Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827)

Beethoven was born in Bonn, Germany, the son of a drunken court musician. A prodigious talent, he soon found himself taken to Vienna for a thorough musical training. He studied briefly with Mozart and Haydn, but Beethoven was a rule-breaker by nature and almost un-teachable. His genius took Vienna by storm and he quickly attracted patronage. So began a career that would change the face of music. At first his works were only a modest extension of the classical style. But, with the Eroica Symphony of 1804, Beethoven became known a revolutionary artist, writing music with a scale and ambition never previously heard. He was a self proclaimed visionary, beholden to no-one; the model for many subsequent romantic composers. Throughout his life, his music continued to develop in the depth of its subjective expression, culminating in the late string quartets and piano sonatas. He died in 1827, famous across the Western world; his funeral attended by 20,000 mourners.

Yet Beethoven was a difficult, often angry man, who felt isolated during his lifetime. His living conditions were squalid and habits distasteful. His relationships with women caused him much torment, and he became embroiled in a bitter custody-dispute over his nephew Karl. He won that particular battle, but his nephew was unhappy because of his uncle’s domineering personality. Beethoven’s later years were marred by increasing deafness, rendering him even more irritable and isolated. Yet the more he retreated from the outside world and assumed the superiority of his tortured genius, the greater and more profound the music he was able to compose.

So why do we find Beethoven’s music so relevant today, despite the passage of almost two centuries? Such an influential figure occurs but rarely and when they do, the axis of history seems to turn about them. Beethoven’s legacy still plagues living composers, because it provides the standard by which many of them are judged. Will anyone ever match his vision, his musical imagination and technical accomplishment?

But what is the substance of Beethoven’s music and worldview? He was a child of The Enlightenment, as well as one of the early romantics. He encompassed two opposite ways of looking at the world. Despite his misanthropic tendencies, Beethoven was a rational idealist who believed in the perfectibility of human society. With good governance and social order, Man could achieve freedom and justice for all. Through science the secrets of the Universe would one day all be discovered, and Nature would be mastered. As a romantic, Beethoven believed that through art and music Man could both express and reach out to the divine, bringing peace and joy to the world. He lived at a time when such bright optimism could be sincerely felt, because science and radical politics promised a bright future.

Even if later in life Beethoven’s faith in the future was diminished by personal suffering and disappointment, in his middle-period works, such as those we are to hear tonight, we can still sense the composer’s excitement at the shedding of old ways. We feel his burgeoning hope that humanity will one day triumph over evil. Yet Beethoven recognised that to achieve such goals required struggle against doubts and against the tyrants who stood in the way. It meant also opening the eyes of ordinary people to see beyond their oppression. To win this battle, the great artist must show the way. The Egmont Overture is a call to revolt, yet also a call to make a sacrifice for high ideals. In the Violin Concerto, Beethoven ponders deep and puzzling questions. What ails humanity, what exists in the soul of Man? In his inner world, he finds answers and then invites us to dance with him in paradise, like happy peasants. Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony relishes the raw energy of the new, unleashing orgiastic forces to stir mankind from complacent slumber.

Piano Sonata No.4 in E flat major, Op.7 (1796–7)

1 Allegro molto e con brio
2 Largo, con gran espressione
3 Allegro
4 Rondo: Poco allegretto e grazioso

Why doesn’t Op.7 enjoy the limelight in the manner of the sonatas, Opp. 2 and 10? Could it be because it was published on its own? Or because its overriding lyricism has made it less of a sure-fire crowd pleaser than the more fiery sonatas? Could it be its length? Remarkably, it’s the longest piano sonata Beethoven was to write up until the ‘Hammerklavier’, Op.106. So when the first edition described it as a ‘Grande Sonate’, it was no mere publishing hyperbole. Beethoven’s student Carl Czerny remarked that it should have been Op.7 rather than Op.57 that was labelled ‘Appassionata’. It was in fact known for a while by the nickname ‘Die Verliebte’ (The maiden in love) and it shares a kind of gentleness, an inwardness, with other sonatas dedicated to his female pupils, such as Opp. 78 and 101. In this case, the lucky recipient was Countess ‘Babette’ Keglevics. There’s a story of how Beethoven used to turn up for lessons in his dressing gown, slippers and a tasselled nightcap – indicating a delightfully informal relationship between pupil and teacher.

