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PROGRAM NOTES: Beethoven I

Program Notes by Eric Bromberger

THE COMPLETE BEETHOVEN VIOLIN SONATAS

Beethoven learned to play the violin as a boy, but the violin was never really “his” instrument. Beethoven was a pianist, and he became one of the greatest in Europe. But in that era it was expected that professional musicians would play both a keyboard and a stringed instrument. Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Dvořák, and Richard Strauss all played both the violin and piano, though several of them– including Beethoven–preferred the viola. Unfortunately, this sort of musical dexterity has pretty much vanished over the last century or so.

Beethoven may have been only a competent violinist, but his understanding of the instrument was profound, as his magnificent Violin Concerto, the string quartets, and his other chamber works make clear. At the center of Beethoven’s chamber music for violin are his ten sonatas. Some of Beethoven’s works (his symphonies, quartets, and piano sonatas) span his career, and we can trace his development as a composer in those forms. But his violin sonatas do not span his career: he had written nine of the ten before he composed the “Eroica,” the work that led the way to what we call his “Heroic Style.” When Beethoven completed the “Kreutzer” Sonata in the spring of 1803, he was only 32 years old: he would live for more than twenty years and would write only one more violin sonata.

One thing becomes clear instantly as we listen to Beethoven’s Violin Sonatas: how well he wrote for both violin and piano. These are duo-sonatas in the best sense of the term–they feature idiomatic writing for both instruments, they are beautifully balanced, and they show us Beethoven beginning to experiment and expand the form, just as he was doing with the symphony and the string quartet. This year’s SummerFest brings the welcome and unusual opportunity to hear all ten of Beethoven’s violin sonatas, and perhaps it is just as well that they will not be performed in chronological order. Hearing early and later sonatas side-by-side will make Beethoven’s evolving sense of the possibilities of violin sonata even clearer. Spread out over these four concerts will be the three sonatas of his Opus 12, which at moments still trail the eighteenth-century conception of this music as primarily a keyboard sonata with violin accompaniment. We’ll hear the two sharply-contrasted sonatas of Opus 23 and Opus 24, in which each sonata takes on a much more individual character. The three sonatas of Opus 30 were written during the catastrophic summer of 1802 when Beethoven realized he was going deaf. Then comes the great leap forward with the “Kreutzer” Sonata. Beethoven knew he was getting into deeper waters with this sonata–he warned violinists that it was “written in a very concertante style, quasi-concerto-like.” And then after a pause lasting a decade, Beethoven wrote his last, his strangest, and perhaps his most wonderful violin sonata, the Tenth.
If only Beethoven had come back after still another decade and written one more violin sonata! In his final period Beethoven transformed our conception of what the piano sonata might be, and one late violin sonata might have done the same thing for that instrument. But it was not to be, and we’ll have to content ourselves with the ten sonatas we do have. This year’s SummerFest will let us hear those ten sonatas in all their variety, their growth, their power, and their beauty.

Three Sonatas for Violin and Piano, Opus 30
LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN
Born December 16, 1770, Bonn
Died March 26, 1827, Vienna

Beethoven liked to escape from hot Vienna to spend his summers in the countryside, and in April 1802 he moved to Heiligenstadt. Now a suburb of Vienna, Heiligenstadt was then a rural village, offering sunshine, streams and
meadows, and a view of distant mountains. Yet for all its physical comforts, this was an agonizing summer for Beethoven–he finally had to face the fact that his hearing problems would eventually mean total deafness. In an extraordinary letter to his two brothers that fall before he returned to Vienna–never sent and perhaps written for himself–Beethoven confessed that he had considered
suicide that summer.
But that summer proved extremely productive for the 31-year-old composer. In Heiligenstadt Beethoven completed the three violin sonatas of his Opus 30, the three piano sonatas of Opus 31, his Second Symphony, and several other works for piano. While there are occasional moments of turmoil in this music, this is in general some of the sunniest music–particularly the symphony–he ever wrote. Beethoven was much too great an artist to let the events of his own life dictate or stain his art. He would have agreed completely with T.S. Eliot that the greater the artist, the greater the separation he makes between his life and his art, and one looks in vain (fortunately!) for suicidal impulses in the music Beethoven wrote during the summer of 1802.

