Beethoven Violin Sonatas
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Beethoven's first nine violin sonatas span the period 1798 to 1803. The final tenth sonata dates from 1808, at the onset of a fundamental change in Beethoven's aesthetic that lead to his profound late works. While this ten year period of creativity may seem relatively small, the aesthetic changes represented in the ten sonatas shows a rapid and fundamental shift and describe Beethoven's inner growth.
Op.12 (a collection of the first three violin sonatas) written in 1798 and dedicated to Salieri are by no means inferior early works. They are fully formed virtuoso violin sonatas written in a style not seen before. Premiered in the private salons of his patrons, their critical reception was poor and yet in the following years
they were published and republished multiple times throughout Europe and became highly popular.
Op.23 & 24 were originally conceived together as two piano sonatas. Written in 1801 the sonatas represent two very different perspectives and were written at a time when Beethoven was experiencing international accolades and his first sense of financial security. Op.23 is short and highly personal, written as if for himself and his close circle of friends. It is at once highly expressive, comical and stormy. Op.24 "The Spring" represents Beethoven's attempt for a much more public expression. Written in a new aesthetic style it demonstrates Weimar Classicism - beauty, balance and formal clarity.
Op.30 (a collection of three violin sonatas) represent the works of Beethoven's years of creative crisis in 1802. As the realization of his deafness became real, the need to re-address his purpose as a composer became important. Written at the same time as his three Op.31 piano sonatas, Op.30 violin sonatas offer a unique view of Beethoven's creative process as he struggled to find new ways of composing. Whereas the op.31 piano sonatas each represent a new and revolutionary approach to form and structure the op.30 violin sonatas each work within the established classical concept of form and structure. Together the Op.30 and Op.31 show Beethoven's creative dilemma, working on the one hand to extend the existing classical model to its limits and on the other to reinvent it.
Op.47 "the Kreutzer" was written in 1803 after a chance meeting with mulatto violinist George Bridgetower. Probably the most well known of the violin sonatas it is a virtuoso show piece, almost a concerto for the instrument. And yet, while it has been adopted as the most monumental of Beethoven's violin sonatas, it has an unusual history that belies its status as his master piece. After the Kreutzer Sonata, Beethoven left the form of violin sonata as if he had exhausted its potential but in 1808 he produced his tenth and final violin sonata a work he rewrote over several years and a work for which he had a strong affection.
By 1808 Beethoven had withdrawn himself from concert performances and from much of his public life. A more philosophical Beethoven, who by his own accounts kept abreast of current German thought and literature, this last work treads a new path reminiscent of the later autumnal works of Brahms. It is a beautiful expression of his relationship with nature. Its music flows freely through styles, from oration, to song, to dance to nature evocation.
It is sometimes difficult for contemporary listeners to hear its references or understand its meaning so for the last reading I have chosen to take a step sideways and included an insightful look at Beethoven's exact contemporary - the painter Casper David Friedrich - who reached notoriety in 1808 at exactly the same time as this sonata was written. Casper David's "Monk by the Sea" and "Cross in the Mountains" (publicly reviewed by one of Beethoven's patrons and friends) marked the coming of age of the German Romantic concepts of Pantheism and Natural Science (reinterpreting Goethe's earlier classicism). Now recognized as the pre-eminent German Romantic painter, Casper David focused his life work on the transcendental mysticism of nature. While Beethoven's artistic perspective spanned a broader range of interests, we can see that this 10th sonata, which mirrors Friedrich's artistic breakthrough of 1808-1812, represents a new and specifically German approach to the function of art: capturing mans emotive response using symbol to describe a more universal truth. While the view of Beethoven becoming more and more isolated through his later years is in part true, we must also recognize that Beethoven was at the forefront of current thought and highly aware of trends outside of music. In this respect his ability to translate these trends into a musical style that broke all boundaries can be seen as even more astounding and at the heart of the contemporary view of Beethoven's genius.