Commenting on Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D Major, Theodor Adorno wrote that ‘In the Beethovian form the present creates the past’. It was he said ‘an image…not of the world but of an interpretation of the world’, equating it with ‘the same experiences which inspired Hegel’s concept of the world spirit’. In writing this he meant perhaps that in the grandeur of the piece one saw the melancholic imaginings of a nascent modernity; nostalgic for a vision of the pre-modern past, yet aglow with the confidence of an ascendant bourgeoisie.
On the 28th of November in the Sheldonian Theatre we experienced part of what Adorno had described. The performance of the violinist Nicola Benedetti, supported by the Oxford Philharmonic, was resonant with the sense of a time that has passed; a sense accentuated by the archaic beauty of her surroundings. To my untrained ear the ‘tranquillity in motion’ for which piece is famed was close to complete. From the ‘antagonistic moments’ of the anticipatory passages, to the soaring synthesis of climactic resolution, the orchestra and soloist seemed to move in exquisite, if uneven, conversation. Yet, it was undoubtedly Benedetti who commanded the audience’s eye as well as ear. The elegance of her movements flowed with the sumptuous sounds issuing from her violin, and together they conjured a rich canvas of aural brushstrokes. The orchestra’s performance of Elgar’s Enigma Variations after the interval, was somewhat anti-climactic in light of the intensity of the first half. Though the conductor’s humorous gesticulations enlivened the music, there remained a sense of emptiness, making the ending enjoyable but not enrapturing.
The solitary, visual brilliance of Benedetti’s performance was strangely appropriate to the cruel irony of the circumstances in which Beethoven composed his piece. Advised by his physician to rest his failing ears, the composer had moved from Vienna to the semi-rural isolation of Heiligenstadt in 1802. There, among the pastoral idyll the music strives to recreate, Beethoven worked in silent solitude; seeing not only the inevitable fading of premodern life, but also of his own hearing. Listening today, though we cannot imagine Beethoven’s plight, the piece still lies heavy with nostalgia. It evokes not only the world Beethoven was losing, but the absence of even its memory. What Adorno saw as Beethoven’s genius ‘composing as he wanted’, and removing the constraints of the pre-bourgeois world, now rings in our ears as an echo; with even its future now in the past. Sitting beneath the antiquated paintings of the Sheldonian, the evening felt like an escape, removed entirely from the present.