Beethoven composed ten violin sonatas, the first nine during the “heroic” period of his career. In his works between 1797 and 1803, he mounted a revolution in musical language, breaking free from the accessible, decorous conventions of the 18th century. The transition begins to be felt in the Fifth Violin Sonata, whose appealing sounding surface conceals some serious fissures. It was nicknamed the “Spring” Sonata in the years after its premiere, less in reference to the personality of its dedicatee (a rather dour banker named Count Moritz von Fries) than the breeziness of the trill-laden opening tune. The first movement obeys the logic of sonata form, but the division between the first and second theme is starker than convention would allow, and the middle section develops material that has not been heard before, an unexpected melodic guest.
The middle movements could have been written by Beethoven’s forerunner and teacher, Joseph Haydn. But the fourth and last movement is rather adventurous in terms of the harmonic language.
The Seventh Violin Sonata is often associated with Beethoven’s traumatic realization of impending deafness, but actually its fervor, along with the allusions to marches and fanfares, was inspired by its dedication. For the price of a diamond, Beethoven composed this and two other sonatas for Tsar Alexander I, whom the composer idolized. (Beethoven first admired, then turned against Napoleon. Tsar Alexander I was Napoleon’s nemesis.) The four movements of the Seventh Sonata also find Beethoven rejecting altogether the musical decorum of the 18th century. He saturates conventional, Classical forms with intense, Romantic emotions. The filigreed delicacy of the Fifth Sonata cedes in the Seventh to a new brashness: The first movement is marked con brio (“with fire”), the last is presto (“very fast”)—all a contrast with sonatas of the salons and drawing rooms of the past.
The Ninth Violin Sonata—nicknamed the “Kreutzer” after its eventual (second) dedicatee, Rudolph Kreutzer—is Beethoven’s most compelling chamber work. At the start, the soloist must survive treacherous waters in the form of excruciatingly slow chords. The technical demands of the first movement, for both the violinist and pianist, are such that commentators have likened it to an amorous double-concerto. The second movement is a set of five variations on a theme in the pastoral key; the two lovers take a holiday. The third movement, recycled by Beethoven from an earlier score, is cast in the form of a tarantella, an Italian courtship dance.
The alternating tenderness and rage in the dialogue between violinist and pianist became a source of inspiration for other artists, including the eminent Russian writer Tolstoy. His novella The Kreutzer Sonata offers a non-too-subtle indictment of the passion and power of Beethoven’s sonata. It is performed in the story by the violinist hero. Afterward, he returns home and murders his wife, having caught her in the arms of another man.
Read More >
Born in Bonn in 1770, the son of a court musician, Ludwig van Beethoven himself joined the orchestra at age 13, first as a keyboardist and later a violist. In 1792, he went to Vienna to make his career as a pianist and composer; there he studied for a time with Haydn, dedicating his first published work—the three piano trios, Op. 1—to his teacher. Beginning in 1800, his emotional and psychological outlook was clouded by the onset of deafness, and it appears that he contemplated suicide. By 1815, he was almost completely deaf and relied on his inner ear to guide him in composing. He never married and, at the end, lived an isolated existence, communicating to his friends and visitors only in writing. Beethoven died in 1827 at age 57.