Maidens and countesses aside, there’s no lack of drama in the first movement, which has that springy energy so characteristic of Beethoven’s works of this time, the composer delighting above all in contrast, be it in dynamics, register or abrupt harmonic shifts, all of which give it a larger-than-life character. This couldn’t be in greater contrast to the Largo, to which Beethoven appends the instruction con gran espressione, and which is very much the work’s emotional core. Its extreme contrast with the first movement is emphasised by its distant key: C major. The quiet chordal opening is all about rhetoric, and silence is as vital as sound. The grandeur of this theme contrasts with a more playful idea, in A flat major, set against a detached accompaniment. But harmonically there are hints of darkness and the music builds to an anguished climax, Beethoven contrasting bare octaves with a yelping motif high in the right hand. Then, another stroke of inspiration, we get a faint reminiscence of the main idea but high up and in the wrong key, before we’re gradually tugged back down to earth.

The third movement sits somewhere between minuet and scherzo in mood and speed. If its theme has the elegance of the former, the offbeat accents give it the spice of the latter. From E flat major to E flat minor for a Sturm und Drang trio, its unrest coming from driving triplet arpeggios in both hands. Beethoven’s transition from this back to the opening theme is a masterstroke of simplicity. The sonata concludes with an unusually gentle rondo, Beethoven using a striking economy of means by which the first and third episodes transform material from his lyrical rondo theme. The second episode, by contrast, is a dramatic outburst in C minor, spiky with accents. We’re reminded of this passage at the sonata’s close, as the accents reappear, now harmlessly declawed, bringing this most poetic masterpiece to a close.

Programme note © Harriet Smith

Trio in B flat for clarinet, cello and piano, Op.11, ‘Gassenhauer’ (1797)

Allegro con brio
Tema con variazioni
(Pria ch’io l’impegno): Allegretto

‘If Beethoven were alive today, he’d be writing pop songs.’ Serious music lovers tend to be dismissive of such comments. Yet here is concrete evidence that the young Beethoven wasn’t spending his spare time exclusively with dusty volumes of Bach or Fux – but was listening to the very cheesiest of disposable pop.

A gassenhauer is a hit tune: a pop-song. By the autumn of 1797 Beethoven had been in Vienna for five years. But money was still a major concern, and the surest way for a composer to make a quick buck was through chamber music. So although he may have been inspired to write his Op.11 Trio by the playing of the Bohemian-born clarinettist Joseph Beer, Beethoven also wanted it to sell – and sell well. So, for the last movement of the work he lifted a tune from a smash-hit of the Viennese stage, Joseph Weigl’s comic opera L’amor marinaro (‘Love among the sailors’), which was premiered in Vienna on 15 October 1797. Beethoven’s trio hit the market just a few months later.

The tune comes from the finale to the opera’s first act – ‘Pria ch’io l’impegno’ (which begins ‘Before I get down to work, I’ve simply got to have a bite to eat’); hardly heavyweight material. But that didn’t bother Beethoven, who proceeded to create a set of variations on Weigl’s theme that draws things from it that the original composer can barely have imagined. As in so much of Beethoven’s early chamber music, the exuberance of his invention seems at times to overflow the limits of the form.

The Allegro con brio first movement opens with a bold unison motif for all three instruments – but it’s really all about the individuality and brilliance with which Beethoven uses his three distinct voices. A tender Adagio in Beethoven’s best affettuoso (‘affectionate’) manner, guaranteed to get the Viennese society ladies swooning, moves, in its central section, into the realm of high Romantic fantasy. Perhaps this was Beethoven’s reflection of the character of Countess Maria Wilhelmine von Thun. She was a close relation of Beethoven’s patron Prince Lichnowsky, a sensitive musician, a friend of Mozart, and –when the trio was published early in 1798 – its dedicatee. Read into that what you will.

