Every Day we post 10 new Classical CD and DVD reviews. A free weekly summary is available by e-mail. MusicWeb is not a subscription site. To keep it free please purchase discs through our links.
SIR HUBERT PARRY, a strong man who loved strength in others, once wrote of Beethoven: ‘The more difficult the problem suggested by the thought which is embodied in the subject, the greater the result. The full richness of his nature is not called out to the strongest point till there is something preternaturally formidable to be mastered.’
That is true. Beethoven’s greatest works are his response to the greatest demands. Conversely, his occasional pieces are of subordinate value. Those within the sphere of orchestral music may be reviewed at once to clear the ground.
The Ritterballet, composed at Bonn in 1791, is the earliest authentic orchestral work by Beethoven we possess - a whimsical turn of fate, for the ballet was done as a bit of ghosting for Count Waldstein. Its eight numbers are straightforward affairs largely concerned with tonic and dominant harmonics expressed through lilting tunes or square rhythms. The Deutscher Gesang (German song), No. 2, was evidently the one which pleased Beethoven best, for he repeated it as the middle section of the Coda, No. 8. The melody has a marked likeness to the vivace of the little Sonata for piano in G major, Op. 79 - a link which excited me when I spotted it, for that Sonata is the very one where the first movement is the presto alla tedesca - the German waltz.
The history of Wellington’s Victory, or The Battle of Vittoria, Op. 91, composed 1813, has been given in Chapter VI. AEsthetically the work is no more a symphony - though often called the ‘Battle Symphony’ - than an old poster is an old, master picture. Its glaring faults are probably due to the fact that Beethoven wrote it to be performed on an orchestrion. Mozart could do one of his finest works - the Fantasia in F minor - for a musical clock, because his impulse was to compensate defects in others by his own inexhaustible wealth. But not so Beethoven. He knew the orchestrion was inferior; with an almost childish delight he gave it music to match on a programme sketched by Mälzel. The opposing armies are represented by two groups of wind instruments: The remainder of the orchestra is as strongly ‘garrisoned’ as possible. The tune Rule Britannia is the ‘motif’ of The British; Malbrouck that of the French - a tune we know better under the name ‘We won’t go home till morning’! When the battle is joined, copious cannon shots ‘enrich’ the score, and after a Storm March, where the English drums make a most horrible din, Malbrouck wavers chromatically into a tremolo and dissolves. A triumphant march leads to God Save the King treated first as a hymn of thanksgiving and later as the subject for a fugue .... Beethoven, like Haydn, had a warm admiration for this tune, but to English ears his fugue is almost ribald.
Anyhow, there is The Battle Symphony. Bekker makes the apologetic comment that ‘it is a copybook example of a primitive form of programme music ... a realistic representation of outward events ... he [Beethoven] could not compose quickly ... he had no time to sort and arrange his material ... The Battle Symphony is an example of his work in its crude state.
Up to a point that is true, but I think the real distinction between the Battle Symphony and Beethoven’s others is not one of time, but of kind. Beethoven usually had some picture, or programme - the poetic idea in his mind when he composed. It was the starting-point for his music, from which his ideas could travel, expand, radiate. With composers of the Richard Strauss type, the programme is the arriving-point, upon which the music converges in a kind of ‘ensmalled’ effort at precision. Nobody could miss the message of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony through not knowing the exact story. But one must watch the themes and literary tags in Strauss’s Alpine and Domestic Symphonies as a cat watches a mouse if one is to catch their purport. The Battle Symphony was Beethoven’s prime excursion into crude programme music; its sole remaining merit is that it conveys his story without the aid of many words. Such realism and the idealism of the Eroica are worlds apart. The Pastoral Symphony, lying midway between, gives us the best insight into both, and furnishes the best statement of Beethoven’s own theories. ‘Pastoral Symphony, or a recollection of a country life. More an expression of feeling than a painting.’ Note his word recollection. He had used its equivalent in the title of The Eroica Symphony ‘composed to celebrate the memory (sovvenire) of a great man.’
The Namensfeier (Name-Day) Overture, Op. 115, composed in 1814, was Beethoven’s offering to the Austrian emperor. He wrote proudly on the title page ‘made into poetry by Ludwig van Beethoven.’ L. van B. not being a very good poet, to judge from the poem he wrote to Bettina Brentano, we may accept his estimate, though perhaps not quite as he meant it.
Of the Marches for military band, the dances (dozens of them) for small orchestra, only a few are remembered, for example the Gratulations Menuett (1822). One, a little Contredanse in E flat major, is linked with his ballet The Creations of Prometheus, and it in turn is linked with the Variations for piano, Op. 35, and all of them with the Eroica Symphony, through this one theme. Whether the Contredanse or Prometheus represents the original is unknown, but assuming that Thayer’s vague evidence in favour of Prometheus is right, here are the four appearances in successive years. Personally, however, I believe the Contredanse to be the earliest because the bass appears in a weaker form: (1) As the finale of the ballet Prometheus, 1800 (?); (2) as Contredanse 1801 (?); (3) as theme for piano Variations, 1802; (4) as theme for finale of Eroica Symphony, 1803.
One more scrap of history is the similarity (noted by Shedlock) between this and the theme in the first movement of Clementi’s Sonata in G minor, Op. 9:
Technically Beethoven valued his theme for the excellent features it offered for development - the dual personalities of the melody and the bass providing at once two characters of importance. But beyond this, I am convinced the Prometheus theme became to Beethoven a symbol of creative power and divine completion. When a composer of his calibre introduces a new theme at the end of a big work, he obviously intends that theme as the crown of the whole, and the end is precisely the point at which this theme appears in Prometheus.
Ballet approached opera as a serious art-form at Vienna in 1800, and its prestige was enhanced by Salvatore Vigano, a dancer and producer of classical taste and skill. Wishing to compliment the empress, Vigano designed a ballet. Beethoven was commissioned to compose the music. The scenario was so peculiar that I suspect Beethoven put a compelling hand over Vigano’s draft. Thayer surmises that the recent immense success of Die Schöpfung (The Creation) by Haydn may have influenced the choice of subject. Knowing Beethoven’s propensity for ‘going one better’ than any celebrity, a topical origin for his ballo serio, Die Geschöpfe des Prometheus (the Creations - or Creatures - of Prometheus) seems highly likely. And if so, it would explain the double edge in the famous conversation between Beethoven and Haydn, quoted in Chapter 4.
