Beethoven and the Violin Sonata
Beethoven swept across the face of music like a hurricane or a tornado passing over a gentle neighborhood—leaving it flustered and transformed beyond recognition, but clearing the way for future construction. The most notorious musical genre which he is credited for revolutionizing is the symphony—progressing in nine masterpieces from classical-era entertainments to ardent romantic-era statements. Beethoven made a similar evolution in practically every genre he touched with the tip of his quill—including solo piano sonatas, accompanied sonatas, piano trios, and string quartets. The Grove’s Dictionary of Music (the authoritative 20+ volume encyclopedia on music) effectively divides its discussion of Sonata into Baroque, Classical, and The Sonata After Beethoven. Even though 9 of Beethoven’s 10 violin sonatas date between 1797 and 1803, the early years of his maturity, he still managed to leave the genre irrevocably changed.
But it was Mozart who started the transformation, his work left incomplete by a tragically short lifetime, and picked up by Beethoven. Most classical violin sonatas, including Mozart’s early ones, featured a stand-alone piano part with an optional violin part doubling the right hand of the piano, ornamenting, or adding arpeggiated harmonization. These non-obliggato parts were also interchangeable with a flute or oboe substitution, limiting the lower range, and forbidding double stops and instrument-specific idiomatic techniques. Composers would generate these pieces by the dozen and make a good profit out of them; there was a market for easy, pleasant, sight-readable music for the home or the salon.
The classical violin sonata started to change with Mozart’s sonatas composed in Paris during the late 1770’s. The violin line became more independent and indispensable. Piano and violin would switch between melody and accompaniment, discourse contrapuntally, and sometimes even assume a concerto-like manner. But the violin’s new found liberty also presented new problems of balance, and imposed a somewhat intimidating difficulty. Beethoven’s sonatas are even more difficult and complex than Mozart’s. They span an ample range of characters, techniques, and styles. After Beethoven, composition of violin sonatas continued but never in the old style, albeit in smaller quantities, and always striving towards deeper qualities.
Violin Sonata No. 1 in D major, Op. 12 No. 1
The Op. 12 violin sonatas are dedicated to Antonio Salieri, with whom Beethoven was studying vocal composition. The three sonatas were written in 1797-1798, at approximately the same time as the Op. 18 string quartets. The string writing is difficult and exposed in both works. The influence of Mozart and Haydn is strongly felt in these early compositions, but like all of Beethoven’s published pieces, they bear the latter’s distinct style. An early critic described the Op. 12 sonatas as “heavily laden with unusual difficulties…making him feel like a man who had wandered through an alluring forest and at last emerged tired and worn out.” To modern listeners, this may seem like a positive review, but salon-goers sough pleasant background music, not a frightful adventure.
The Op. 12 No. 1 Sonata opens with a bold fanfare like statement immediately contrasted by a much more intimate and fragile theme that opens on an octave-leap the most expressive and emotionally revealing melodic interval. An understated feature of Beethoven’s music is his transitions, especially in the early period. Transitory material is just as meaningful as the proper official subjects, but the two can easily confused. Transitory themes are highlighted and articulated, and are developed still in the exposition. All of the notes bear a character and serve an expressive purpose—they are never merely transient filler space.
The second movement presents a theme pregnant in possibilities, belied at first by a calm demeanor, but soon unfolding in 5 variations through characters that are, respectively, casual, playfully blissful, terrifying, and finally calm again, but in the end with a heavenly acceptance. The third movement is a rondo, with a main theme that identifiable through it’s off-beat sforzandi.
Violin Sonata No. 4 in A minor, Op. 23
Lewis Lockwood describes this sonata as “bleak, odd and distant, the neglected child in the family of Beethoven violin sonatas, despite its original and experimental moments.” The first movement is set in a troubled and tense 6/8 that persists throughout the movement. Instead of modulating to the parallel major as is customary in a classical sonata-form set in a minor key, the second subject is in the dominant minor, robbing the structure of any dramatic comfort. Although more hushed in character, this second theme is also tinged with a dark sadness. The development is also rough and stormy in character, but is interrupted by a brief hopeful section in F major that is quickly shot down by violent sforzandi, made all the more stressful by the contrast. The recapitulation features an interesting detail; the return to A minor occurs on a new melody, the smoothest and most lyrical heard in the movement, derived from the fragmentary motives of the exposition. This melody then leads to a normal reprise of the exposition. The coda brings back the melody from the beginning of the recapitulation, followed by a last gasp from the aggressive first subject, which comes to a grinding halt on sudden silences and minor chords that are deprived of strength but are still tense; the ending of the first movement is by no means final.