Programme note © Richard Bratby

Piano Sonata in C minor, Op.13 ‘Pathétique’ (1798)

Grave – allegro di molto e con brio
Adagio cantabile
Rondo: allegro

The ‘Pathétique’ title attached to Beethoven’s Piano Sonata in C minor, Op.13, like that attached to
Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony in B minor, is the composer’s own. But what it meant to the comparatively youthful Beethoven in 1798 is not what it meant to the suicidal Tchaikovsky nearly a century later. To the early romantic imagination the pathétique quality in music was that which ‘depicts and excites strong emotion, particularly grief and sadness’, as Jean-Jacques Rousseau put it in his famous Dictionnaire de Musique in 1767. Rousseau contests the superficial attitude that ‘everything which is slow is pathétique and everything which is pathétique must be slow… The true pathétique is in passionate expression, which is not determined by rules but which is invented by genius and felt by the heart.’

Beethoven’s Op.13 might almost have been inspired by Rousseau’s challenge to romantic genius and particularly by the observation that the pathétique must transcend mere variations in tempo. There are two main tempi in the first movement – one slow, one fast – but only one mood. The grief of the first Grave section is not dispelled by the Allegro di molto. On the contrary, the quicker tempo, together with the persistent quavers in the left hand and the markedly uneven rhythms in the right, adds an urgent intensity to the emotion already established.

The Adagio cantabile is a slow movement which is in no sense pathetic: a simple rondo set in the key of A flat major, it exudes spiritual well-being. The third movement, a more complex rondo structure, is said to have been conceived with some other work in mind. That may be the case but, ending with an abrupt assertion of C minor, it offers a comprehensive and dramatic resolution to the conflict suggested by the first two movements.

Symphony No.1 in C (1800)

Adagio molto – Allegro con brio
Andante cantabile con moto
Menuetto: Allegro molto e vivace
Adagio – Allegro molto e vivace

When Beethoven moved to Vienna in 1792 to study composition with Joseph Haydn, he was already established as a pianist. He was able to build upon this and developed a favourable reputation in Vienna as a keyboard virtuoso and improviser. In recognition of his enormous gifts and potential, Haydn requested that in public Beethoven should call himself a ‘student of Haydn’. Although in certain areas, such as religion and politics, master and pupil did not see eye to eye, musically they were well attuned, and Haydn’s influence upon Beethoven’s First Symphony is clearly audible. At the work’s first performance, given in a concert presented in Vienna during April 1800, its antecedents were present in the concert programme, which included an aria from Haydn’s oratorio The Creation and a symphony by Mozart. In addition, the programme also contained Beethoven’s Second Piano Concerto and his Septet. The Viennese public responded very positively to the new symphony, and Beethoven was soon recognised as one of the city’s major composers.

Although the Symphony was Beethoven’s first major orchestral work, his handling of the orchestra is both original and self-confident and, as Haydn correctly predicted, the work looked forward to Beethoven’s later symphonic achievements. Although the key of the Symphony is C major, in the slow introduction Beethoven hints that the home-key might be F or even G major. To contemporary audiences this ambivalence would have seemed highly adventurous. The remainder of the first movement, marked Allegro con brio, is more conventional, following the pattern of sonata-form established by Haydn and Mozart. What sets the music apart from these two composers is its vigour and boldness, which are wholly Beethovenian in character.

