AN 2 8794 Beethoven: Sonates pour violon et piano Nº 6, 7 & 8

Beethoven: Violin Sonatas Nos. 6, 7 & 8

They spoke about it

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In this first volume of the complete sonatas for violin and piano of Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827), Andrew Wan and Charles Richard-Hamelin present the three opus 30 sonatas, which highlight three facets of the composer’s personality. While Sonata No. 6 shows Beethoven’s calmer side, Sonata No. 7 reveals a more tempestuous and tormented man, and the charming Sonata No. 8 displays a touch of humour.

Beethoven had been living in Vienna for about 10 years when he composed these three sonatas in 1802. Having made a name for himself as a pianist, piano teacher, and composer, he gradually began to focus on the latter endeavour, in particular by only performing his own works (or improvisations) in public starting in 1797. By the early 1800s, his renown was such that he was financially comfortable. “My compositions are very profitable, and I may really say that I have almost more commissions than it is possible for me to execute,” he wrote to his friend Franz Wegeler in June 1800. Beethoven also benefitted from the patronage of several important aristocrats, which only added to his financial security.

Despite this outward success, Beethoven was going through great inner turmoil at the time he composed these sonatas, mostly due to his increasing deafness. The first signs of his condition appeared in 1794 and gradually progressed until, seven years later, he could barely hear high frequencies at all, and his ears rang until late at night. To hide his hearing impairment, Beethoven isolated himself; and fearing he would not hear people’s answers, he avoided conversation. Thus, in addition to the psychological distress of losing his hearing, he also greatly suffered through his diminished involvement in society.

By the spring of 1802, Beethoven was quite dejected. On top of his hearing loss, he had had several professional setbacks, prompting his doctor to suggest a treatment of silence and solitude away from the cares of everyday life. So in late April he travelled to the quiet village of Heiligenstadt, north of Vienna, where he remained until the fall and finished, among other works, his Symphony No. 2 and the three opus 30 violin sonatas.

Violin Sonata No. 6

Of all Beethoven’s 10 violin sonatas, Sonata No. 6 in A major, Op. 30 no. 1, is among the least frequently heard. Its initial “Allegro” opens with a quiet, contrapuntal theme that sets the tone for the rest of the movement, whose pared down texture evokes that of a trio sonata. Though the second movement is in D major, it has a decidedly wistful character; the relentless dotted rhythm in the piano’s left hand calls to mind a beating heart, while the harmony is often coloured with the chord of B minor. Beethoven’s first attempt at a third movement for the sonata, an “Andante con variazioni” that he ultimately set aside (and later used as the finale for the “Kreutzer” sonata, Op. 47), was ultimately replaced by an “Allegretto con variazioni.” Like the first movement, the third opens in a rather contrapuntal fashion. From the first measures, the bass (played in the piano’s left hand) imitates the rather lively theme that ends with a bouncy motif made up of a repeated sixteenth-note dotted eighth pattern. The first variation features the piano, with fast, staccato triplets alternating in either hand. After a much smoother second variation, the third returns to the perpetual motion idea expressed in the first variation – the piano’s left hand taking up triplet scalar motifs, while the right hand and the violin exchange snippets of the theme. The fourth variation resembles a recitative, in which chords played on the violin alternate with commentary from the piano. The A-minor fifth variation is written in a fugue style reminiscent of Bach. In transitioning to the sixth and final variation, Beethoven extends the bouncy rhythm at the tail of the theme, getting gradually softer and tentatively moving back to the home key of A major. The last variation, while generally festive in character, does stray curiously away from the harmonies of the main key at one point, with the piano obstinately playing repeated notes in the right hand.

Violin Sonata No. 7

Sonata No. 7 in C minor, Op. 30 no. 2 is perhaps the most typically “Beethovenian” of the three opus 30 sonatas, already showing some of the heroic character that would become more prominent in his later works. The initial “Allegro con brio” features an intensity of texture that had never been seen in any of his previous violin sonatas – alternating octaves, full fortissimo chords in the piano using both hands, highly contrasting dynamics, and great flourishes of virtuosity in both instruments add great drama to this movement. The second movement opens with the solo piano stating a tender theme that reappears with several different accompaniments throughout the movement, much like a set of improvised variations. Following these two rather emotionally charged movements, a bright “Scherzo” in C major, with its mischievous, somewhat incongruous melody, lightens the mood. The fourth movement, with its ominous, turbulent first theme, creates a character and soundscape similar to the first. The work closes with a tempestuous coda marked “Presto.”

Violin Sonata No. 8

The shortest of these three works, Sonata No. 8 in G major, Op. 30 no. 3, evokes the music of Joseph Haydn, especially in its humour. The first theme of the opening movement can almost be heard as a musical joke in which the two instruments, after playing in unison, cannot agree on who gets the final word. The second thematic group contains a passage in D minor whose character, key, and texture – with its series of sixteenth notes in the piano – is not unlike the “Tempest” piano sonata (Op. 31 no. 2), which Beethoven also completed during his stay in Heiligenstadt. The second movement, “Tempo di minuetto,” is marked “ma molto moderato et grazioso.” Lyrical with a bittersweet theme, the movement is interspersed with sections in G minor of a somewhat anxious character. The sonata’s final movement, in its form, rhythmic energy, and folk style – especially in the violin writing – calls to mind the “Rondo all’Ongarese” that closes Haydn’s Piano Trio No. 39 in G major.

© Florence Brassard
English Translation: Peter Christensen

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Andrew Wan
Charles Richard-Hamelin
AN 2 8794 Beethoven: Sonates pour violon et piano Nº 6, 7 & 8

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