The original book of the ballet has been lost, but a summary remains in a theatre-bill. Prometheus ‘is a lofty spirit, who found the men of his day in a state of ignorance and civilized them by giving them the arts and sciences. Starting from this idea, the present ballet shows us two statues brought to life and made susceptible to all the passions of human life by the power of harmony.’ Act II is ‘placed in Parnassus and shows The apotheosis of Prometheus, who brings the men created by him to be instructed by Apollo and the Muses, thus endowing them with the blessings of culture.’
Vigano was no doubt responsible for the plan by which a mythical personage creates two figures, brings them to life and transports them to the delights of Parnassus - a scenario as near Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden as he dare come. The obvious thing would have been to make the mythical personage Zeus or Apollo. But no - and this is where I believe Beethoven comes in - Prometheus, the fire-bringer, was selected. Stranger still his Prometheus has next to nothing in common with that of AEschylus. Queerest of all, though no one has remarked the fact, Beethoven has here fused three myths - Prometheus, the heroic benefactor of mankind, Orpheus the musician endowed with godlike power by his art, and Pygmalion, the sculptor whose statue came to life - put briefly, three persons in one. Further, this beneficent being confers on mankind such services as Beethoven himself claimed to render. ‘Music should strike fire from a man.’ ‘Music is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy, it is the wine of a new procreation, and I am Bacchus who presses out this glorious wine for men and makes them drunk with the spirit,’ as Beethoven said later, knowing he was the fire-bringer and lord of this Olympian vintage. What had begun as a topical skit on The Creation ended by becoming a turning-point in his career. The Grand Mogul merged into Prometheus the hero of peace.
Into his music for the ballet Beethoven put the best that was then in him. The overture is finer and bolder than anything in his first Symphony, and even anticipates passages in his overture to Leonora, No. 3. The introduction to Act I gives me an elusive feeling that Haydn’s ‘Chaos’ with its sharp dynamic contrasts may have served Beethoven for model, and in many of the dances that follow - three in Act I and thirteen in Act II - there is a dewy freshness that suggests The Creation, though others are stiff and others again are typically Beethovenish. No. 5 is remarkable for woodwind solos, a harp accompaniment (almost the only time when he used it) and a cello cadenza leading to a long cello solo. No. 14 contains a long solo for basset-horn - again a rare appearance - and everywhere Beethoven makes more use of solo instruments than is customary with him. The Pastorale (No. 10) is delicious. The famous Prometheus theme appears with the finale, proceeds as a rondo, and ends in the conventional triumphant flourish and fanfare - a movement 315 bars long. Altogether a most important work, which must be reckoned with both on its own merits and in relation to the Eroica.
If the piano was the basis of Beethoven’s style, the symphony was its core. The natural bias of his mind was towards cyclic form and the orchestra - a fact which gave him supreme command over symphonic writing, but cost him bitter struggles when confronted with vocal forms. Judged as a group his symphonies are the greatest the world has known. In them he developed the main design to a significance and the details to a relevance never before imagined.
Canonically the symphonies are nine in number. There is also a doubtful work, known as the ‘Jena’ Symphony from the discovery of instrumental parts there in 1909 inscribed as ‘par Louis van Beethoven.’ Dr. Hugo Riemann thought the Symphony was probably genuine, though an early composition. I feel uncertain. Why not by Grandfather Louis?
For all practical purposes Beethoven’s symphonies begin with the one in C major, Op. 21, There is no certainty about its date, but sketches scattered among counterpoint exercises suggest that Beethoven began it when studying under Albrechtsberger and that what he then intended for the first movement is now the finale. By 1800 the Symphony was complete, and had its first performance on 2nd April, being thus about a year ahead of Prometheus. Sir George Grove notes resemblances between the first movement of the one and the overture of the other. Both start on a discord leading out of the key to arouse attention by tonal ambiguity before settling down to the main key - a device Beethoven developed with consummate art in some of his later works.
Still, the Symphony was bold enough for a very young man, and brought him censure from pedants. The short, slow introduction leads to an allegro con brio which is brisk, but not strikingly original. The slow movement, andante cantabile con moto, is of the type affected by Haydn in some of his later symphonies - elegant, polished, eschewing emotions that could disturb the cultivated charm. Beethoven’s fugato passages are introduced much as men of the world then introduced Latin quotations into their talk to show their good breeding. The soft drum passage of dotted notes is the most Beethovenish thing in the movement.
The minuet and trio, however, have not the spirit of the old dance but of the new scherzo - modelled maybe a little bit on Haydn’s scherzos. Berlioz described this movement as of ‘a freshness, an agility and a grace exquisite - the one veritable novelty of the symphony.’
The finale was once frowned on by the learned for the comic fooling of the violins with their false starts and for the triviality of the subjects, but nowadays it is great fun and always fetches an audience. How jolly to hear Beethoven being frivolous!
A couple of years later came the Symphony in D major, Op. 36, by which time, poor soul, he was in no state for frivolity, though longing ardently for happiness. I have already described in Chapter 5 the circumstances under which Beethoven composed the D major Symphony, finding a refuge in its Elysian beauty from the tragedy in his heart. It is a greater work than the first Symphony in every way save that of balanced design. Beethoven here expanded the constructive scheme of the eighteenth-century symphony to something larger than the strains which it had been built to carry. As a result he had much trouble with his architecture - it is said he rewrote the Symphony three times. The work is a hybrid. But how lovable! Think of that long, fine introduction - adagio molto - larger than anything designed by Haydn (though not so close-knit as Beethoven’s later work), with its prophetic vision of the ninth Symphony.
The allegro con brio, with its crisp gruppetti in the first subject and its fiery string passages, belongs partly to the old world, yet is touched by Beethoven’s own power.
The slow movement - larghetto - is a long dream of beauty where Beethoven lavishes his unmatched skill on displaying, developing and adorning his lovely subjects. Generally speaking, when experimenting at this period upon a fusion of sonata form with lyricism, he poured lyricism into the weightier form; here he reversed the process, and wrote his lyric movement in sonata form.
The scherzo is the most significant part of the Symphony, with its characteristic explosions of energy and the remarkable forecast of the ninth Symphony in the trio.
The explosive element appears again in the finale, also another forecast of the ninth Symphony.
The D major Symphony has never been among the favourites, but it had to be written before the Eroica became possible, because Beethoven found his strength over it, just as he hat begun to find his ‘mission’ in Prometheus.
The Eroica Symphony, Op. 55 was composed in the year 1803. It was his own favourite. The revolution it marked was so great that the distinguished critic, Dr. H. C. Colles, divides Beethoven’s career simply into pre- and post- Eroica.
The history of the Symphony, from Bernadotte’s first suggestion of a work on Napoleon to the moment when Beethoven tore off the dedication, has been sketched in Chapter 5. Today the only remaining sign of Bonaparte on the title page is the sentence: ‘Sinfonia Eroica, composta pa festeggiare il sovvenire t’un grand’ uomo.’
