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PROGRAM NOTES: Beethoven IV

Program Notes by Eric Bromberger

Sonata in E-flat Major for Violin and Piano, Opus 12, No. 3
LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN
Born December 16, 1770, Bonn
Died March 26, 1827, Vienna
Approximate Duration: 19 minutes

When Beethoven published his first three violin sonatas as his Opus 12 in 1798, he had already written ten other sonatas: eight for piano and two for cello. The title page of Opus 12 bears a specific description of the sonatas by the composer–“For harpsichord or piano, with violin”–as if the violin were an afterthought, an optional participant in what are essentially keyboard sonatas. Beethoven’s description needs to be taken with a grain of salt. The sonatas clearly require a piano rather than a harpsichord, for no harpsichord could meet Beethoven’s quite specific dynamic requirements in these works. And the apparent relegation of the violin to a subordinate role is misleading as well, for these are true duo sonatas, sonatas in which both instruments share the musical and harmonic interest.

That said, however, it must be admitted that the Allegro con spirito first movement of the Sonata in E-flat Major is one of those places where the piano gets the lion’s share of the music. From the very beginning, the piano has a near-virtuoso role, introducing the main idea and hurtling up and down the keyboard, with the violin often providing no more than unobtrusive chordal accompaniment. The violin introduces the gentle second theme of this sonata-form movement and has a lovely passage at the recapitulation, but most of the show in this first movement belongs to the piano.

The quiet second movement, Adagio con molt’ espressione, has justly been praised as one of the finest slow movements from Beethoven’s early period. Here the long, singing main theme is shared in turn by both voices, and particularly effective is the middle section where the violin sings gracefully above murmuring piano accompaniment. The final movement–Allegro molto–is a rondo. The piano announces the theme, the violin repeats it, and the two instruments sail through this movement, gracefully taking turns as each has the theme, then accompanies the other.

Sonata in A Minor for Violin and Piano, Opus 23, No. 4
Approximate Duration: 19 minutes

In 1800-01, shortly after completing his First Symphony, Beethoven composed two violin sonatas, and evidence suggests that he intended them as a set: not only were they composed and published together, but he apparently intended that they should be performed together. One of these, in F major, acquired the nickname “Spring” and went on to well-deserved fame. Its companion, a spicy and explosive (and comic) sonata in A minor, has always languished a little in the shade of the “Spring” Sonata, which is too bad–this is a terrific piece of music. One of the most striking characteristics of this work is the power of its outer movements. Where the gentle “Spring” Sonata spins long melodies, the Sonata in A Minor spits out and develops short phrases full of energy. Yet–curiously–all three movements of this animated sonata end quietly. It is a shame that these two sonatas are not performed together more often–what a piquant contrast they make.

The Presto explodes into being on the motto-like opening subject, with the piano lashing the music forward. Beethoven makes sharp dynamic contrasts here, and the 6/8 meter–which gallops so furiously at the opening–also yields the graceful second theme. There are repeats of both exposition and development, and the end of the movement comes suddenly: massed chords suddenly collapse into a pianissimo close.

By contrast, the Andante scherzoso, più Allegretto sings playfully, as if Beethoven is content to have fun with the listener (and the performers) after the fury of the opening. The instruments comment, answer, and imitate each other, and throughout the movement runs an ornate little theme that Beethoven treats fugally. After much pleasant interchange, the movement closes very quietly. The Allegro molto begins quietly as well, but here the music surges ahead continuously. The piano has the steady opening idea, while the violin’s line is simplicity itself, built of repeated notes. Some of the imitation-and-answer of the middle movement recurs in the finale, and there are soaring lyric episodes here too. But the principal impression this movement makes is of a barely-restrained energy, and at the close the violin comes soaring suddenly downward and the music is over almost before one knows it, some of its energy still hovering in the air even after the instruments have stopped playing.

Sonata in G Major for Violin and Piano, Opus 96, No. 10
Approximate Duration: 27 minutes

Beethoven wrote the Sonata in G Major at the end of 1812, shortly after completing his Seventh and Eighth Symphonies. French violinist Pierre Rodé–solo violinist to Napoleon and later to the tsar in St. Petersburg–was making a visit to Vienna, and Beethoven wrote the sonata for that occasion, claiming that he had tried to cast the last movement in the somewhat less dramatic style that Rode preferred. Rode did give the first performance in Vienna on December 29, 1812, and on that occasion the pianist was Beethoven’s pupil and patron, the Archduke Rudolph– Beethoven’s hearing had deteriorated so badly by this time that he could no longer take part in ensemble performances. Beethoven’s hearing may have deteriorated, but not so far as to prevent his being disappointed in Rode’s playing. He kept the sonata in manuscript for several years, revised it in 1814-15, and finally published it in 1816.

Of Beethoven’s ten violin sonatas, nine were written in the comparatively short span of six years: 1797 to 1803. Of course there was tremendous growth in those six years–think of the difference between the Mozartean early sonatas and the Kreutzer Sonata–but it is also true that Beethoven’s violin sonatas do not span his career in the way that his piano sonatas, string quartets, and symphonies do. Only the Sonata in G Major comes from outside that six-year span, and there are no violin sonatas from the final fifteen years of the composer’s life. But this final sonata–so different from the first nine–gives us some sense of what a late violin sonata might have been like, for many of the characteristics of Beethoven’s late style are already present here: a heartfelt slow movement derived from the simplest materials, a sharply-focused and almost brusque scherzo, and a theme-and-variation finale of unusual structure and complexity. Even the restrained first movement, music of understatement and “inwardness,” looks ahead to the works Beethoven would write during the extraordinary final six years of his life.

The Allegro moderato opens as simply as possible. The violin’s quiet four-note figure is immediately answered by the piano, and that easy dialogue between the instruments characterizes this restrained, almost rhapsodic movement. The dancing second theme is presented first by piano with violin accompaniment, and then the instruments trade roles. The brief development section–more a discussion of the material than a dramatic evolution of it–leads to a full recapitulation of the opening. Throughout, Beethoven repeatedly reminds the performers: dolce, sempre piano (“sweet, always quiet”).
The Adagio espressivo is built on a theme of moving simplicity, much like the slow movements of the late quartets. The piano lays out this long main idea, and the violin soon joins it. This movement breathes an air of serenity that is all the more remarkable when one sees the printed page: it is almost black with Beethoven’s elaborate ornamentation, much of it in 64th- notes that he has carefully written out. The Scherzo follows without pause. Propulsive and quite brief, it rides along off-the-beat accents in its outer sections and a flowing trio in E-flat major. There are no exposition repeats in this concise movement, which concludes with a very short G-major coda.

The concluding Poco Allegretto is one of the most extraordinary movements in all ten of Beethoven’s violin sonatas. It opens with a tune that sings simply and agreeably. But instead of the expected rondo-finale, Beethoven writes a series of variations on this opening tune. Just as the ear has adapted to variation form–and just as the music has grown increasingly animated–Beethoven throws one of his wildest curves: the tempo becomes Adagio espressivo, and the mood returns to that of the slow movement, heartfelt and intense. Beethoven writes out ornamentation here so elaborate that the instruments almost seem to have individual cadenzas. The very end of the movement is as unusual as the rest–the opening tempo returns, but now this breaks down into a series of individual sequences at different speeds and in quite different moods. Finally, at the point when we have lost any sense of motion or direction, Beethoven whips matters to a sudden close, the piano flashing upward to strike the final chord.