The slow movement, marked Andante cantabile con moto, is notable for its dotted rhythms, which link the various sections. The opening theme is presented by the second violins, after which it is taken up fugally by other instruments in the orchestra. This theme alternates with a more care-free melody. Although the third movement is marked Menuetto, it is much closer to a scherzo than to the typical minuet of the 18th century. In its speed, key changes and general character it is unmistakably the music of more ambitious times. As in the first movement, the finale commences with a slow introduction. The violins play tentative rising scales which gradually accelerate to announce the movement’s cheeky Haydnesque principal subject. This playfulness is sustained throughout in a rondo movement of great assurance, which ends in a lively flourish of upward scales.

Programme note © David Patmore

Violin Sonata in F major, Op.24 ‘Spring’ (1801)

Adagio molto espressivo
Scherzo: allegro molto
Rondo: allegro ma non troppo

The ‘Spring’ Sonata – the second of the two violin sonatas Beethoven composed between 1800 and 1801 for Count Moritz von Fries – is so beautifully written that it anticipates the last and most sublime of his violin sonatas, in G major Op.96, which is the supreme example of integrated scoring for violin and piano.

The first theme of the Sonata in F major is introduced not by the piano but by the violin, the instrument for which it was conceived. When it repeats the melody the piano prefers decorative runs to the violin’s wide leaps. The next main theme, readily transferable between the two instruments, has colour effects which depend on blends of piano and violin sound, like the bare octaves at the momentarily quiet beginning of the development section or the legato semiquavers shared by piano and violin four octaves apart at the end of that section.

Instead of combining slow movement and scherzo as in the other sonata written for Moritz von Fries, Beethoven offers – for the first time in these works – a fully characteristic, if brief, example of each. The Adagio seems strangely incomplete as it dies out after the mysterious tremolos uttered by violin and piano together. So the onset of the brightly witty Scherzo is all the more effective. When the unpredictable rhythms of the outer sections cause an apparent disagreement in ensemble it is a joke in essentially duo terms.

The material of the last movement – a delightful sonata rondo with a flowing theme suited equally well to violin and piano – is easily interchangeable between the two instruments. The piano’s recapture of the main theme in the right key, after the second episode, inspires the violin to its first use of pizzicato chords in Beethoven’s violin sonatas. And the way the piano and violin encourage each other in inventing rhythmic variants on the main theme, just before the coda, is what chamber music is all about.

Programme note © Gerald Larner

Violin Sonata in G major, Op.30 No.3 (1801–2)

Allegro assai
Tempo di minuetto (ma molto moderato e grazioso)
Allegro vivace

Beethoven’s three Violin Sonatas, Op.30 were dedicated to the Tsar of Russia and, in spite of the hard-won equality between the two instruments, published in 1803 as ‘Three Sonatas for the piano with the accompaniment of a violin’. With its lyrical charm, the third in G major could qualify as the ‘pastoral’ among Beethoven’s violin sonatas – and not only because of the echo of the last movement of the ‘Pastoral’ Piano Sonata in the first movement.

The work begins with a not very melodious rumble of semiquavers, on the two instruments in octaves. Its inspiration is essentially tuneful, however, as the melodic abundance of the Allegro assai demonstrates, despite the subsequent diversion into minor harmonies. The short development section is concerned exclusively and rather dramatically with the opening rumble. Compact and witty in the way the players engage with each other and slip into new tonal directions with clever modulations, the opening Allegro assai presents its musical ideas lucidly and works them out satisfyingly.

In its simplicity, the Tempo di minuetto is deceptive. Its combination of minuet and slow-movement features is as subtle as, in Beethoven’s day, it was rare. His qualification of the tempo heading, ma molto moderato e grazioso [but in a very moderate tempo and graceful], indicates that the composer wanted it both ways at once. Whichever way you take it, as minuet or slow movement or – in its episodic nature – as both, it is an inspired combination of the elegance of a dance and the emotional drive typical of a Beethoven slow movement.

The rustic third movement begins with a bagpipe accompaniment on the piano and a country-dance
tune (with a Russian flavour perhaps) on the violin. The construction is unsophisticated, amounting to
little more than repetitions of that material in an inexhaustibly resourceful variety of colours. There are obviously mischievous intentions behind it – particularly at the point where the fiddle apparently gets out of time and the accompanist begins the coda in a curiously wrong-sounding key – but it is no less affectionate for that.

