The Ten Commissions

How it began:

When we decided to commission a set of companion pieces for Beethoven’s ten violin sonatas early last year, we didn’t know that other performers and composers had dreamed up similar projects in the past – for example, there are at least two sets of companion pieces to Bach’s sonatas for solo violin. However, as far as we know, this is the first organised dialogue between ten living composers and Beethoven.

Although 10 is a generous and satisfying number, it was a challenge to choose “our” ten composers from amongst a vast range of possible candidates. As a starting point, it was clear that we should approach composers who love Beethoven’s music as much as we do.  It would help if we already had a working relationship with some of them, and if we felt instinctively that they would respond to Beethoven in an exciting way. Beethoven’s music is deeply rooted in tradition but also fiercely revolutionary, so we were looking for composers with both traditional and radical qualities.

All the composers we approached were enthusiastic about the project, and some were keen to choose specific sonatas to write their companion pieces to. Luckily there were no clashes. We were happy to assign the wonderful tenth sonata, opus 96, to David Matthews, whose impressionistic use of colour and texture seem ideally suited to that particular work.

Matthew Taylor requested the “Kreutzer” sonata, which we were sure would work well with his high-energy rhythms and motifs.

Jeremy Thurlow immediately recalled a favourite passage from sonata no.8, known as the “Champagne” sonata, which would form a starting-point for his piece.

I had worked with Judith Bingham on her dark and haunting “Tenebrae”, for choir, solo violin and percussion, and felt that the restless whirl of the fourth sonata would relate well to her way of writing.

The whimsical humour of sonata no.2 inspired me to approach American composer Peter Ash, the writing of whose comic opera “The Golden Ticket” I had witnessed from the first sketches through to its  performance at the Wexford Festival.

Philip Ashworth is a young British composer with an emerging international profile. He took on the challenge of writing the companion piece to Beethoven’s seventh sonata.

Elspeth Brooke accepted the grand challenge of the virtuosic third sonata – though we were hopeful that she would not try to outdo Beethoven in the sheer quantity of notes for the piano.

Beethoven’s Vienna is represented by senior Austrian composer Kurt Schwertsik, pupil of Stockhausen and creator of the “Third Viennese School”, who elected to write a companion piece for one of the most lyrical sonatas, no 6 in A.

Another composer we had worked with in recent years was Jonathan Dove, whose radiant use of traditional tonality suggested him as a perfect match for Beethoven’s joyful first sonata in D.

Finally, to complete the set, we still needed a companion to the “Spring” sonata. When by chance we heard Huw Watkins’ new string quartet, with its lyrical chordal structure and rippling textures, we knew we had found the last piece in the jigsaw puzzle, and were delighted when Huw agreed to write a “Spring” companion.

We were tremendously excited and curious to hear what music would emerge.

We have been delighted with the quality and variety of the new companion pieces, each one a brief but deeply felt personal statement which combine as a group to form a colorful mosaic around Beethoven’s sonatas. Two years on, we have played the entire Beethoven Plus cycle many times around the UK: seldom have new commissions received so many performances. We are delighted to be recording the series this year, and look forward to many more recitals in future.

Krysia Osostowicz, updated November 2017