Monday, 8 September 2014

Programme essay for Beethoven violin sonatas - 'Approaching and Attaining Maturity'

(This essay was originally published in the programme for a concert given at the 2014 Salzburg Festival by Frank-Peter Zimmermann and Christian Zacharias.)

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827)

Violin Sonata No. 1 in D major op. 12/1
Violin Sonata No. 3 in E flat major op. 12/3
Violin Sonata No. 2 in A major op. 12/2
Violin Sonata No. 5 in F major ‘Frühlingssonate’ op. 24

All but one of Beethoven’s ten numbered violin sonatas – strictly, sonatas ‘for piano and violin’ – were written between 1797 and 1803, when the ‘Kreutzer’ op. 47 was composed, the sole exception being the final G major Sonata op. 96, composed in 1812. The four sonatas heard in this programme originate from a shorter period still, 1797 to 1801, only the ‘Spring’ Sonata op. 24 postdating the composer’s First Symphony. In the conventional typology, then, these are all ‘early’ works, though that need not lessen their stature.

Voice, temperament and ambition

The three op. 12 sonatas, dedicated as a set to Antonio Salieri, were not in fact Beethoven’s first works for violin and piano. He had already written a fragmentary work in A major at the beginning of the 1790s, though what we have amounts to about four minutes’ worth at most. More importantly, we have a subsequent set of variations on Mozart’s ‘Se vuol ballare’ from Le nozze di Figaro, a Rondo in G major and Six German Dances. The sonatas, however, were works on a different scale, clearly with roots in earlier music, above all that of Mozart, and yet equally clearly works of the younger composer. Denis Matthews summarized this first, op.12 set: ‘Unlike the continuo sonatas of the Baroque period, with Bach as a notable exception, the sharing of interest was now a first essential, though Beethoven’s textures were already more robust and less delicately poised than Mozart’s, and the scent of battle never far away’. There is doubtless a role played here by the swift pace of technological development, especially with respect to the piano, Beethoven stretching his Stein instruments to the limit and perhaps beyond; more decisive still, however, would be Beethoven’s personal voice, temperament and ambition.

Allegro con brio is an assuredly Beethovenian marking, assigned to the first movement of the First Sonata in D major. ‘Brio’ there is certainly to be heard from the outset. Unison D major arpeggios in both parts are emphatically insisted upon, briefly continued in ‘accompaniment’ role by the piano, primacy soon alternating or co-existing between parts. We may notice even at this early stage a formal dynamism particular to Beethoven; within the bounds of the forms he had inherited, there is nevertheless a sense, if not so strong in every case, of continuous development, most notable of all in transitions. Boundaries between first and second subjects – if a relatively old-fashioned formulation may be permitted – are by no means always clearcut and Beethoven’s contrapuntal combination of themes complicates the matter further. ‘Learned, learned, always learned, no naturalness, no melody’, claimed the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung; for all that we may disagree, it was probably such practice, also disdained by many critics and audiences in late Mozart, which elicited such a response. Moreover, for all the talk one sometimes hears of Schubert’s different, tripartite path, provocatively diverging from Beethoven’s binary dialectics, the evidence here suggests otherwise; for neither composer is form a formula. So-called subsidiary themes will often, as here, receive developmental treatment in the ‘development’ section proper, relatively brief though that may be in this instance.

The second movement, in A major, is a set of variations. Again Mozart seems to be the starting point, but few would confuse the two composers, a common if far from identical lyricism notwithstanding. The move to the tonic minor in the third variation, while also common practice in the variation forms of Mozart, Haydn and other Classical composers, has a vehemence that is characteristically Beethoven’s. Likewise the sforzandi in the compound duple time Finale, which might otherwise be heard with post-Mozartian ‘hunting’ ears. Likewise also the tonal distancing of the episode that opens in F major; it parallels, far from coincidentally, a similar move in the first movement. For there is a delight in surprising the listener here, a delight which owes more than a little to Haydn, but which again never quite sounds ‘like’ that of Beethoven’s teacher.

