Beethoven’s Violin Sonatas

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There is no doubt that the ten Beethoven sonatas represent the most important body of work for violin and piano. Only Mozart comes close in terms of a large-scale ‘cycle’, although there are later masterpieces by Schumann, Brahms, Franck, Bartók and others. As with so many of the genres that he touched, Beethoven set the standard to which all other composes aspired for many years afterwards. For a violin and piano duo, these works are central to everything we do.

The Beethoven violin sonatas do not quite represent his whole life’s work, as do the piano sonatas or string quartets for instance. His last example is from 1812, whist he was still just managing to perform in public and a full 15 years before his death. As always with this unique genius, the standard  across the cycle is unwaveringly superb, often touching absolute greatness. There is no weak sonata – but then we would be amazed were we to find one. They give a particular insight into Beethoven as a young man, full of confidence as composer and pianist, and blazing a trail for a new way forward. Then, with op. 30, we reach the era of the Heiligenstadt Testament, the onset of his deafness and development of his defiant middle-period style. Finally, op. 96 stands on the threshold of his transcendent late music.

From the outset this is ‘pure’ music. Beethoven treats the two instruments with absolute equality, freely sharing almost all the material between them. The violin is entirely integrated into the musical argument (remember that the pianist has two hands and therefore normally more of the material). One of the only times that Beethoven evokes the traditional ‘roles’ of the two instruments is to cock a snook and turn them on their head in op. 12 no 2. Beethoven was increasingly concerned with such musical purity as his life unfolded. “What do I care for your blasted violin” he is said to have cried when Ignaz Schuppanzig had the temerity to complain about the difficulties in one of the Razumovsky quartets. Increasingly the piano, and then the string quartet, were his chosen ways of exploring his most profound thought; the genres without any essential contrast of instrumental timbre at all.

And so what of the treasures within this particular cycle? In the witty and bold op. 12 set from the late 1790s, Beethoven announces himself (as he had already done with the piano trio and piano sonata) as a revolutionary and innovator. The first sonata could almost be a particularly grandiose work of Mozart, but the robust humour in the second is far more Haydnesque. The third, in E flat, lifts the genre to a new, exalted level with its cascades of virtuosity in the brilliant opening movement and the breadth of expression in the expansive Adagio. With the turn of the century comes a complementary pairing, op. 23 and 24, originally meant to be published together, the terse and darkly dramatic A minor set against the generous lyricism of the ‘Spring’.

With the op. 30 sonatas, Beethoven moves into new territory. The first of these, full of optimism, contains perhaps the most sublime slow movement that he wrote for violin and piano. The earthy fun and bucolics of the third need no slow movement at all. But between these lies a troubled masterpiece in C minor, looking forward to the magnificence of Beethoven’s middle period – one of his great examples in the key that was to become synonymous with his name. In a work of dramatic pathos and eventual tragedy, the lines between classicism and romanticism begin to be blurred.

Hot on the heels of these comes the op. 47 ‘Kreutzer’ sonata; a one-off and something of an enigma. Were it not for Beethoven’s legendary short fuse, this mighty work would be known today as the ‘Bridgetower’ sonata after the extraordinary Afro-Polish violinist to whom it was initially dedicated and who gave the first, triumphant performance with the composer at the piano. Here we are firmly in the world of expansive grandeur that characterises Beethoven’s middle period and he rarely wrote so virtuosically. This ‘concerto for two’ scales a dizzying emotional range and seems to set out to achieve something quite different to any of Beethoven’s other sonatas. In its three movements we are taken to three quite different places and emerge exhausted.

Which leaves op. 96. This most wondrous sonata, from a decade later, stands alone in the cycle. It is a partner to one of its immediate predecessors, the joyful ‘Archduke’ trio and complement to the other, the concise and angst-ridden op. 95 string quartet. The sublime lyricism here is at once profound and abstract, reminiscent of the fourth piano concerto in the same G major. We now have one foot in the world of Beethoven’s late style, whereafter he could turn only to the piano sonata and then finally the string quartet to write music which, in his own words, “belongs to a future age”.


© Daniel Tong, Feb 2014