In every way the Symphony is heroic. The themes, texture and treatment are superb, and though the movements are extremely long, their proportions are so fine that not one bar could be spared. They follow the order usual in a four-movement symphony: (1) an allegro, (2) slow movement, (3) scherzo and trio, (4) finale; but their poetic contents so transform the scheme that the Symphony presents one of the profoundest problems in music. What Beethoven did was this: he wrote a glorious opening allegro and followed it with a funeral march for the slow movement. Thus by the middle of the Symphony the hero had vanished from the scene. Yet Beethoven still went on following the funeral march with a shimmering, resilient scherzo, and that in turn by a set of variations on the dance theme from Prometheus. Thus the Symphony divides, as it were, into two halves - the first noble and broad, weighted with majesty, courage and grief; the second altogether lighter, brighter, more imponderable.
What did Beethoven mean by it? Bekker thinks quite plainly he did not mean anything and says it was a mistake to introduce the scherzo after the march, interrupting the even development of the work towards its climax. He points out that later in the ninth Symphony and the Hammerklavier Sonata in B flat major, Op. 106, Beethoven avoided this anti-climax by placing the scherzo before the slow movement, and suggests that ‘if we could make up our minds to perform the Eroica scherzo before the funeral march we should be giving it its proper place, a place which Beethoven did not dare assign to it at that time.’
Now I can imagine Beethoven as a young man taking over cyclic form with an acquiescence in its order, akin to that with which he accepted the positions of subject, answer and countersubject in a fugue; but that he should not dare ... Heavens! I like the idea of any one daring to say that to him, and I like to think of his annihilating reply.
On the other hand many people attempt to explain the scherzo as it stands. Here are some of their theories:
(a) By this movement Beethoven typified an uprush of the undying creative energy of the world - light after darkness - spring after winter - and so on, with much high-sounding philosophy.
(b) Scherzo supposed to be founded on a soldier’s song.
(c) A scene in the camp.
(d) A crowd, full of excitement, awaits the hero: he arrives and addresses them in the trio.
(e) The effect is ‘chiefly that of portraying the fickle crowd who soon forget their hero, and chatter and bustle cheerfully about their business or pleasure as before.’
(f) Funeral games around the grave of the warrior, such as those in the Iliad.
This last is from Berlioz, who had great sensitivity.
Then, who are the heroes celebrated? Most musicians agree that Beethoven intended Napoleon in the first and second movements, a conclusion confirmed by reliable evidence, though some of Beethoven’s friends started an idea that General Abercrombie was the hero. Further, there is a strong feeling that, in depicting Bonaparte, Beethoven unconsciously portrayed himself. That is true. But why should Beethoven have selected for his first theme in the first movement a subject which comes almost note for note from Mozart’s early opera Bastien and Bastienne? Of course it may have been a coincidence, but as Beethoven almost certainly knew Bastien and Bastienne, and as he possessed a good memory, the coincidence theory is the least probable. For the finale Beethoven took his own Prometheus theme, and certainly identified himself with that hero.
To summarize, there are then three problems to be solved:
(1) Did Beethoven mean anything, or did he not, by the order of the movements?
(2) What is the explanation of the dual nature of the Symphony?
(3) What is the intention behind each movement?
Well, every one must take the Eroica in his own way. I do not insist on mine, but as it contains some points which have not been touched on before, so far as I know, I will state them.
At first I inclined to think Beethoven had placed the scherzo third simply because that was its customary place. But when I examined his earlier works, I found one which disposed of that theory, for the very composition where he placed the scherzo second was the Sonata in A flat major, Op. 26, composed in 1801 - which has the funeral march as its third movement. What Beethoven did in 1801, he could certainly have done in 1803. The deduction is that his poetical plan for the Eroica required the movements to follow the order in which they now stand. I am therefore convinced he meant exactly what he did, and did not defer to any conventions. That being so, what was his plan? I believe Beethoven’s beloved Plutarch supplies the answer. Plutarch’s famous biographies, the Parallel Lives, are written in pairs, each pair consisting of a Greek warrior, statesman or orator, set side by side with a noted Roman counterpart - thus Alexander and Caesar, Lycurgus and Numa, etc.
This arrangement would at once explain the duality and parallelism in the Eroica Symphony. I am disposed to believe that in the two opening movements Beethoven expressed everything that belonged to the glory, heroism and state of the hero in the material, contemporary world. Even Mozart’s theme as the first subject may have been an intentional packing into the first movement of all that Beethoven held heroic since Mozart was his earliest hero, and the greatest man he had known in music. For the last two movements - the parallel life - I like to think Beethoven removed everything into that ancient world which he looked upon as so much nobler than his own time - and took his music up on to its highest plane. Perhaps it is wild surmise, but the legend of Orion is the one I would guess for the scherzo; Orion, the great hunter, the hero of superhuman beauty, who, when slain, was translated to the skies, still to be seen there, with the shimmering stars of his belt and sword, and Sirius, his dog, leaping at his heel. The scherzo sparkles starrily; the horns in the trio might well be those of the hunter. Yet better than any legend is the true constellation itself; for in Orion are some of the mightiest mysteries of the universe.
Beethoven loved the stars. They stood for glorious nobility of thought. The E major slow movement of his second Rasoumovsky Quartet is known to have been inspired by a starry night. Into his diary for 1820 he copied Kant’s saying: ‘The moral law in us, and the starry sky above us.’ Is it hard, then, to believe that the stars shine in his Eroica.
If the ideas seem too fanciful which I have suggested as starting-points for the Eroica scherzo and finale, I will ask readers to consider very seriously a memorandum which Beethoven made in 1818, about two symphonies he thought of writing After noting his ideas for the earlier movements of the second, he says: ‘The orchestral violins, etc., to be increased tenfold in the last movement. Or the adagio to be in some way repeated in the last movements, in which case the vocal parts would enter gradually. In the adagio the text of a Greek myth - or Cantique Ecclésiastique - in the allegro a Bacchus festival.’ (The italics are mine.)
Thus the question whether Beethoven could ever have taken a Greek myth for the ‘poetic idea’ of a movement is answered out of his own mouth. And the allusion to Bacchus strengthens the probability of his connections with Plutarch, for Plutarch is believed to have been an initiate of the mysteries of Dionysus (Bacchus) - an order to which Beethoven mentally attached himself, if his words, ‘I am Bacchus’, mean anything. After all, such thoughts were very natural: music and wine had been dominantly associated with his family for three generations.