Answering the dire question that is the first movement is a dainty theme in the parallel major, marked Scherzoso. This light-hearted movement is made all the more funny by the context of its surrounding movements, but admittedly, it may diminish their ferocity. This middle movement initially sounds like a theme and variations, with a varied double period, but soon ensues to introduce a second subject followed by a development and an ornamented recapitulation. The third movement returns to the mood of the first, but is more lenient about allowing major key-contrasts. While the first movement allowed an F major snippet to escape in its development, the finale features a lengthy and indulgent F major section at it’s heart. Like the first movement, the finale also ends with a last angry gasp, which cuts short and finally surrenders in exhaustion.
Violin Sonata No. 5 in F major, “Spring”, Op. 24
Op. 23 and 24 were intended for publication as Op. 23 No. 1 and 2, but were separated due to an engraver’s error. They are dedicated to Count Moritz von Fries, a banker, patron of the arts, and important nobleman who also received the dedication of the Seventh Symphony. Contrasting its immediate A minor predecessor, the F major sonata is one of Beethoven’s most beloved pieces having a reputation as being benign and beguiling. Probably the most popular of the violin sonatas, it is also among the least challenging. It begins with a gorgeous 10-bar melody, played once in the violin then repeated in by the piano. One could easily associate this melody with its nickname, spring. Beethoven is hardly recognizable in this mellifluous good-natured first theme. But the transitory material and second theme group, with their tugging sforzandi and forte-pianos are more forceful and belie their composers’ identity. The moody coda also reveals typical Beethoven. He could not stay well-behaved for too long.
Even in the second movement, after 19 bars of restfully suspended adagio, Beethoven momentarily switches the mood with harsh double-dotted sforzandi. This inherent restlessness even in the calmest of his compositions is a Beethoven hallmark. The slow movement ends with a magical effect on simultaneous measured trills in the piano right hand and violin. The third movement is an extremely compact scherzo that tickles with confusion of meter. The final movement is a rondo that is extremely wealthy not only in the number of themes, but also in the number of ways in which they are varied as they make their respective returns.
Violin Sonata No. 8 in G major, Op. 30 No. 3
The 3 sonatas of Op. 30 are dedicated to Tsar Alexander I, an “enlightened despot”, whom Beethoven admired for legal reform. They were written in 1802, towards the end of Beethoven’s First Maturity, shortly after the awfully romantic Moonlight Sonata, and shortly before the wild-yet-still-classical Symphony No. 2. 1802 was also the year of the Heiligenstadt Testament, where Beethoven disclosed the beginning of his deafness and expressed a despairing yet ambitious outlook at his situation; “I would have put an end to my life - only art it was that withheld me, ah it seemed impossible to leave the world until I had produced all that I felt called upon me to produce…”
The first four measures of the Op. 30 No. 3 Sonata feature four completely different gestures: a rumbling sixteenth-figure, a skywards-reaching arpeggio “rocket”, a waltz like fragment, and a shriek in the violin. The rest of the movement a similar degree of frenzied and highly varied material bordering on the chaotic. The second theme is in D minor instead of major. Because the exposition has so much variety and development, the development-proper is quite short. The middle movement is set in E-flat major, distant from the original G major. It is an elegant and slow Menuetto (without normal repeats and trio), marked “moderato e grazioso.” For the most part, it stays pleasant, rarely rising in dynamic above piano-dolce. But just before the reprise, Beethoven cannot help himself and inserts an anguished section in E-flat minor. The Finale is a Haydnesque monothematic moto-perpetuo in a sonata-allegro that feels like but isn’t a rondo.