Sonata in A Major for Violin and Piano, Opus 30, No. 1
Approximate Duration: 23 minutes
The first of these three sonatas–in A major–is the least familiar of the set. It is not stormy and dramatic like the second, nor brilliant like the third. This is music of neither flash nor dazzle, and in fact understatement is the key to its powerful appeal: the Sonata in A Major is music of quiet nobility. It is also apparently the sonata that gave Beethoven the most trouble; he had originally written a dramatic finale but discarded it and wrote a new final movement (the discarded movement later became the finale of the Kreutzer Sonata).
The Allegro grows smoothly out of the piano’s quiet opening figure, the violin entering as part of the same noble rising phrase. The second theme, announced first by the piano and quickly repeated by the violin, is flowing and melodic. This movement defies easy description. Graceful and elegant it certainly is, and–despite some effective contrast of loud and soft passages–it remains gentle throughout; yet even this description does not begin to convey the grandeur of this music, which is all the more effective because it refuses to become brilliant or go to dramatic extremes.
The Adagio molto espressivo is built on the violin’s lovely opening melody. This movement sounds very much like Mozart’s cantabile slow movements–a long slow melody turns into a graceful arc of music. Beethoven gives the piano a quietly-rocking accompaniment, which later becomes quiet triplets. The last movement–Allegro con variazioni–is also very much in the manner of Mozart, who used theme-and-variation form for the last movement of several of his violin sonatas. Beethoven was right to reject his original finale–it would have overpowered the first two movements, and it now forms a proper conclusion to the massive Kreutzer Sonata. The present finale is a perfect close for this sonata. The opening theme undergoes six variations, all easily followed, as this graceful music moves to its poised conclusion.

Sonata in G Major for Violin and Piano, Opus 30, No. 3
Approximate Duration: 18 minutes
The last of the three violin sonatas Beethoven wrote in Heiligenstadt has deservedly become one of his most popular. If the first of the three is characterized by quiet nobility and the second by turbulent drama, the last is marked by high spirits and energy. Of all Beethoven’s violin sonatas, this one looks the most “black” on the page, for its outer movements are built on an almost incessant pulse of sixteenth-notes. But for all its energy, this sonata never sounds forced or hurried. Throughout, it remains one of Beethoven’s freshest and most graceful scores.
The very beginning of the Allegro assai sets the mood: quietly but suddenly the music winds up and leaps upward across nearly three octaves. It is a brilliant beginning, and Beethoven will make full use of the energy compressed into those three quick octaves. Almost instantly the flowing second theme is heard, and these two ideas–one turbulent, the other lyric–alternate throughout the movement before the music comes to a close made all the more effective by its sudden silence.
Beethoven marks the second movement Tempo di Minuetto, but specifies ma molto moderato e grazioso. This is not the sort of minuet one might dance to, and the key signal is grazioso, for this is unusually graceful music. The beginning is wonderful. The piano has the haunting main theme, while the violin accompanies. But the violin accompaniment has such a distinct character that it is almost as if Beethoven is offering two quite different themes simultaneously. Both ideas are part of the development, interrupted at times by other episodes before the quiet close: the main theme breaks down into fragments and vanishes in a wisp of sound. The concluding Allegro vivace is a perpetual-motion movement: the piano launches things on their way, and both instruments hurtle through the good-natured finale. A second theme tries to establish itself but is quickly swept aside by the opening theme, which powers its way cheerfully forward. There are some nice touches along the way: at one point the music comes to a screeching stop, and then over the piano’s “oom-pah” rhythm Beethoven launches into the “wrong” key of E-flat, only to make his way back into the home key of G to bring this sonata to its brilliant close.

Sonata in C Minor for Violin and Piano, Opus 30, No. 2
Approximate Duration: 26 minutes

The choice of key for this sonata is important, for C minor was the key Beethoven employed for works of unusual intensity. The recently-completed “Pathetique” Sonata, Fourth String Quartet, and Third Piano Concerto were in C minor, and in the next several years Beethoven would use that key for the Funeral March of the Eroica, the Fifth Symphony, and the Coriolan Overture. The musical conflict that fires those works is also evident in this sonata, which is–with the Kreutzer Sonata–the most dramatic of Beethoven’s ten violin sonatas.

The opening movement is marked Allegro con brio, the same indication Beethoven would later use for the opening movements of the Third and Fifth Symphonies, and the sonata’s first movement has a dramatic scope similar to those symphonies. It opens quietly with a recurrent brooding figure that ends with a sudden turn, like the quick flick of a dragon’s tail. The violin soon picks this up and also has the second subject, which marches along clipped dotted rhythms. There is no exposition repeat, and Beethoven slips into the development quietly, but soon the energy pent up in these simple figures is unleashed–this dramatic music features massive chording by both instruments and drives to a huge climax.

By contrast, the Adagio cantabile opens with a melody of disarming gentleness, once again announced by the piano,
and much of this movement sings gracefully. As it develops, however, the accompaniment grows more complex, and soon these murmuring runs begin to take over the music; Beethoven makes sharp dynamic contrasts before bringing the movement to a quiet close. The brief Scherzo: Allegro is full of stinging accents and rhythmic surprises; its trio section is a subtle variation of the movement’s opening theme, here treated in canon.

The Finale: Allegro returns to the mood of the opening movement–again there is a quiet but ominous opening full of suppressed energy that will later explode to life. This finale is in modified sonata-rondo form, and despite an occasional air of play and some appealing lyric moments, the movement partakes of the same atmosphere of suppressed tension that has marked the entire sonata. Beethoven brings it to a suitably dramatic close with a blazing coda marked Presto that rem