Beethoven’s only completed violin concerto is today one of the most often performed and recorded in the violin repertoire. However, as with many other works which are now highly regarded, its premiere was not an unqualified success. Written towards the end of 1806 for its first performance on 23rd December of that year, the solo part was finished so close to the deadline that the soloist, Franz Clement, would barely have had time to prepare. It was Clement, artistic director of the Theater an der Wien, and a leading violinist and conductor of his day, who had commissioned Beethoven to write a piece to be performed before Christmas. It seems that his performance was enough to please the audience, but not the critics.
The following year, Beethoven reworked the solo part for piano (the orchestral parts remaining the same) and this was published as Op. 61a. This arrangement did not prove successful and the work is rarely heard in this form today.
Beethoven did not give up on the violin concerto, dedicating the first printed edition to a childhood friend, Stephan von Breuning. However, it was not until 1844, long after Beethoven’s death, that the 12-year-old Joseph Joachim (who later became a friend of Brahms, and the dedicatee of his violin concerto) revived the work. Joachim performed the concerto at various times under the baton of both Mendelssohn and Schumann.
The first movement begins with four beats on the timpani, followed by a long orchestral introduction. The soloist’s entry consists of broken octaves, never easy to play in tune, and particularly when ‘cold’ after a long wait. This movement accounts for about half of the duration of the whole concerto. The second movement is a set of variations, which leads straight into the third movement, a rondo.
It is a work very sensitively written for the violin. The violin concerto by Brahms was famously described as a concerto against the violin. This is certainly not something that can be said about Beethoven’s. It is an extremely lyrical work and the scoring of the orchestral parts never poses serious problems of balance between the soloist and the orchestra.