But in the Eroica finale it is not Bacchus, but Prometheus, whom Beethoven celebrates in a magnificent series of variations. The warrior victories of the first movement have ended in conquest and death - life has receded to the skies. Then Prometheus-Beethoven, the fire-bringer, the creator, brings a new and better life back into the earth. From the two dry sticks of the theme as shown at the beginning Beethoven gradually develops beauty that becomes life, and towards the end reaches a vision of love and loveliness so divine that when Gounod wished to find a theme to typify the Redeemer he took this. [NOTE: Gounod’s appropriation of the theme is not without piquancy, for to Mendelssohn he called Beethoven un polisson] The finale is what Beethoven intended - an overwhelming demonstration of the power of the musician and the beneficence of music. The Pope’s staff that blossomed is crabbed compared with this evocation of beautiful life from that dry theme. Walt Whitman’s words ring out in memory as the right response:
After the seas are all crossed,
After the great captains and engineers have accomplished their work
After the noble inventors,
Finally shall come the poet worthy that name,
The true son of God shall come singing his songs!
The Eroica Symphony is one of Beethoven’s supreme works; it is one of the supreme treasures of the world. It remains to us as:
a spiritual woven signal for all nations, emblem of man, elate above death.
Few things yield a more intense delight than a close study of Beethoven’s scores, but it is better to hear the Eroica even once than to read all the analyses. Yet the more closely Beethoven’s symphonies are analysed, the more beauty they reveal. Take the matter of proportion alone. The first movement of the Eroica approaches a miracle. Beethoven lays out the exposition, development and recapitulation on a scale never before attempted, and then enlarges the coda (which with Haydn had been a tiny tail on a movement) into a fourth section of importance equal with those preceding it and reflecting the development section, much as the recapitulation had reflected the exposition. The first subject has already been quoted. The second subject or group of ideas, is intimate, almost beseeching, in feeling and timbre, yet like the first subject, more harmonic than melodic.
In the development Beethoven compensates for the harmonic predominance by one of his loveliest melodies. I have already spoken of his instinct for the passage leading into the return of the principal key as the vital spot in sonata form. Even in such a small movement as the minuet of the A major Quartet, Op. 18, he withdraws into C sharp minor before the return, holds us there just long enough in another world to glimpse its loveliness and then whisks us back across a silent bar into the formal A major. That C sharp minor melody is an embryo of the divinely beautiful device of the great episode in the development of the Eroica, which assumes the importance of an integral theme. Beethoven’s appreciation of the need for perspective in music and his power of producing it are amazing, and never more so than in the Eroica. According to academic rule, the development section in sonata form should not contain new material, but merely discuss what has already been postulated. Furthermore, themes with a harmonic, not melodic, nature are considered most suitable for development. Beethoven knew that in music melody is the thing most of the soul.
In the great episode of the Eroica first movement Beethoven uses his beautiful melody in distant keys ant its orchestration, divided between woodwind and cellos, lightly held together by the other strings, is indescribably sympathetic. The moment of actual return to the first subject is one of his most astounding strokes. The orchestra is hushed almost to nothing. Against a tremolo in the violins held on dominant harmony, the horn enters with the first theme in the tonic E flat.
By academic precedent it was all wrong; psychologically it was gloriously right and immensely daring. Even today the effect is outstanding. Another point to note in this superb movement is the coda. Beethoven approaches it with two of those tremendous steps he used at moments of supreme crisis.
He knew, as no other composer before or since, the terrific separating effect of a step of one degree in harmony and the wonderful joining effect of a step of one degree in melody. His E minor episode in the development had been distant from E flat major, but the titanic descent of a tone to the D flat major chord, followed by the further descent to C major, gives one a feeling like the descent of three great, terraced rock faces. Some of Beethoven’s most wonderful strokes are achieved by his knowledge of harmonic massifs. Conversely, out of his knowledge of the function of the step of one degree in melody, many of his finest tunes are made; the great one in the ninth Symphony is the supreme example.
The second movement of the Eroica, the funeral march in C minor, is so famous that it hardly requires description. The poet Coleridge once remarked it was like a funeral procession in deep purple. That conveys a true impression, and the C major section in the middle is like consolation from heaven. Hitherto no composer had reached such an overwhelming intensity of emotion in a symphony.
The scherzo, apart from any questions of ‘programme,’ is notable as the first of Beethoven’s large orchestral scherzos - a wonderful thing to shine out on the world.
The finale also is remarkable. Beethoven here combines the finest elements of variation form and fugue, so that the most human feeling and firmest intellect are equally available to him. Moreover, as I have already explained, the Prometheus theme which he uses is practically double. In the long span of the movement between the fiery introduction and the coda that balances it at the other end, Beethoven exhibits the bass first in a series of fugal intellectually cumulative variations, and then the real theme, where the tender, melodic, emotional personality assumes control. Both characters having been introduced, Beethoven develops them with magnificent mastery and interplay, during which process each one becomes more and more its full, true, self till the fugal subject rises to its climax of brilliance in a kind of stretto above a dominant pedal on B flat, stands at pause for a moment on a great chord, and then falls to silence before the divine aspect of the melodic theme which now reaches its apotheosis in a long section, poco andante - one of the most eloquently beautiful things even Beethoven ever wrote. The finale is indeed what I believe Beethoven intended it to be - a great creative act.
Two years elapsed before Beethoven completed his next Symphony, No. 4, in B flat major, Op. 60. Here he returned to the form - though not the spirit - of the symphony as Haydn knew it. The slow introduction leading to a bright allegro, a cantabile slow movement, a minuet and trio, a dancing finale - all are here, but suffused with colours, felicities, emotions, beyond anything in Haydn. Yet I think Beethoven was not unmindful of Haydn’s introduction to the E flat ‘Drum Roll’ Symphony, perhaps even the ‘Chaos’ prelude in the Creation, when he composed the marvellous introduction to the B flat Symphony. Mysterious, shadowy, immense, it would not be hard to find in it Beethoven’s vision of the earth without form, and the Spirit of God moving on the face of the waters. But Beethoven gave no programme and we only know that the first allegro is the sole one by Beethoven which grows out of the material of the introduction.
Neither is anything known of the circumstances under which he composed the Symphony. The evidence of dates, and certain cross-correspondences in the music, show that it occupied his thoughts during the same period as Fidelio (notably the overture to Leonora, No. 3), the violin Concerto and the first Rasoumovsky Quartet.
The adagio of the fourth Symphony is so touchingly beautiful that few listeners realize it is also a supreme technical achievement. Two apparently opposite ideas are shown in it as being really parts of one surpassingly lovely whole. Kretzschmar is of the opinion (says Mr. Edwin Evans, senior, in his study of Beethoven’s symphonies) that if the difficulty of the task which Beethoven here set himself were fully realized, with the necessary consequence of his wonderful solution of it being appreciated, the inclination would be to regard this work as the finest sample among all Beethoven’s symphonies of delicate and tactful treatment.
