 AM · Beethoven's cadenza was written expressly for the piano version of the concerto. This was then adapted for the violin by Wolfgang Schneiderhan amongst others
June 28, 2020, 9:37 AM · "According to LAO repertoire lists, Beethoven is the 4th most frequently played violin concerto in the US and Canada..."

Should it be? I'm wondering if the statistic is due to the coincidence of Beethoven's 250th, or simply a consequence of his name being a potential draw.

It's often slow, repetitive, and deeply personally expressive. I can hardly imagine audiences bearing that regularly, let alone a touring soloist playing that night after night, bearing that emotional weight with the sort of conviction that I and probably most audiences would want these days.

June 28, 2020, 2:28 PM · Isaac Stern playing the Beethoven concerto was part of what made me fall in love with the violin. I don't find it slow, repetitive, or anything else negative.
Edited: June 29, 2020, 5:03 PM · Yesterday evening I was listening to a recording of Beethoven's Kreutzer Sonata, played by Jacques Thibaud and Alfred Cortot, when it occurred to me: if Beethoven had composed the Kreutzer as a violin concerto instead of a sonata for violin and piano, what would now replace the Kreutzer Sonata as the greatest violin and piano sonata ever?
Edited: June 28, 2020, 5:04 PM · "Should it be? I'm wondering if the statistic is due to the coincidence of Beethoven's 250th, or simply a consequence of his name being a potential draw."

Definitely not a 250th anniversary thing. The most recent LAO repertoire report on the website is for 2012-13. A year or two ago, as I mentioned in another thread, I aggregated the last five years of publicly available repertoire reports, so my numbers cover the seasons from 2008-09 through 2012-13.

Edited: June 28, 2020, 7:44 PM · "Isaac Stern playing the Beethoven concerto was part of what made me fall in love with the violin. I don't find it slow, repetitive, or anything else negative."

I'm sure it's mostly subjective, so much so that even when we think we understand these things and are aware of our subjectivity it's still more subjective than we realize, let alone when we actively engage with the performance.

I listened to some of a Stern/Bernstein/NYPhil 1969 recording, and I think I see how it could be a pleasant experience. (Nitpicks aside.)

My previous comments were after hearing another recording, which I will not name because I've found since that reviewers truly hated it. From my perspective likely because it expressed the pathos in the music, and they didn't enjoy the experience as they might have expected to.

It would be reasonable to say that not all performances do that. What's a more correct or appropriate portrayal of the music is, I think, mostly subjective, and in my view pathos, or negativity, has a greater element in that music than one might like.

Edited: June 28, 2020, 8:35 PM · In my recent experience, it has not been programmed a lot at Carnegie Hall for the last few years. It has (I did see one good performance of it in the last 3 years), but the Tchaikovsky, Sibelius, and even Prokofiev 2nd are more common than the Beethoven and Mendelssohn.

The Bruch 1st is not as common in the City either (and forget about the other two-the Scottish Fantasia sees very occasional performance). It very well may be that I am just not paying attention.

I love the Sibelius and Tchaikovsky- I do not mean to complain (though I think I like most concertos regardless, as a fan of the violin repertoire.) But many important concertos that we all love are, perhaps in my limited observation, not as frequently performed as their status in the repertoire may suggest. The Tchai sells too any tickets to avoid programming, I assume.

June 29, 2020, 1:34 AM · I started to learn it as the next concerto after Bruch. Perhaps I was, in Frieda's words, slaughtering it.... however, the idea of playing the Beethoven Concerto is what has kept me learning the violin for most of my life, so the chance to tick off a life goal was worth it :)

Of course, I skipped the cadenzas!

June 29, 2020, 3:56 AM · Adalberto: I think all of us have limited observation because the vast majority of the concerts we attend or even hear about are local. Certain pieces seem to have high levels of local or regional popularity for some reason.

For example: I have literally never heard of Prokofiev's 2nd violin concerto being performed in a city I was living in at the time, and I was under the impression that his 1st concerto was much more frequently performed because I've heard about a whole bunch of performances near me (in California) over the years by multiple soloists. As it turns out, his 2nd is performed almost three times as often as his 1st in the US and Canada as a whole.

Also, I was under the impression for many years that Tchaikovsky and Sibelius were the two most performed by a wide margin because I've never heard any other violin concerto in concerts I've attended as an audience member. (And I don't go out of my way to hear any particular concerto -- I pick concerts mainly for the symphony on the program. In fact I strongly dislike the Tchaikovsky and go to concerts in spite of it rather than because of it.) Turns out Brahms is ahead of both, and Sibelius is surprisingly far down the list.

June 29, 2020, 4:02 AM · I actually find it strangely easier to play classical era music, perhaps the scales like nature makes it easy to tune?
June 30, 2020, 6:33 PM · You know, I've kept this thread in the back of my mind, which is why I was all the more surprised when I heard a thirteen-year-old play the first movement of the Beethoven in a concert: (54:50).
July 4, 2020, 7:58 AM · The reason B's violin concerto falls behind the Bruch in things like Classic FM Hall of Fame is that the number of those who'd put Kol Nidrei or Scottish Fantasy above Concerto No 1 is probably pretty small,and those who'd prefer Bruch's other works coould probaby be counted on the fingers of one hand; whereas Beethoven's violin concerto has a number of serious rivals for people's affection amongst his other works (e.g., for me, the Missa Solennis, but I played chess at school with someone who was always humming the fourth piano concerto), so votes for his violin concerto are seriously diluted. If voting was ranked first by total votes that a particular composer receives, followed by votes for the individual work, I suspect the Bruch would fall well behind Beethoven. Similarly Rachmaninoff 2 (though, for him, I suspect No 3 and the Paganini variations would probably present greater rivalry). And for me, Brahms's violin concerto is nowhere near the top of the list of his works (I'd put Song of Destiny, 4th Symphony, Four Serious Songs, D-minor Violin Sonata, and perhaps other works ahead of it) - and that's not even principally because I dont have the ghost of a chance of ever managing the notes!
July 5, 2020, 6:32 PM · I feel the Brahms is more than a violin concerto; it’s almost symphonic in its construction (and ambitions). I think it was also a collaborative effort between Brahms and Joachim, who himself was a talented composer. The first recording I heard was actually from a video featuring Yehudi Menuhin and the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig (I think Kurt Masur conducted).
Edited: July 6, 2020, 3:43 PM · I speak as a life-long amateur violinist and music lover with a life-long passion for the Beethoven Violin Concerto, which I truly believe is one of the greatest artistic achievements of the human race.

I believe that there is one very overlooked aesthetic aspect of this concerto, particularly in the first movement, that has implications for understanding the underlying meaning of the piece and how to perform the violin solo.

As I have said on this website (many years ago), virtually everything played by the orchestra in this first movement (including the phrases of all of the melodies and accompaniments) is in a 5-beat motif. This includes subdivided and extended rhythms, and each of the individual phrases that make up the 2 major melodies. But basically, the 5-beat motif is everywhere in the orchestra part. And there are 5-beat motifs that overlap, so you hear the five beats everywhere. It is like a giant jig-saw puzzle made up of one rhythmic item - a 5-beat motif.

And the 5-beat motifs overlap, so that beat 5 of one motif is simultaneously beat 1 of the next. It's everywhere, even in the rests.

I believe that Beethoven knew exactly what he was doing. Beats #1-4 parallel an inhaled human breath, and beat #5 is an exhale, which in normal breathing is a feeling of relaxation. So, there is a constant sense of serenity everywhere. And serenity is usually the aesthetic interpretation of this piece.

So what is the contrast with the violin solo? The contrast is this - the violin part is written like an improvisation. If you think of it as an improvisation, it starts to make sense.

Listen again to the Heifetz interpretation. He sound's like he's improvising as he goes along. And I believe that the same quality is present in the other many, many great performances of this piece.

I hope that helps, but I've never been able to come up with a similar interpretation of movements 2 and 3, as much as I love every note of this piece.


July 7, 2020, 4:23 PM · Loved your insights Sandy! And I completely agree with you. One common thread that runs through my favorite interpretations is this improvisatory quality you mentioned. Those that approach this concerto with excessive reverence tend to play it too carefully and slowly. The result is a boring, albeit impeccably clean performance. I prefer a heroic approach, like the Heifetz or Milstein interpretations, where risks are taken, yet the classical structure and aesthetic is respected.
Edited: July 9, 2020, 9:35 AM · Alexander:
Yes, I indeed appreciate your additional insights.

I find it interesting that if most of us listen to the innumerable improvising in jazz performances, we wouldn't think twice about it. And, of course, Beethoven was famous for his ability to improvise.

Your observation that the ability of the great violinists to give that sense of improvisation within the classical and aesthetic structure is great.

Yes, every time I listen to this piece with the idea that Beethoven had in mind the violin part as sounding like an improvisation makes the most sense and makes listening to this piece - even for the thousandth time - come alive and in-the-moment.

The other listening element, as I said, is that sense of "exhaling" or coming to rest or sighing every time you hear that 5th beat in the orchestra (with the violin periodically joining in).

One wonders how Beethoven might have reacted had he read all this? Do you think he might have sent us a tweet?


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