Piano Sonata No.16 in G major, Op.31 No.1 (1801–2)

Sonata No.16 in G major, Op.31 No.1
Allegro vivace
Adagio grazioso
Rondo: Allegretto

The conventional numbering of Beethoven’s sonatas is misleading since, as mentioned above, he had already composed 20 sonatas before this one. The first three, however, appeared while he was in Bonn, while two others (Op. 49) were not printed until a little later than Op.31. Thus this sonata was the sixteenth that he published after moving to Vienna. The first edition, however, was full of misprints, and Beethoven was particularly appalled to find that four spurious bars had somehow been included in this sonata. He was so incensed that he arranged for a second edition of this and the following sonata to be brought out by a rival publisher (Simrock, of Bonn), sending him a list of some eighty corrections that Simrock duly adopted. It is therefore Simrock’s edition that forms the main basis for modern ones, although some elements in Nägeli’s could be more correct.

The first movement of Op.31 No.1 contains some rather comical elements, with the two hand soften not quite together, as if mocking bad pianists. The second subject, however, is a beautifully lyrical melody in the unexpected key of B major – the first time Beethoven had written a sonata with such an unusual key relationship. The second movement is even more forward-looking, constructed on a huge scale and lasting nearly ten minutes. Its opening ‘paragraph’ consists of four long ‘sentences’, all but the third of which begin with a trill. There follows a central section mainly in the minor, before decorated reprise of the entire opening paragraph, followed by an extended coda. The very slow harmonic pace means
that listeners have to think in much broader terms than usual in order to follow the musical argument. The final Rondo is more conventional, but full of Beethovenian energy throughout; and humorous elements come to the fore again towards the end, with a dramatic false ending, sudden rests and several changes of pace.

Note © Barry Cooper

Piano Sonata No.17 in D minor, Op.31 No.2 ‘The Tempest’ (1801–2)

Largo – Allegro – Largo – Allegro (alternating)

The nickname ‘The Tempest’ derives from one of many stories by Beethoven’s contemporary Anton Schindler that are almost certainly fictitious. Beethoven was a great admirer of Shakespeare, but there is no demonstrable connection between Shakespeare’s play and the sonata. Nevertheless, the rather tempestuous character of the first movement has enabled the name to stick, although there is far more subtlety in Beethoven’s ideas than could be conveyed by any nickname.

The opening chord, starting deep in the bass and spreading slowly upwards, is ambiguous in both key and function. It is an A major chord, but this proves not to be the key of the sonata; and although it sounds introductory, it is quickly incorporated into the main thematic argument of the rest of the movement, enabling it to serve several different functions at once: opening theme, preparation for the Allegro, and anticipation of a theme in which a D minor chord is firmly asserted note-by-note. The most extraordinary passage in the movement – indeed, in almost Beethoven’s entire sonata output – occurs towards the end, when the right hand has a recitative, imitating speech, over mysterious sustained chords that sometimes produce harmonic clashes with it. The passage has been likened to a voice from the tomb, or, as Czerny put it, ‘one complaining at a distance’.

The second movement also begins with a spread chord, but its mood offers complete contrast with the first – tranquil and gentle, with some beautifully decorative arabesques at the return of the main theme. The finale, according to Czerny, was invented by Beethoven in response to a horse galloping past the window. There are serious doubts about this claim, but one can imagine a horse’s gallop when listening to the accompanying figuration. The journey is long and the landscape bleak, but there are occasional dramatic events in the music that prevent monotony, and it concludes with a descending arpeggio that neatly mirrors the ascending one heard at the very beginning of the sonata.