The main theme is a magnificent example of Beethoven’s cantabile conjunct melodies, and the rhythmic figure of the accompaniment produces an effect which, when properly played, unites with one’s own heart-beats. Berlioz always felt this movement intensely. He says:
One is seized, from the first bars, with an emotion that by the end becomes shattering in its intensity! ... the impression produced is like that one experiences on reading the touching episode of Francesca da Rimini in the Divina Commedia, of which Virgil could not hear the recital without sobbing and weeping, and which, at the last verse, made Dante fall as if dead.
But in Beethoven’s adagio there is no tragedy; only the extreme beauty and happiness bring one near to tears. If there be a heart-ache it is engendered by the sense of excite in ourselves.
For the minuet the emotional tension is reduced, the music broken up by across rhythms and sudden changes, and the trio with its wistful charm is most lovable. The finale is in effect, though not in name, a perpetuum mobile, where the instruments swirl and flash in an endless ring, into the centre of which each in turn runs out to do a little solo and then retires in favour of the next. The moment when the bassoon does his is an inimitable bit of clowning.
Beethoven’s original intention had been to follow the Eroica, not by this happy B flat Symphony, but by one in C minor which eventually became his fifth - and the world’s favourite. It had been begun in 1805; then laid aside, to be completed in 1807 or early in 1808. The first subject is among the most dramatic things in music, and the whole movement is extraordinarily terse and close-knit.
‘So pocht das Schicksal an die Pforte’ (So Fate knocks at the door), said Beethoven. Remembering his resolve in 1801: ‘I will take Fate by the throat; it shall not wholly overcome me one is justified in believing the C minor Symphony to be a record of his tremendous inner strife and victory. At any rate much of it was written at Heiligenstadt - the spot where his old battle had reached its climax.
The second movement, a theme and variations, andante con moto in A flat major, on an extended, somewhat free plan, has very flowing lines, but somehow is not one of Beethoven’s most convincing slow movements. There is a touch of cold marble about its grace. Beethoven chiselled it much before he satisfied himself. Many sketched variants of the theme exist. The scherzo is the most remarkable in existence. While adhering to the usual scheme of a scherzo and trio Beethoven infused such uncanny power into the music that, as Berlioz said, it causes ‘the inexplicable emotion that one experiences under the magnetic gaze of certain individuals.’ The notes, phrases, harmonies are perfectly within the range of normal usage, yet everything has a terrifying aspect of strangeness, akin to that which sometimes overwhelms one at twilight or on waking in the night. Beethoven’s mere common chord of C minor in arpeggio becomes a shadowy menace. ... The trio, with the huge lumbering of the double basses, is monstrous, portentous; the long bridge passage between the end of the scherzo and the finale holds one immobile with expectancy Parry pointed out that the fifteen bars where nothing is going on but an insignificant chord continuously held by low strings and a pianissimo rhythmic beat of a drum would be meaningless taken out of its context, but that as Beethoven has used it, it is infinitely more impressive than the greatest noise ever made by Meyerbeer. When the passage opens out, by a great, sudden-surging crescendo, into the triumphant C major finale, the effect is amazing.
No wonder this C minor Symphony troubled some of Beethoven’s contemporaries: they resented being forced to share these violent emotions. Goethe growled and grumbled to the young Mendelssohn: ‘How big it is - quite wild! enough to bring the house about one’s ears!’ and Lesueur cried to the young Berlioz: ‘Ouf! Let me get out; I must have air. It’s incredible! Marvellous! It has so upset and bewildered me that when I wanted to put on my hat, I couldn’t find my head.’
Symphony No. 6, in F major, Op. 68, bears the name Beethoven himself gave it - ‘The Pastoral’, and followed hard on the C minor in 1807-8. It too was composed in the Heiligenstadt district, but because it mirrors the outer scene, and not the inner world of the soul, Beethoven seems here to be a little less on the common ground of humanity. But how lovable it is all the same! with the fresh-springing tunes of the first movement, the second movement - the Scene by the Brook - with its murmuring phrases and the bird calls, put in (as he said) as a joke; the allegro, the Peasants’ Festival with its delicious portrait of the country band; the storm which, though not very terrible nowadays as a noise, must always give a strange thrill at the opening where, in the sudden tremolo of the basses very softly on D flat and the little patter of quavers in the second violins, Beethoven has caught the very feeling of that queer moment before a storm breaks, when the first drops fall and the leaves show their white undersides and then, when the tempest has passed, the final scale upwards of the flute leads into the shepherds’ hymn of gratitude and thanksgiving which completes the work.
The naturalistic features have been much discussed, but the Pastoral Symphony is not the only work in which such things appear. Beethoven’s setting of Herder’s Gesang der Nachtigall, composed in 1813, opens with a perfect suggestion of the song of a nightingale, and Sir George Grove notes a sketch for the storm in the introduction to Act I of Prometheus.
Four years passed without another symphony. Then, in 1812, came two - the ‘grand Symphony,’ No. 7, in A major, Op. 92, ‘one of my most important,’ said Beethoven, completed in May, and the little one, ‘No. 8, in F major, Op. 93, dated October 1812.
No one will dispute Beethoven’s statement that the A major Symphony is one of his best works. Wagner has called it the ‘apotheosis of the dance,’ but this conveys no idea of the grandeur of the introduction (poco sostenuto) which is more largely planned than any of its predecessors, and subtly forecasts, by its modulations, the key scheme of the entire work. The vivace into which it leads is gloriously rhythmic - Dr. Ernest Walker says its persistent rhythmic spring can hardly be parallelled elsewhere - and the orchestration is brilliant. For the slow movement Beethoven makes the innovation of a movement that is not slow, an allegretto, and attains his necessary contrast by the low orchestral colouring - as opposed to the high colouring of the vivace. It is a marvellous movement, full of melancholy beauty.
The scherzo (presto) with its trio, said to be founded on an Austrian pilgrims’ hymn, is warmer and brighter in colour, and has great rhythmic fascination. It is a midway stage of colour between the pensive allegretto and the astounding outburst of the finale, a movement which batters, hurtles, exults in a superhuman discharge of power. Beethoven is believed to have used a Cossack tune for it, but the tune is tame, compared to his treatment. There is one passage seething over a rising bass that always makes me wonder whether Beethoven really did know the sea. He might have seen it as a boy in Holland.
Throughout the whole Symphony Beethoven elevates colour almost to its modern position as a structural factor, while retaining his clear-cut intellectual lines.
