The year 1803 was a turning point for Beethoven. Having come to terms with his growing deafness, he also came into his own as a composer, breaking free from the classical, Viennese style in which he had begun his career and asserting his own voice in a new, “heroic” style marked by his Symphony No. 3, the “Eroica.” The next five years were a fertile time for him, and saw the composition of a number of his most famous works, including the “Waldstein” and “Appassionata” piano sonatas, a Piano Concerto (1805–6), the first version of his opera Fidelio (1805), and his fourth and fifth symphonies — both completed in 1806, the year he composed the Violin Concerto.
Nikolaj Znaider, Gewandhausorchester Leipzig, Riccardo Chailly
The concerto was written for 26-year-old violinist Franz Clement, a conductor at the Theater-an-der-Wien for which Beethoven had begun his work on Fidelio. Beethoven completed the concerto in a rush, finishing either close to or on the day of the performance. Clement not only sight-read the part, but between the first and second movements he also threw in a couple of compositions of his own — which he played with the violin turned upside-down. Such showmanship was typical of musical performances of the period, but though the audience appears to have enjoyed the event, critical response to the concerto was lukewarm. It was not until 1844, almost 20 years after Beethoven’s death, that the work gained popularity when another young virtuoso, 13-year-old Joseph Joachim, took the piece on a European tour with his friend Felix Mendelssohn conducting.