Ludwig van Beethoven‘s Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 61, was written in 1806. Its first performance by Franz Clement was unsuccessful and for some decades the work languished in obscurity, until revived in 1844 by Joseph Joachim. Since then it has become one of the most well-known violin concerti.
Beethoven had previously written a number of pieces for violin and orchestra. At some point in 1790–2, before his musical maturity, he began a Violin Concerto in C, of which only a fragment of the first movement survives. Whether the work, or even the first movement, had ever been completed is not known. However, even if complete, it was neither performed nor published. Later in the 1790s, Beethoven had completed two Romances for violin – first the Romance in F and later the Romance in G.
These works show a strong influence from the French school of violin playing, exemplified by violinists such as Giovanni Battista Viotti, Pierre Rode and Rodolphe Kreutzer. The two Romances, for instance, are in a similar style to slow movements of concerti by Viotti. This influence can also be seen in the D major Concerto; the ‘martial’ opening with the beat of the timpani follows the style of French music at the time, while the prevalence of figures in broken sixths and broken octaves closely resembles elements of compositions by Kreutzer and Viotti.
Beethoven wrote the concerto for his colleague Franz Clement, a leading violinist of the day, who had earlier given him helpful advice on his opera Fidelio. The work was premiered on 23 December 1806 in the Theater an der Wien in Vienna, the occasion being a benefit concert for Clement. The first printed edition (1808) was also dedicated to Franz Clement.
It is believed that Beethoven finished the solo part so late that Clement had to sight-read part of his performance. Perhaps to express his annoyance, or to show what he could do when he had time to prepare, Clement is said to have interrupted the concerto between the first and second movements with a solo composition of his own, played on one string of the violin held upside down; however, other sources claim that he did play such a piece but only at the end of the performance.
The premiere was not a success, and the concerto was little performed in the following decades.
The work was revived in 1844, well after Beethoven’s death, with a performance by the then 12-year-old violinist Joseph Joachim with the orchestra of the London Philharmonic Society conducted by Felix Mendelssohn. Ever since, it has been one of the most important works of the violin concerto repertoire, and is frequently performed and recorded today.
It has been said that not only in this piece, but generally, “Recordings demonstrate that … it was the practice in the early twentieth century to vary the tempo considerably within a movement,” and that in the concerto, there is “often one big trough (slowing?) in the central G minor passage.”
The first movement starts with four beats on the timpani and has a duration of about 25 minutes. The second and third movements last about 10 minutes each. There is no break between the second and third movements. The entire work itself is approximately 45 minutes in duration.
Perhaps due to the Violin Concerto’s lack of success at its premiere, and at the request of Muzio Clementi, Beethoven revised it in a version for piano and orchestra, which was later published as Op. 61a. For this version, which is present as a sketch in the Violin Concerto’s autograph alongside revisions to the solo part, Beethoven wrote a lengthy, somewhat bombastic first movement cadenza which features the orchestra’s timpanist along with the solo pianist. This and the cadenzas for the other movements were later arranged for the violin (and timpani) by Max Rostal, Eugène Ysaÿe, Michelangelo Abbado, Christian Tetzlaff and Wolfgang Schneiderhan.