The eighth Symphony is frankly a little darling - happiness incarnate and a masterpiece of character and conciseness. The four movements are extremely compact. Following the opening allegro there is again a quick ‘slow’ movement - this time an allegretto scherzando said to be designed as a skit on Mälzer’s metronome. The tempo di menuetto is a delicious blend of beauty and humour, where the bassoon solo completes the enchantment, and the whole movement is very Viennese in the easy sway of the tunes. The opening of the finale is typical Beethoven, with immense vitality in the rhythms and violent dynamic contrasts. The second subject, however, is a piece of pure loveliness that rises suddenly into view by one of those step-of-one-degree harmonic transitions that Beethoven uses when he has something most special to say.
Sir George Grove says it is one of those ‘soft Lydian airs’ which truly pierce ‘the meeting soul’ - and he directs attention to the fine example at bar 7 of what he calls the appoggiatura of passion. Beethoven usually reserved this melisma (denoted either by its sign, or, as here, written out in full) for moments of intense feeling - a practice in which Wagner followed him. I cannot get it out of my head that Beethoven had Amalie Sebald in his thoughts when he wrote this Symphony.
Over ten years passed before Beethoven completed the Symphony in D minor, his ninth and last, somewhere about the end of 1823 or early in 1824. It was one of his life-goals attained. Thirty years earlier Fischenich had written to Charlotte von Schiller: ‘I am enclosing with this a setting of the Feuerfarbe on which I should like to have your opinion. It is by a young man of this place whose musical talents are universally praised and whom the elector has sent to Haydn in Vienna. He proposes also to compose Schiller’s Freude, and indeed strophe by strophe.’ The young man was Beethoven; the intention remained with him. It cropped out in the sketchbooks of 1798, 1811 and 1822. It cried out from his second Symphony during the crisis of 1802. When the right time came he composed it, but not strophe by strophe. Instead he made a selection from the verses, even rearranged their order, and bound them into a compact text which could serve for the finale of a great symphony. The result was the stupendous ninth. In it three purely instrumental movements, an allegro, a scherzo, and an adagio, of a magnitude never before imagined, pass by a long bridge or transition into a choral finale where four solo singers and a full chorus are added to the score for the triumphant close.
The ninth Symphony, like the Eroica, is a composite work, but the synthesis is larger, the connecting thread wider and looser, for Beethoven apparently worked the two symphony schemes he noted in 1818 into this one.
Moreover the introduction of human voices was a disturbing element. Not that a choral finale was quite novel. Such minor composers as Winter and Maschek had already employed the idea; Beethoven himself had done so in the Fantasia for piano and orchestra in C, Op. 80, 1808. But for the ninth Symphony he enlarged his plan enormously to carry the great surcharge of feeling which the finale was to express, That he had a most definite poetic intention behind each movement of the work is certain, but it is easier to feel these meanings than to express them. The usual interpretation is that the first movement is Destiny and the inexorable order of the universe; the second (the scherzo) is physical exuberance and energy; the third is Love. With the finale there is no uncertainty - Joy is its dominant idea; and Joy was to Beethoven what Charity was to St. Paul, the one thing without which all else was incomplete. Milton perhaps dreamed of something of the same sort when he wrote: ‘Joy shall overtake us as a flood.’ Beethoven’s initial inspiration came from Schiller. During the course of years his mind had voyaged out into a cosmic philosophy where, as he looked calmly at the great truths under the aspect of eternity, their different earthly manifestations were seen to be symbols mystically related. Thus he found nothing incongruous, when he wished to express Joy Divine, in combining Schiller with Bacchus in a finale, nor did he feel anything irreverent about it, since the symbolism of the True Vine runs all through the Christian religion. The utter simplicity and absence of sophistication in Beethoven are disconcerting, but they must be recognized. As W. J. Turner has well said:
It is a peculiarity of Beethoven that he can use the words ‘best’ and noblest’ without making an intelligent man laugh up his sleeve. ... The very words ‘good,’ ‘noble,’ ‘spiritual,’ ‘sublime,’ have all become in our time synonymous with humbug. In Beethoven’s music they take on a new and tremendous significance and not all the corrosive acid of the most powerful intellect and the profoundest scepticism can burn through them into any leaden substratum. They are gold throughout.
For the first movement of the ninth Symphony it is as if Beethoven took us out with him into the interstellar spaces. The loneliness is illimitable. Across the prelude-like bars of bare fifths and octaves shivering on the strings, there presently descends the famous first subject, the slow lightning stroke.
Professor Tovey, in his magnificent analysis of the Symphony, says of the opening that it is a revelation of Beethoven’s full power, and that of all single works of art it has had the deepest and widest influence on all later music. Professor Tovey’s explanation of the means by which Beethoven attains his effect of gigantic size while keeping within the normal length for a first movement, and his wise words upon Beethoven’s method of scoring (which is here practically all tutti), deserve close study. To describe the Symphony here is impossible; only the briefest pointers can be attempted.
The varied and lovely group of themes forming the ‘ second subject’ must be noticed, and in the coda is a passage that is like a premonition of the Day of Judgment - ’the famous dramatic muttering in semitones of the whole mass of strings beginning with the basses and rising until it is five octaves deep in the violins.’
The second movement is the ‘greatest and loveliest of Beethoven’s scherzos.’ The idea for it is said to have flashed upon him as he stepped from darkness into light. In its way this movement too is almost terrifying, not from loveliness but from excess of vital power and rhythm. In the orchestration Beethoven is at his most explosive and the drum passages are amazing. Throughout his career it is characteristic of him that though he gives the drum a status approaching virtuosity he never allows it to unsettle the legitimate symphonic style.
In the trio appears that exquisitely happy passage which links it to the second Symphony in the past and with the coming finale.
‘The supreme slow movement,’ said Parry, ‘is the finest orchestral example of that special type of slow movement,’ viz., a theme and variations. It is a double set, with two themes. The first is beautiful but the second is even more beautiful. It is prefaced by a couple of chords in which the horns seem to arrest one’s very heart to share in a melody which is the supreme utterance of love to the loved one.
Following three such magnificent instrumental movements, it was no light problem for Beethoven to pass logically to the choral finale. After long puzzling he devised the plan of bridge, or introduction, from whence he could look backward and forward - as in little he had often done with his pivot modulations.
It is a passage of real drama. With fiercely clamouring cellos and basses Beethoven reviews and dismisses each movement in turn; then comes the earliest glimpse of the new order, a foreshadowing of the great tune which is to be the theme of the finale. This first reveals itself in the cellos and basses, then gradually shines out in full beauty in the orchestra; the realization, when it comes, is a moment to live for.
