Beethoven and Clement

Of the great violin concertos, Beethoven’s D major is considered the holy-of-holies, yet its premiere had elements of farce and the work then disappeared from view for more than two decades. Beethoven wrote it in about a month and it was completed only two days before the performance, given in the Theater an der Wien on December 23, 1806. The soloist was the theatre’s concertmaster and conductor Franz Clement, a fine player with a phenomenal memory who was given to indulging in cheap virtuoso tricks, for which he was taken to task in the 1826 Wiener Musik-Zeitung. Beethoven evidently had a soft spot for him, as he inscribed the manuscript ‘Concerto per Clemenzo pour Clement’ and wrote the solo part with him in mind, testing him with high positions and elaborate figuration.

But Clement repaid him by performing the concerto a movement at a time, interspersing it with exhibitions of playing on one string, or with the violin held upside down. Small wonder that the spiritual dimension of the work completely escaped the audience. Although Beethoven was clearly aware of the concertos of Viotti and Kreutzer, his opening movement is on a vaster scale than was dreamed of previously: it demands concentration and a sense of structure from the soloist and, in the G minor episode, a rapt Innigkeit. The Larghetto, a set of variations, is often treated like an intermezzo but the greatest players distil a wonderfully ethereal quality in its slower passages on the lower strings. A cadenza leads straight into a frolicsome finale which, like that of the ‘Archduke’ Trio, has sometimes been accused of being trivial. But Beethoven recognized that comedy and tragedy are simply separate sides of the same mask.

This masterpiece lay dormant after its premiere until Pierre Baillot, a great Beethoven interpreter, gave the first Paris performance on March 23, 1828, so successfully that he had to repeat it later in the season. The seal was set on the concerto’s revival when 12-year-old Joseph Joachim, who had already been studying it for four years, played it from memory in London on May 27, 1844 at a Philharmonic Concert conducted by Mendelssohn.

In the last century Joachim’s successor Adolf Busch played it some 500 times all over Europe and America; other noble interpreters have included Fritz Kreisler, Joseph Szigeti, Nathan Milstein, Yehudi Menuhin, Leonid Kogan and Itzhak Perlman.

Tully Potter

  • Franz Clement, aged 8 by Henri Hessell, The Tully Potter Collection
  • Pierre Baillot by Ingres, 1829, The Tully Potter Collection
  • Adolph Busch, The Tully Potter Collection