Thursday 30th October @ 12.30pm
Piano Sonata No. 17 in D minor, Op. 31 No. 2 (Tempest)
Largo - Allegro
Compared to the vivacious lightness of touch in the first, G major Sonata of Op. 31, the second is, as its nickname suggests, a stormy work. The name, as so often in Beethoven's piano sonatas, was not the composer's own, but here he is said to have remarked "Just read Shakespeare's The Tempest", when asked what this work and the Appassionata (Op. 57) were meant to be about.
The first movement's volatile nature is immediately apparent through its frequent alternation of stretches of slow and fast music: a Largo, improvisatory arpeggio - like a question - and an ominous Allegro - the answer - that soon gains unassailable momentum. Although in a major key (B flat), the slow movement carries on the sombre mood, with fragmentary melodic ideas broken up by a muffled drum-like ostinato in the bass. The energy returns with the finale, a succession of almost unrelieved semiquavers and an obsessive four-note theme that, according to the pianist-composer Czerny, was inspired by a horseman galloping past Beethoven's window - not an image likely to bring The Tempest to mind, but one that at least catches the urgency of the composer's vision.
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 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. 5 in F major op 24, “Spring”
Adagio molto espressivo
Scherzo: Allegro molto
Rondo: Allegro ma non troppo
This sonata was dedicated to Count Moritz von Fries, a banker, patron of the arts, and important nobleman who also received the dedication of the Seventh Symphony. 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.