Beethoven’s treatment of the accompanying string parts affords a wonderful example of his device for enhancing the beauty of his greatest melodies by placing living, pliable counter-melodies beneath the main themes. (See also the episode in the first movement of the Eroica and the Trio of the fourth Symphony.)
But even yet Beethoven is not satisfied. Again the clamour breaks out, to be calmed by the bass soloist with a recitative: ‘O Freunde, nicht diese Tone; sondern lasst uns angenehmere anstimmen und freutenvollere!’ (O friends, not these sounds ! But let us sing something more pleasant, and more full of gladness). Those words are Beethoven’s own. He arrived at them, as at the bridge section, only after long thought.
Thence he ‘swings himself up’ into the choral finale, a free set of variations. From now onwards the great movement sweeps forward on a tide of Joy whose waves sometimes buffet, at other times lift one almost to the starry throne. In the section marked adagio ma non troppo, ma divoto, Beethoven reaches a height of spiritual devotion and ecstasy almost unparalleled as he sets the verse:
Ihr stüzt nieder, Millionen?
Ahnest du den Schöpfer, Welt?
Such’ ihn überm Sternenzelt!
Uber Stemen muss er wohnen.
(O ye millions, do ye abase yourselves?
Divinest thou thy Creator, World?
Seek Him beyond the canopy of heaven!
He must dwell above the stars.)
Sir George Grove rightly points out here the beauty and originality of the accompaniments and how, by keeping the voices and instruments in the upper registers, Beethoven has produced an effect which is not easily forgotten. He notices, too, the premonitions - in the Leopold Cantata of 1790, the finale to Fidelio, and the Choral Fantasia - of this ‘most mystical and beautiful effect.’
Beethoven’s scheme for the finale was transcendent. Its triumph was hindered by the intractability of mankind. Beethoven had some right to expect a large compass from his singers, for most composers of the day did so in Vienna, but his demands were wholly exceptional. Now the human factor is variable; few choirs can perform the ninth Symphony with the certainty he intended, and experts are still questioning whether the choral finale is the crown or crime of the whole Symphony. But Professor Tovey supplied what should be the final answer when he wrote: ‘ There is no part of Beethoven’s Choral Symphony which does not become the clearer to us for assuming that the choral finale is right; and there is hardly a point that does not become difficult and obscure as soon as we fall into the habit which assumes that the choral finale is wrong.’
Another assumption often made is that Beethoven did not orchestrate effectively. Judged by the virtuosity of a Berlioz, Tchaikovsky or Strauss, his scores may seem deficient in dexterity. Almost any conductor nowadays can point to passages where Beethoven might have taken a more directly effective course, especially with his brass instruments. But Berlioz began where Beethoven left off. Besides, the longest way round is often the shortest way home. Beethoven’s scoring suits his music because it is an integral part of his thoughts. It belongs to the modern world - unlike that of Haydn which never quite outgrew the early continuo associations - and if less supple it is racier than that of Mozart. Beethoven’s symphonies abound in scoring apt and eloquent for the most varied situations, and his concertos are if anything even finer in their imaginative solutions of the problems of orchestration.
The classical concerto, which received its final shaping and stabilization from Mozart, is a manifestation of sonata form closely allied to the symphony. But where a symphony is single-minded in its aim, a concerto exhibits the dual personality of soloist and orchestra. The virtuoso element must be combined with the symphonic structure. Roughly speaking one may say that in early times the orchestra and soloist were on equal terms; that in the mid-classical period the soloist gained predominance; and that the modern tendency is again to treat the soloist as one strand - important, but not all-important - in the concertante mass.
It is perhaps the difference between a master mind and the lesser man that one integrates, the other disintegrates, musical forms and materials. Beethoven, in the concertos belonging to his mature period, stands practically alone in his synthesis of all the factors, though for charm of solo idea Mozart and Schumann are his peers, and for symphonic structure Brahms and Elgar are his disciples.
Such equipoise was not reached immediately. Beethoven’s first attempts at concertos date from his Bonn days; namely, the youthful works in E flat major and D major for piano and the fragment of a violin concerto in C major which was completed by Hellmesberger. Of the five concertos for piano composed in Vienna, that known as No. 2, in B flat major, Op. 19, is in reality the first, having been finished at latest by March 1795. Beethoven revised it for performance in Prague in 1798, but by 1801 he wrote very honestly to Hofmeister the publisher: ‘ The Concerto I only value at ten ducats, because, as I have already written, I do not give it out as one of my best.’ Beethoven was perfectly right. The Concerto, though elegant, is indeterminate. Its best touches are never made fully effective - as for example, the transition from C major ff to D flat pp at bars 39-43 in the first movement. The C major concerto, though called No. 1 and labelled Op. 15, is really a later work, composed in 1797. It marks some advance, even if the material of the first movement is in the manner of Mozart. The largo in A flat major is modelled on Italian cantilena, and the lively rondo is a good sample of a type then prevalent.
With the Concerto No. 3, in C minor, Op. 37 (composed in 1800) we reach Beethoven the tone-poet. Conventional elements are still retained in the disposition of the orchestral tutti, the cadenzas for the piano, etc., and even in the idiom of the subjects, but the imperious stride of the first subject, the impassioned quietude of the largo, the biting brilliance of the rondo and the subtle key scheme underlying the whole work are pure Beethoven. Indeed, I sometimes think this Concerto is as much a self-portrait of Beethoven at thirty as the Eroica is of Beethoven at thirty-three. Bekker remarks on the unusual key - E major - employed for the largo. ‘Beethoven frequently set C major and E major side by side, but an E major piece between two C minor movements is quite extraordinary.’ He surmises it had some special meaning.
It is remarkable, but I think one part of its meaning is that both Haydn and Beethoven had been experimenting with extensions of key relationship and that each stimulated the other to bolder innovations. Beethoven was quick to seize a good idea. In this instance he used his key of the mediant major against C minor with beautiful finesse. I have spoken before of his power of seeing things from two sides. Here is an example. In the C minor first movement the key of E flat plays a prominent part. Beethoven knows the note E flat will linger on vaguely in our ears. He changes it in his own thought to the enharmonic equivalent D sharp, which is the leading note of E major, and mentally steps up from it to the new key, which was intentionally remote from C minor. When he returns to C minor for the finale he confirms his E major largo by an enchanting passage well on in the rondo where he gets the orchestra on to the note G for two bars given in four octaves, then pushes it up to A flat for two bars; the piano enters, reiterating A flat for another four bars, next A flat in the bass floats up softly to E natural, A flat in the treble melts enharmonically to G sharp, the harmony hovers for four bars more and then the main subject is off into E major. The effect is magical.