Note © Barry Cooper

Piano Sonata No.18 in E flat major, Op.31 No.3 (1802)

Scherzo: Allegretto vivace
Menuetto: Moderato e grazioso – Trio – Menuetto
Presto con molto fuoco

Nägeli published this sonata somewhat after the other two, and it was also brought out in a London edition by Muzio Clementi. Although both editions were based on the same manuscript, which was sent from Zurich to London, there are several significant differences between them and it is not
always clear which is correct. In the last movement, for example, Nägeli omits the word ‘molto’ from the heading ‘con molto fuoco’ (with much fire), but it seems unlikely that Clementi just invented this.

The first movement once again begins with a sense of uncertainty, with the main key-chord not established until the eighth bar. Thereafter, however, the movement is fairly regular. Instead of the usual slow movement Beethoven substitutes a very witty scherzo in sonata form, with much use of staccato and sudden changes of register or volume. It is followed by a stately minuet that seems to recall the atmosphere of an 18th-century ballroom. The very fast finale, by contrast, suggests ‘nearly the effect of a hunting piece’ according to Czerny, and the whole sonata is sometimes nicknamed ‘The Hunt’ as a result.

Note © Barry Cooper

15 Variations and a Fugue on an Original Theme in E flat major, Op.35, ‘Eroica Variations’ (1802)

The year 1802 was one of crisis for Beethoven. By then he knew that his already impaired hearing was certain to worsen, so that his dual life as a composer and virtuoso pianist would become impossible. On the advice of his doctors he spent the summer staying in the town of Heiligenstadt, outside his adopted city of Vienna. There he wrote his so-called ‘Heiligenstadt Testament’, a document addressed to his friends and supporters in which he confronted the appalling prospect of his deafness, and appeared to be considering suicide. His inner self-belief and determination were so remarkable, however, that before long he emerged from his despair into a new and soaring phase of creativity. The eventual completion in 1804 of one of his supreme masterworks, the unprecedentedly large-scale Third Symphony in E flat major, led to its appropriate, but unofficial subtitling by its publisher as ‘Eroica’ (‘The Heroic’). Another project from this period, completed three years earlier in 1801, had been the ballet score Die Geschöpfe des Prometheus (‘The Creatures of Prometheus’) – based on the story of the authentically Beethovenian, fate-defying hero of Greek mythology who dared to challenge the power of the gods.

The Eroica Variations for piano, which were finished in the autumn of 1802, incorporate material that features both in the Third Symphony’s finale and in the Prometheus ballet. Beethoven’s preferred subtitle for his new piano work would have been ‘Prometheus Variations’, but his publisher once again won out. As with the symphony, however, the ‘Eroica’ concept does indeed suit the variations’ magnificent 25-minute stretch of commanding musical invention. Much of the keyboard writing looks ahead to the exploratory manner of Beethoven’s late sonatas – for instance, the use of accompanying trills, a device perhaps picked up and adapted from Bach’s Goldberg Variations for harpsichord. And the music’s rampant virtuosity shows that at this quite early point in his creative life, Beethoven was still also very much in touch with his prowess as a young lion of the piano.

The central idea on which the variations are based is a double theme, whose component possibilities can be explored and developed either separately, or – in a tour de force of technical mastery and ingenuity – combined. The title itself is something of a conundrum: there appear to be 19 variations altogether, but Beethoven evidently viewed the opening ‘theme’ and its own three variations as an introduction to the second, main theme, whose 15 variations then follow.

A single E flat chord commands our attention, and the ‘pre-first’ theme is presented in bare octaves, with its second half repeated; three variations begin to elaborate it. The main theme is then announced, singing lyrically above left-hand chords. In the extended sequence that now unfolds, Variation No.2 is remarkable for the cadenza-like flourish that interrupts its whirl of triplet figuration, No.6 is a canon at the octave, with the left hand imitating the right, and No.14 searches out remote harmonic regions in an intricately ornamented Largo. A transitional variation then leads into the three-part Fugue where, freed from the strict outlines of variation form, the music surges through one bold modulation after another. Eventually the theme returns, in a halo of accompanying trills, and is varied yet further before a conclusion which, in its way, is as remarkable as anything in the work – terse, firmly incisive and without a trace of bombastic grandstanding.

