LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN
Beethoven and the Violin
Beethoven's 10 sonatas for violin and piano date from the crucial formative years 1797-1812, when he emerged from the shadow of Mozart and Haydn and forged the boldly "heroic" style of his so-called middle period. Indeed, all but the last sonata are concentrated in the three years before and after the turn of the 19th century. In addition to showcasing Beethoven's virtuosity on the keyboard, these richly rewarding works attest to his determination to blaze a new path in an increasingly popular chamber music genre that was still in its infancy. Just as his Op. 18 string quartets of 1798-1800 acknowledge his debt to Haydn even as they proclaim his artistic independence, so Beethoven's violin sonatas at first emulate and then transcend those of Mozart and his other 18th-century models.
It was as a barnstorming pianist that Beethoven first captured the imagination of Viennese audiences in the 1790s; no less a judge than keyboard virtuoso Wenzel Tomaschek was so bowled over by his playing that he refused to touch his own instrument for days. Yet Beethoven's rapid maturation as a composer was no less impressive. The three piano trios of 1795, which he designated his Op. 1, established his credentials with the Viennese public as an up-and-comer keen to distinguish himself from his esteemed teacher, Haydn. By his 30th birthday, Beethoven had to his credit a clutch of masterpieces—including three piano concertos, six string quartets, and one symphony—that any composer would envy. Over the next dozen years, his increasing deafness notwithstanding, a stream of ambitious and formally innovative works flowed from the composer's pen: the opera Fidelio, the Third ("Eroica") Symphony and its three successors, the D-Major Violin Concerto, the three "Razumovsky" quartets, and the "Waldstein" and "Appassionata" piano sonatas.
Beethoven's sustained interest in the violin over this period reflects his exposure to the new school of violin playing that emerged at the end of the 18th century, primarily in France. Many of the techniques introduced by virtuosos like Pierre Rode, Rodolphe Kreutzer, Franz Clement, and Pierre Baillot found their way into his writing for the instrument. Beethoven learned to play the violin as a boy from his father, a court musician in Bonn, and later polished his technique in Vienna under Ignaz Schuppanzigh, Ferdinand Ries, and Wenzel Krumpholz. For a brief period, he was even employed as a violist in the Bonn court orchestra. Yet knowing his way around the violin didn't protect him from conservative detractors. Ironically, one of his severest critics was Kreutzer, the dedicatee of his brilliant A-Major Sonata, Op. 47. Although Beethoven praised the violinist's "unaffectedness and natural manner," Kreutzer never played the sonata in public and, according to Hector Berlioz, pronounced Beethoven's music "outrageously unintelligible."
Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 6 in A Major, Op. 30, No. 1
Beethoven composed his three Op. 30 sonatas in 1801-1802, just after the sunny, crowd-pleasing "Spring" Sonata, Op. 24, and just before the stylistic breakthrough represented by the monumental, concerto-like "Kreutzer" Sonata, Op. 47. He dedicated the set to the young, reform-minded Alexander I of Russia—not one of his principal patrons, but worth cultivating nonetheless. Although the title page of the first edition specified that the sonatas were written for piano "with the accompaniment of a violin," Beethoven clearly had a more egalitarian partnership in mind. In fact, the brilliant finale of the "Kreutzer" was originally intended for this sonata.
The first of the Op. 30 sonatas blends lyricism and drama in ways that must have seemed novel and perplexing to many of Beethoven's listeners. He treats the themes of the first-movement Allegro—such as the little turning figure that the piano plays at the very beginning—less as melodies to be developed in the conventional way than as lodes of intervals and rhythms to be mined and manipulated. Even the lacy filigree that festoons the luminous Adagio in D major is more than purely ornamental, serving as it does to intensify the harmony at key points. In the final Allegretto, a simple triadic theme spawns a set of six technically demanding variations of strikingly diverse characters.
Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 3 in E-flat Major, Op. 12, No. 3
Published in 1799, Beethoven's first three sonatas were dedicated to the influential Austrian court Kapellmeister Antonio Salieri, with whom Beethoven studied on and off for a decade after moving to Vienna in 1792. Although tame by comparison with Beethoven's later chamber music, the Op. 12 sonatas grated on the ears of one contemporary listener, who heard in them "a striving for strange modulations, an objection to customary associations, a heaping up of difficulties on difficulties till one loses all patience and enjoyment." After poring diligently over the scores, the disgruntled critic complained that he "felt like a man who had hoped to make a promenade with a genial friend through a tempting forest and found himself barred every minute by inimical barriers."
Beethoven toys with the listener's expectations from the outset: Instead of a conventional main theme, he presents a pair of apparently unrelated motifs—a terse, almost peremptory downward-sweeping gesture (heard at the very beginning), balanced a few bars later by a rising arpeggio figure in crisply articulated eighth notes. Not until the Allegro con spirito is well under way does he combine these two ideas into a winsome melody in E-flat major that becomes the movement's principal theme. By contrast, the languid C-major theme of the Adagio is simplicity itself, first tracing a slowly descending triad, then arching gracefully upward before coming back to rest on the tonic. Turns, trills, and lacy ornamental passagework magically transmute this base thematic material into pure gold. The finale is a Haydnesque Rondo based on a bouncy, eight-bar tune that darts in and out of hearing with impish glee.
Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 2 in A Major, Op. 12, No. 2
Like its companion in E-flat major, Beethoven's A-Major Sonata builds creatively on the conventions of Classical sonata form and ensemble writing that he had inherited from Mozart, Haydn, and Salieri. In the late 1790s, Beethoven focused intensely on the challenge of combining the often brittle brilliance of the contemporary fortepiano with the mellower and more singing voices of string instruments. His first two cello sonatas, Op. 5 of 1796—partly inspired by the technical innovations of the great French cellist Jean-Louis Duport—virtually created the genre of the cello-piano sonata. In his Op. 12 sonatas of 1797-1798, Beethoven similarly adapted and extended the language of Mozart's violin sonatas of the preceding decade.
In the opening Allegro vivace, the piano and violin volley thematic material back and forth against a bouncy triplet pulse. After a dramatic pause, the movement's germinal motif—a playful half-step figure—is folded into a slinky and slightly ominous chromatic melody that will play an important role in the development section. The slow movement, too, is built on the principle of imitation: The two instruments take turns presenting the sweetly melancholy A-minor theme and its offshoots, weaving their voices together in a seamless fabric. The quirky syncopation at the outset of the Allegro piacevole signals that this "pleasing" finale will not be as straightforward as one might expect. What starts off as a simple walk in the woods soon turns into a more adventurous expedition, replete with daring modulations and rhythmic surprises.
Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 7 in C Minor, Op. 30, No. 2
Of the three Op. 30 sonatas, No. 2 in C Minor is both the longest (it is the only one in four movements) and the darkest. The world of Mozart's late violin sonatas was fast receding as Beethoven experimented with novel sonorities and a bold new synthesis of the two instruments' disparate voices. The violin had shed the last vestiges of the lightweight Rococo style associated with the 18th-century salon and emerged as the piano's full-fledged ensemble partner. Beethoven's nascent "heroic" idiom had fully matured by the time he received a belated honorarium for his Op. 30 set from the Russian crown at the Congress of Vienna in 1814.
A terse, tightly coiled figure in the piano—a long note followed by a brisk curlicue—generates much of the energy for the expansive and highly dramatic Allegro con brio. A few moments later, the violin introduces a sprightly strutting theme in the relative major key, whose crisp dotted rhythms also play a prominent role in Beethoven's musical argument. The Adagio cantabile, steeped in the warmth of A-flat major, lives up to its name in its limpid lyricism, though Beethoven can't help gilding the lily with delicate pianistic filigree. The fleet C-major Scherzo builds an irresistible momentum with its playful accents and flowing trio midsection. Like the first movement, the final Allegro, again in C minor, germinates from a tiny cell that is first presented as a subterranean rumbling in the piano.