Between five and six years elapsed before Beethoven produced his piano Concerto No. 4, in G major, Op. 58 (1805). Its beauty has an almost unearthly quality and its formal structure is so novel that only one concerto by Mozart affords a precedent for the manner in which Beethoven makes the piano speak first before the orchestra enters with its long tutti.
In the slow movement, andante con moto, Beethoven is said to have been inspired by the idea of Orpheus supplicating the powers of the underworld. The adamantine unison passages for the orchestra and the lovely hushed answers for the piano support the tradition. They are probably the most remarkable dialogue in instrumental music.
The rondo, though a little less distinguished, is still an exquisite finale to the Concerto. The pellucid nature of the themes and the limpid tone qualities Beethoven evokes from the piano are as lovely here as in the earlier movements.
The magnificent fifth Concerto, in E flat major, Op. 73, was completed in 1809. As in the fourth, Beethoven places the piano in the foreground from the outset, but here its imperial position is asserted by a couple of splendid preludings placed between ceremonial chords given out fortissimo by the orchestra before the real first tutti gets under way. The thematic material is so bold, ringing, triumphant, and its treatment so splendid that the origin of the nickname ‘The Emperor’ Concerto is easily understood. But Beethoven never gave it that title, nor by this time had he a spark of admiration left for Napoleon. A notable innovation in the first movement is the abolition (as Dr. Walker explains) of the customary interpolated cadenza in favour of something which is really nothing but a largely expanded coda, though it starts (as would a cadenza) with passages for the solo instrument after a pause on a six-four chord.
The adagio un poco mosso is mainly concerned with a melody of ineffable loveliness in the faraway key of B major. Beethoven sketched the theme in many forms before he reached the true one. Here are some of the first attempts. The final form is a melody which exercises a quite extraordinary spell of tranquillity and beauty, especially if played by the strings of the orchestra very softly with a pure solo quality of tone instead of the usually lifeless orchestral pianissimo.
The choice of key is a perfect example of Beethoven’s power of seeing a thing from two sides. B major may seem remote from E flat major, but he had subtly prepared for it in the first movement by making use of C flat major, a key quite easily within the sphere of E flat major, and which is the enharmonic equivalent of B major. Thus in the first movement he used the key in its near sense; in the adagio in its far sense. The transition back from B major to E flat major for the finale is achieved by one of his greatest strokes of genius - a step of one degree down from B natural to B flat. Though so direct and simple it never fails to bring a thrill, and the rondo following is splendidly exultant; a fitting finale for the right royal work.
This was Beethoven’s last concerto for the piano. It had been preceded by his Fantasia in C, Op. 80, for piano, chorus and orchestra, an experimental composition in which he took his own early melody to Burger’s Gegenliebe and developed it as an imposing set of free variations for his strangely selected forces. It was followed after some years (1815) by the commencement of a piano concerto in D major, which he never finished, though as many as sixty pages were fully scored. They are said to be extremely fine.
Both Romances for violin and orchestra date from 1802, despite the fact that the G major one is labelled Op. 40 and that in F major Op. 50. They are beautiful in their way, not easy as to technique, very difficult to interpret satisfactorily, and not so effective for concert pieces as they should be. Their music leaves one where it found one. I suspect Beethoven had no strong poetic idea when he composed them.
The triple Concerto in C major, Op. 56, for piano, violin, violoncello and orchestra (1805) rouses expectations of great music it never fulfils, deals out platitudinous craftsmanship, and is, in fact, Beethoven animated by duty, not inspiration.
I have left the violin Concerto in D major, Op. 61 (1806) for the last because it is unique - The only one Beethoven gave to the violin, and still the finest in existence for that instrument. It was a ‘ Concerto per Clemenza pour Clement’ as Beethoven wrote in his punning way. This Clement, a Viennese, was among the best violinists of his day, and if the Concerto mirrors his playing, as seems likely (since Beethoven was very sensitive in these matters), then Clement must have been a singularly pure, strong, warm and lovable player. In spite of his abilities and the extreme beauty of the music, the Concerto made no permanent success on its first appearance in December 1806. How could it, when Beethoven only finished the work just in time for Clement to read it at sight at the concert? Under such conditions not even an angel violinist could have done justice to it, for the Concerto must be loved and lived with for years before the player really begins to understand it!
In form it follows the classical pattern, with a long orchestral tutti at the beginning and a place for a cadenza near the end of the first allegro; the slow movement is a larghetto which remains almost throughout serenely in the near key of G major; and the finale is a deliciously rhythmic rondo. That sounds simple enough, but actually the perfection comes near being miraculous. The scheme is exquisitely proportioned; the subject matter is of exalted beauty. A drum figure of four repeated notes that opens the first movement and pervades it, is a marvellous foil to the melodic cantilena.
The episode in G minor which occurs just before the recapitulation is one of Beethoven’s sacred moments - indescribable in its wistfulness and withdrawal from the world. Joachim used to play this so wonderfully that no one who heard him could forget that divine beauty.
Throughout the Concerto the scoring is extraordinarily fine; never more so than in the larghetto, where Beethoven places the solo part with consummate knowledge of the ethereal effects obtainable on the E string and the strange lovelinesses of the D string (the heart of the violin), while he mutes the accompanying strings of the orchestra into a tender softness for the background, and uses the woodwind and horns with them lightly.
For perfection of string scoring the passage beginning at bar 46 should be specially noted, and towards the close of the movement Beethoven introduces the horns very softly with a call which has the effect of something from another world.
The rondo is made on a tune not far from a folk melody, and fairly dances with happiness. Constructively it ranks with the great rondos of the last piano concertos, but is quite different in type.
As in those concertos, so here, the key scheme for the entire work is extremely subtle. Most composers writing in D major would have veered naturally towards the dominant, A major. Beethoven avoided the harsh brilliance of too much A major by tending towards the sub-dominant G, which appears as C minor in the episodes of the first and last movements, and as G major in the larghetto. Altogether the Concerto is a noble work, and Beethoven thought so well of it that he made a version for piano - a curiosity now almost forgotten, though the cadenza with drum accompaniment is a notable feature. Such a transcription could not have the value of the original because the principal part in that is absolutely made out of violin texture. When Elgar composed his violin Concerto in 191O he inscribed on the title page these words: ‘Aqui esta encerrada el alma de ...’ For Beethoven’s violin Concerto I would paraphrase and complete the sentence thus: ‘Here is enshrined the soul of the Stradivarius violin’ - which is very much what Elgar’s biographer, Basil Maine, suggests as the inner meaning of the Elgar Concerto.