Ludwig van Beethoven wrote his Ninth Violin Sonata early in 1803, just before he began work on the monumental Third Symphony (Eroica). Abandoning the careful proportions and pleasantries of early works modeled after Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Franz Joseph Haydn, Beethoven’s blunt and expansive new style — what we now call his “middle period” — heralded a bold leap forward for the increasingly deaf and fiercely independent young composer.
Even the name of that violin sonata comes with an epic backstory. Beethoven eventually dedicated the score to Rodolphe Kreutzer, a French violinist and composer who had visited Vienna in 1798, and “Kreutzer” stuck as a nickname even though Kreutzer himself never played it. The actual violinist for whom Beethoven wrote the sonata, and the one who joined him for the premiere in 1803, was George Bridgetower, born in Poland to a Caribbean father of African descent and a European mother. Before they had a falling out, Beethoven had referred to his score as the Sonata mulattica, in reference to Bridgetower’s mixed racial heritage.
“The Kreutzer Sonata” — the work itself and the name — took on new significance when Leo Tolstoy gave that title to an 1889 novella. It tells the story of a disaffected wife who, swept up by the passion of Beethoven’s sonata, has an affair with the male violinist with whom she plays piano, only to be caught and murdered by her husband. International censorship and outrage put The Kreutzer Sonata into the center of public debate, and a host of artists followed with plays, paintings and other creations inspired by Tolstoy’s scenario.
This larger-than-life sonata has always drawn musicians to approach it with expanded forces, starting with a string quintet arrangement released by Beethoven’s publisher in 1832. The arrangement for strings featured in this performance, created by the Australian violinist Richard Tognetti, surrounds the focus and virtuosity of a solo violin with a rich, orchestral body of sound.
The “Kreutzer” Sonata embraces extremes from the outset, staying in its home key for only four measures of unaccompanied violin before the slow introduction veers to a minor key. Normally the tonal tension would resolve with the arrival of the fast body of the movement — in this case, an extremely fast presto tempo — but instead the instability continues, with the two sections unified by the obsessive gesture of a rising half-step from E to F. Even the presto flow is kept unpredictable, peppered with brief passages that pull back to a slow tempo, recalling the introduction. The consoling second theme does eventually reach the key of A-major, but ultimately a coda delivers this fiery first movement back to the crucible of A-minor.
In one of Beethoven’s brilliant touches on interconnection, the theme of the slow movement enters with the note F falling a half-step to E, the reverse of the previous movement’s anxious motto. Instead of just decorating the tune, the ensuing variations explore imaginative textures, the sheet music blackened by an uncommon density of notes. For the finale, Beethoven used another Presto movement that he had written and discarded a year earlier while working on a different sonata. The bouncing theme recalls the hunt-inspired momentum of Haydn’s finales, but like everything else in this new phase for Beethoven, the intensity is amplified.
Aaron Grad ©2021
Ludwig van Beethoven’s first two symphonies took their cues from Franz Joseph Haydn, the formidable “father of the symphony” and Beethoven’s teacher for a short while after he moved to Vienna. Soon enough, Beethoven honed a symphonic voice that eclipsed even Haydn’s in its scale and grandeur, beginning with the massive Symphony No. 3 (Eroica) from 1803 and continuing in the fateful Symphony No. 5 from 1808. Sandwiched between those landmark symphonies was a smaller specimen, the Symphony No. 4 in B-flat Major, underscoring Beethoven’s lasting debt to Haydn.
Beethoven composed the Fourth Symphony in mid-1806, and he first unveiled it at a private concert in March 1807. Close followers of Haydn’s London symphonies might have noted Beethoven’s nod to the Symphony No. 102, which likewise begins with a held B-flat in octaves. Whereas Haydn made a subtle detour to B-flat minor in his introduction, Beethoven fully embraced the move to the minor scale, until the harmonies sneak back to the major key via one of the score’s many slippery and surprising transitions, launching the Allegro vivace body of the movement.
The Adagio begins with an introductory figure that seems to have lingered from the end of the first movement, preparing the way for a sweet, singing melody. The third movement was labeled a Minuet, but the quick and boisterous music is really a scherzo in all but name, representing Beethoven’s faster and wilder take on Haydn’s dancing diversions.
Beethoven’s finale is full of Haydn’s impish wit, and it saves the best punch line for the end, when the violins, as if thoroughly exhausted, slowly trudge through the main theme one last time. After a similarly lethargic response from the bassoons and then the cellos and basses, the group rallies to end the symphony with an energetic flourish.
Aaron Grad ©2022
About This Program
Stefan Jackiw, violin
Making his Bravo! Vail debut, acclaimed violinist Stefan Jackiw performs a new arrangement of Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata in this all-Beethoven program including the composer’s Symphony No. 4.