The E flat major Sonata, the third of the op. 12 set, also opens with the fundamental building block of a tonic arpeggio. Extrovert ebullience in the piano part – this is a splendid key for pianistic display – meets not with violin accompaniment but with an instrument which, again to quote Matthews, ‘reinforces the opening phrases’. So involved does the game of catch-up become in this delightfully playful movement, both instruments urging each other on to new deeds, that one quite loses sight or care of which has ‘priority’, sure enough evidence that the question is not the right one to ask. Syncopations, a Beethoven trademark, add further to a sense of dislocation that is not disconcerting but delightful and a sense of slight tipsiness, instrumental hiccoughs and all, is far from unwelcome. We trip up, too, sent down blind tonal alleys, only to be told abruptly, yet in good humour, that the joke is on us: a Haydnesque practice put to new ends. The slow movement is the first Adagio in Beethoven’s series, con molto espressione. As that might suggest, this C major movement is very much the emotional core of the work, its aria style certainly suggestive of Mozart, but far from interchangeable. Interestingly the tonal relationship of the movement to the whole is the same as that of the E flat major Piano Sonata op. 7. The closing Rondo is closer to Haydn in character, perhaps even with a hint of the ‘Hungarian’ side of that composer’s music. High spirits are generally though not entirely unalloyed, yet they never pall.

In between these two works comes the A major Sonata. Its first movement is of different character – more affable, wittier – its compound duple metre perhaps more often found in a finale. The piano finds itself a little more often in an ‘accompanying’ role, though there is still a great deal of friendly give-and-take. Perhaps Mozart’s A major Violin Sonata K. 526, its opening movement also in compound duple time, offers something of a model, but here, perhaps surprisingly, it is Beethoven’s mood that is lighter. That should not, however, be taken to imply any lack of purpose; the derivation of so much material from an opening two-note tag binds together the movement at least as closely as any other heard this evening. A songful, almost Schubertian slow movement ensues in the tonic minor, its tender longing in context quite disarming. Chromaticism tends to be melodic rather than harmonic, yet offers just the right degree of pathos. The Finale marks something of a return to the good-natured opening, Allegro piacevole denoting pleasure rather than fire. It too is in rondo form, a fine equilibrium struck between the variation of its episodes and the welcome return of the principal theme, though Beethoven’s move to the close also benefits from an element of modulatory surprise. While it is difficult for us to imagine to what negative contemporary observations concerning ‘forced modulations’ and ‘hostile entanglements’ in these three sonatas might have referred, perhaps it was to those very aspects which delight us and which distinguish Beethoven from his models. 

Nature and beyond

Beethoven wrote two sonatas in 1800 and 1801, op. 23 in A minor and the ever-popular – it is tempting to reach for the clichéd ‘evergreen’ – ‘Spring’ Sonata in F major op. 24. Both works were dedicated to the composer’s Viennese patron, the banker and art collector Count Moritz von Fries (also the dedicatee of the C major String Quintet and the Seventh Symphony). For all the virtues of the op. 12 set, these two sonatas signal an advance in technical and emotional means, a greater ease with the form and thus the prospect of expanding its possibilities. In short, they offer more than occasional intimations of the composer’s ‘middle period’. Although it would be perverse to quarrel with the nickname of the ‘Spring’ Sonata, there are certainly sterner moments to this vernal work. Yes, the opening lyricism is touching in a fashion that can hardly but recall Mozart, yet the transition to the second group – note that once again we are thinking of transition – and much of the development have the listener sit up and notice; the landscape does not always gently undulate and, generally, sunny climes are not without their clouds. That said, it is difficult not to hear intimations of the ‘Pastoral’ Symphony’s birdsong in the B flat major Adagio alongside a continuation, even sublimation of the serenity of much of the first movement. Communion with nature, and perhaps with something beyond, seems unarguably to be the point here. Melodic elaboration, sometimes on one instrument, sometimes on the other, sometimes simultaneous, offers an ethereal and yet ‘pastoral’ sense of heightened magic, without disruption to the movement’s flow. This rather enhances that general progress, approaching, perhaps even attaining the sublimity we associate with ‘middle period’ Beethoven. Again, the Sixth Symphony in particular comes to mind.

We nearly did not have the Scherzo at all, or at least not as it now stands. Beethoven’s initial conception of it was as a minuet, prior not only to its speeding up but also to the introduction of its madcap syncopations. Its brevity is striking; so is the sense of violin and piano sparking ideas off and inciting one another. Moreover, the composer considered omitting it, perhaps unsure as to whether the form required the full complement of four movements. Its welcome injection of kinetic energy, of a febrile intensity we more readily associate with late Beethoven, even with Bartók and Webern, would be sorely missed. At any rate, it fits perfectly between the slow movement and the post-Mozartian Rondo with which the Sonata concludes. The sheer generosity of melodic profusion has much in common with Beethoven’s greatest predecessor in the form and stands as a contrast to Beethoven’s more typical practice. A darker side offers ample dramatic contrast – the minor mode is more prevalent than this Sonata’s reputation might suggest – but not so as to detract from what, qualifications aside, remains one of Beethoven’s sunniest collaborative creations. 


No comments: