Violin Plus Orchestra, Part One

Violin Plus Orchestra, Part One

Written by Lawrence Schenbeck

Our story begins with Beethoven. (What else is new?) His Violin Concerto (1806) especially, because it’s the poster child for Modern Concertos in so many ways. First, he wrote it for a singular virtuoso, Franz Clement, whose playing, according to a contemporary, was “not the marked, bold, strong playing [of] the RodeViotti School” but rather something “indescribably delicate, neat and elegant.” Clement’s fastidious technical style did not preclude circus tricks: on the same program as the Beethoven concerto, he played variations of his own on a violin turned upside down. Nevertheless when you hear the concerto, you’ll get that Beethoven drew upon Clement’s personal style. It’s mostly sweet and elegant, even though Mozart it isn’t.

Second, Beethoven’s concerto enacts the same experiments in form he was making with other music then, e.g., Symphonies No. 3, 4, and 5; Piano Concerto No. 4; and the Op. 59 “Razumovsky” Quartets. Like his fourth symphony and piano concerto, the Violin Concerto was one of the quietly radical works he turned out in those years. Listen to the opening:

The rhythmic call initiated by the timpani at the outset becomes the most important structural motto in the entire work, permeating it nearly as much as the notorious three-shorts-and-a-long motif does in Symphony No. 5. Beethoven borrowed the trick of turning a simple accompanimental device into a significant formal element from his old teacher Haydn. But the power with which he invests it here is very much his own.

At the 1’00” mark you hear the motto in its noisy four-beat version, quickly followed by a rhythmically reshaped variant, four-shorts-and-a-long. The mottto’s increasingly emphatic presentation suggests that performers should prioritize rhythm—especially an unflagging, energetic primary pulse—in their interpretations. It’s one of the ways in which Isabelle Faust’s recording with the late Claudio Abbado (Harmonia Mundi HMC 902105) stands out. Another is her use of an authentic Beethoven cadenza with timpani, albeit one he wrote years later for a piano transcription of this concerto:

So, to recap: (1) violin concertos are often built around the skills of particular performers; (2) a modern concerto can also draw upon structural innovations that go well beyond the standard dialogue format of soloist vs. orchestra.

To these two points we should add a third: beginning with Berlioz’s Harold in Italy, a concerto may also reference Romantic narrative inclinations, e.g., personal histories and/or feelings and experiences nicked from literary sources; also geography, meaning landscape and/or cultural tourism.

A few years after the premiere of the Symphonie fantastique, Berlioz was approached by Niccolò Paganini, the most famous violin virtuoso of his or any other time, with the request for a concerto. Paganini had acquired a Stradivarius viola, a marvelous instrument for which he felt no suitable music existed, so he turned to a celebrated newcomer for something to set the world aflame. According to the composer,

I tried therefore to [write] a solo for viola, but one which involved the orchestra. . . I was sure that Paganini . . . would know how to keep the viola in the forefront. . . . But when he saw all the rests in the viola part . . . he exclaimed: “This will not do; I am silent for too much of the time; I need to be playing continuously.”

So Berlioz and Paganini parted ways, with Berlioz determined to write a sort of symphony with viola obbligato,

a series of orchestral scenes, in which the solo viola would be involved as a more or less active participant . . . . By placing it among the poetic memories formed from my wanderings in the Abruzzi, I wanted to make the viola a kind of melancholy dreamer in the manner of Byron’s Childe-Harold.


(Colin Davis’s slower-paced but more voluptuous reading with violist Nobuko Imai is also available on YouTube.)

In spite of Paganini’s rejection, a significant number of 20th- and 21st-century concertos have seized upon Berlioz’s more flexible view of the genre. They rely heavily on landscape and memoir, a choice that often leaves purely musical, abstract structural concerns à la Beethoven behind. As a result, the soloist’s role can be irretrievably altered.

My own touchstone in this regard is Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto “To the Memory of an Angel” (1935). You could hardly ask for a more personal work, even though Berg masked the autobiographical content in various dense structural techniques. (You could say he was Beethovenesque in his constructivism, except that Beethoven wanted you to hear the structures. Berg? Not so much.) The music utilizes serial technique—a tone row built from ascending thirds, of which four of the first seven pitches, G, D, A, and E, correspond to the open strings of the violin, and the last four comprise motto notes of the old German hymn “Es ist genug!” (“It is enough!”) Berg begins the concerto with those open-string pitches; after that, faint patterns are heard suggesting (at least to me) fragments of a Requiem, and those lead into an Allegretto that surreptitiously introduces a Carinthian folk song alluding to Berg’s own first love, a kitchen maid in his parents’ household whom he impregnated when he was a teenager. (They named the child Albine.)

There’s more. The work took shape as a memorial to Manon Gropius, 18-year-old daughter of Alma Mahler Gropius and her second husband, architect Walter Gropius. Berg had been quite close to Manon, a polio victim, and as he worked feverishly on the concerto, he fell ill and increasingly believed it would serve as a requiem for his own life. Moreover, he had been involved for years in a passionate love affair with Hanna Fuchs-Robettin, wife of a Prague paper manufacturer and sister to novelist Franz Werfel, Alma’s lover and next husband. Woven throughout the concerto are secret references, numerological and otherwise, to Berg and Hanna. The concerto ends by quoting Bach’s very chromatic setting of “Es ist genug!”:

I know much of this because of Michael Steinberg, whose notes condense and clarify not only the basic music-theory data but also recent scholarship pointing us back toward Hanna, Mitzi the kitchen maid, Berg’s number-mania, and his other tics and obsessions. Above, we’re hearing Faust and Abbado again; he had urged her to pair Beethoven and Berg in their 2010 performances and recording, an unusual but rewarding choice. It’s a live recording with one or two fluff-ups but remarkable energy.

Several 20th-century violin concertos show clear debts either to Beethoven the structuralist or Berlioz and Berg the storytellers. A good place to start is with Benjamin Britten’s Violin Concerto Op. 15, written in North America between 1938 and ’39. Its genesis actually dates from 1936, when he attended the International Society for Contemporary Music’s festival in Barcelona. That ISCM event saw the world premiere of Berg’s concerto, conducted by Hermann Scherchen because the scheduled conductor, Anton von Webern, was overcome by grief at his friend Berg’s recent death and unable to carry on. Britten himself had harbored a fierce desire a few years earlier to study with Berg, but had been thwarted by a conservative faculty member at the Royal College who advised his parents against it.

In any case Britten performed his Suite for Violin and Piano Op. 6 at ISCM with Spanish violin virtuoso Antonio Brosa, and their friendship led him to promise Brosa “a major concerto.” The resulting work begins with a percussion motto that subsequently underpins much of the first movement’s music:

So, Beethoven! But Britten’s experience in Barcelona, then seething with the partisan unrest that led to the Spanish Civil War, provided a more complex emotional impetus for the music. Consider, for example, the strings’ initial response—vague, apprehensive—to that percussion motto. Later the violinist returns to claim the motto herself, as the orchestra transforms the lyrical first theme into a dance of death, tinged with menace and melancholy.

A hyperactive scherzo follows, although nothing in it equals the first movement’s blend of fear and longing: not yet thirty, Britten was not ready to attempt Mahlerian irony. The composer did, however, reverse the standard fast-slow-fast disposition of the concerto’s three movements; this allowed him to imbue its outer portions with more gravity, yet deprive the middle movement of its moderating role. The finale takes the ambitious form of a passacaglia with nine variations. “A major concerto” indeed.

We have been listening to Arabella Steinbacher’s new recording of the Britten and Hindemith violin concertos (Pentatone PTC 5186 625). Both the hi-res recording and the performances, with Vladimir Jurowski leading the Berlin Radio Symphony, are excellent. And the Hindemith concerto (1939) echoes Beethoven in its percussive opening:

Hindemith doesn’t follow through structurally, though. He had other models in mind—above all, the concerti grossi of Bach, Vivaldi, and Handel, with their polyphonic excursions and rich thematic diversity. Like Britten, Hindemith wrote his concerto in exile. You’d never guess that from the music, which is hearty, vivacious, and “learned.” No trace of Berliozian memoir here, no hint the composer had been hounded out of Nazi Germany as a “cultural Bolshevik.”

We’ll give the modern influence of Berlioz and Berg more attention soon. Next: more Daughters, more Violins.

This article was first published in Issue 54.

Header image courtesy of studio.
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