The main character of the evening is Ludwig van Beethoven. Not with his great symphonies or Piano Concertos, however, but rather a more modest chamber music form, the violin sonata. We shall hear three of them: before the interval numbers 4 and 5, both composed in 1800–01, and after the interval his last violin sonata, number 10, written in 1812.
Suited to home use
The Violin Sonata was not a well-established form when Beethoven wrote his first three in 1797–98. They both belong to his early – often referred to as the classical – period, as do his fourth and fifth. He was naturally enough inspired primarily by Haydn and Mozart, but even so he was noticeably different from the outset, or more specifically, himself – Beethovenesque. It has been said of Beethoven that he rode over the peaceful, harmonious eighteenth century landscape like a whirlwind, knocking over and pulling up everything, ready for new constructions. Everything he touched became something different from before. This was particularly true of the symphony, but he also revitalised the piano sonata and violin sonata.
Before the development of the fortepiano – in the day of the harpsichord – it was often difficult to discern the melody line, because it was impossible to play particularly loudly on the instrument. It was therefore often reinforced with a violin part, and this was the origin of the violin sonata. It is at least characteristic of the early violin sonatas of both Haydn and Mozart that the violin doubles the right hand tune of the keyboard part, at times adding ornaments or arpeggiated harmonies – that is, playing all the notes in the pianist’s right hand, but separately in quick succession. As the violin could thus be replaced by a flute or oboe, the sonatas were suitable for domestic use by amateurs.
‘Heavily laden with unusual difficulties’
During his time in Paris in 1778, Mozart wrote violin sonatas that would alter the situation. He made the violin part more independent and more indispensable. The piano and violin took turns in playing and accompanying the melody, and they interacted contrapuntally. In some cases his violin sonatas approached concert format, with both instruments ostensibly vying for principal place, as if in competition, but complementing each other to a greater extent. This development was not without its own problems however, as the independence of the violin could easily result in a lack of balance between the instruments.
In 1797 Beethoven took over where Mozart had left off, and continued to develop the form, first of all in the details without major changes to the form. Nevertheless a critic wrote in 1798, when the first three violin sonatas of opus 12 were published, that they were ‘… 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.’ In brief, he suggested that the violin sonata was no longer appropriate for amateur musicians to play. For him it was a regrettable truth, but not for Beethoven, who was striving for art music that would appeal to the body (worn out) as much as to the mind.
Plenty of food for body and intellect
Apart from number 4, which has three movements – fast, slow, fast – Beethoven adopts in the famous fifth ‘Spring’ Sonata the four movement form, which is also seen in the tenth. The first a fast movement in sonata form, the second a slow tripartite movement, the third a dance – Beethoven often preferred a scherzo (joke), and the finale in moderate tempo, often a rondo or variation movement. Beethoven’s innovation is particularly evident in the details – new textures, new sounds, more counterpoint and greater dynamic variation. Not least in great contrasts. All of this providing a wealth of food for body (sensibility) and intellect (reflection).
Text: Gunnar Danbolt
English version: Roger Martin