Programme note © Malcolm Hayes

Piano Sonata No.21 in C major, Op.53 ‘Waldstein’ (1804)

Allegro con brio
Introduzione: Adagio molto –
Rondo: Allegretto moderato – Prestissimo

It was little over a year after completing Op.31 when Beethoven began his next sonata, the ‘Waldstein’ (the nickname derives from the dedicatee Count Waldstein). Between the two works, however, lay his Eroica Symphony, in which his style suddenly showed major advances on anything that had gone before – especially in terms of size and scope. This increased grandeur reappears conspicuously in the ‘Waldstein’, which Beethoven labelled a ‘grand sonata’ to signal its impressive dimensions and complexity. Despite its awesome power, much of the sonata is marked to be played very quietly, but there is always a sense of suppressed energy, which breaks out from time to time in massive fortissimos.

The range of keys is wider than ever, and the second subject in the first movement is in E major, producing the same key relationship as in the first sonata we heard tonight, Op.31 No.1. There is also a remarkable contrast of registers, with the first theme beginning very low in the bass whereas the E major theme uses a much higher register. Beethoven exploits a wider keyboard compass than before, taking advantage of new developments in piano manufacture. Some authorities connect this sonata with his receipt of a new Erard piano with a wider compass shortly before he embarked on the work; but it is unclear how far this instrument played a role, since the sonata was being written for publication rather than personal amusement.

Initially Beethoven planned a gentle Andante between the first movement and the finale, but he withdrew this (issuing it separately) and substituted a mysterious Introduzione that leads into the final Rondo without a break. This Rondo has strikingly large dimensions, for the main theme alone is over sixty bars in length, even before one reaches the first episode. There is also a gigantic coda where the theme is greatly speeded up, and a dazzling technique is required to bring the work to a successful conclusion.

Note © Barry Cooper

Piano Sonata No.23 in F minor, Op.57, ‘Appassionata’ (1804–6)

1 Allegro assai
2 Andante con moto
3 Allegro non troppo

The ‘Appassionata’ Sonata in F minor, Op.57, is a landmark in musical history. At the time it was written, beginning in 1804, no other work for solo piano encapsulated such a range of expression and power, or demanded such virtuosity. Beethoven had only recently acquired a new Erard piano with an extended range of five-and-a-half octaves, down to bottom F – the choice of key for this work may not be unrelated, nor the fact that the music descends to that bottom F in the very first bar. This effect may
have lost its novelty on the modern piano, but the overall impact of the music remains undimmed.
This sonata is, like the ‘Eroica’ Symphony, one of the milestones of Beethoven’s middle period,
exemplifying its ‘heroic’ style.

The Allegro assai begins quietly and ominously, and the minor-key arpeggio is immediately shifted up a semitone to G flat. This ‘Neapolitan’ relationship between the tonic and the note a semitone higher plays an important role in this movement, not least in the recurring ‘fate’ motif (the rhythmic idea made famous in the Fifth Symphony). As with the earlier C major Sonata, crashing chords suggest full orchestral tuttis. The second theme is very closely related to the first, but cast in a radiant A flat major and, like so much middle-period Beethoven, this movement has a tight motivic cohesion.

The second movement is a set of variations on a simple chordal sequence – Beethoven was a master when it came to creating profound variations from the most unprepossessing building blocks. This acts as a sort of intermezzo before the final Allegro ma non troppo, which continues without a break. One of the great movements in the piano literature, this a moto perpetuo that to Czerny evoked ‘the waves of
the sea on a stormy night, while cries of distress are heard from afar’. The final Presto coda brings
the work to a tumultuous close. This sonata still makes an overwhelming impression today; it’s hard to imagine what contemporary audiences must have made of it.

Programme note © Tim Parry

Violin Concerto in D major, Op.61 (1806)

Allegro ma non troppo
Rondo, Allegro

Many great works have had their imitators, but few can claim to have been as influential as Beethoven’s magnificent Violin Concerto composed in 1806. Yet when the work first appeared, few would have believed it. First performed on 23 December 1806 in Vienna’s Theater an der Wien, the concerto was created for Franz Clement; leader of the theatre’s orchestra. The première was also a benefit concert for Clement, who was renowned as a gifted showman. Whether by mishap or deliberate choice, Clement ended up sight-reading much of the concerto on the night, interrupting the work with a composition of his own by playing on one string of the violin while holding the instrument upside down. As a consequence Beethoven’s concerto was not well-received, and it was hardly performed until after 1844, when the twelve-year old Joseph Joachim revived it in London under the baton of Felix Mendelssohn. Thereafter the piece became a standard part of the repertoire with both Brahms and Tchaikovsky among others clearly adopting the work as a model for their own violin concertos.

By 1806, Beethoven was no novice composing works for violin. He had already written several violin sonatas, including the famous Kreuzer, and also two Romances for violin and orchestra, which proved useful studies for the concerto’s lyrical style. Beethoven’s real innovation was to treat the concerto-form as something serious; indeed he fashioned a work that was more like a symphony than a showpiece. This may explain Clement’s antics at the première. He would have been concerned that the music’s poetical qualities would leave the public bored and disappointed. The work’s first sonata-form movement sets out a discursive musical argument in the orchestra. The five-note ‘knocking’ motto of the opening bars is confidently assertive, but when it is echoed sotto voce by the violins on
a D-sharp, it jars like an awkward question. This disruptive harmonic twist creates the main tension of the movement. After the orchestral exposition, the soloist rises like a bird out of the texture, before musing poetically on the main material. As the development section unfolds, it seems to grow more introverted. There is little opportunity for virtuoso display, so that when the orchestral recapitulation finally occurs, it has the effect of crashing in. The cadenza offers the soloist further opportunities for introspective poetry, and tonight Mr. Zukerman plays the version written by the great Austrian violinist Fritz Kreisler in 1958.

The reflective mood deepens in the comparatively brief Larghetto in G major. A theme of disarming simplicity is stated by the orchestra which the soloist decorates freely. A more forceful statement of the theme fails to disturb the violin’s prayerful tranquillity. Only at the theme’s last repetition does the music become more dramatic, but this is short-lived, acting only as a link to the finale. Now introversion gives way to a lilting six-eight theme in D major that has airy naturalness. Here are all the hallmarks of the pastoral style; bagpipe drones, hunting horns and rustic simplicity. The darker shadows have been banished, and each return of the dancing rondo theme provides further reassurance. In the coda, Beethoven indulges some virtuoso fireworks, but the concerto ends amiably; with balance rather than ostentatious triumph.

Turkish March, from The Ruins of Athens (1809)

Fashionable society in Vienna in the classical period was fascinated by the exotic and the bizarre – a fascination that left its mark on the work of the great classical composers. The organ works of Mozart are a typical example – written not for a conventional church or cathedral organ, but for an automatic mechanical instrument in a Museum of Curiosities, and designed to enhance the supernatural effect
of a waxwork effigy encased in an illuminated glass mausoleum. The exotic art, music and architecture of the neighbouring Ottoman Empire provided a specially rich source of stimulation; in the late 1700s ‘Turkish operas’ were all the rage, and in 1781 Mozart created a masterpiece in this unusual genre with his ‘Abduction from the Seraglio’. The colourfully-clad household troops of the Sultan had their own distinctive style of military music, with shrill wind instruments, bass drum, triangle and cymbals. This became known in Vienna simply as ‘Turkish music’, and it enjoyed a great vogue; ‘Turkish pedals’ were
added to the best pianos, which rang a little  bell and struck a padded hammer against the soundboard to imitate the drum. Among the many pieces written in the rhythmic ‘Turkish’ style, two have stood the test of time – Mozart’s famous Rondo alla Turca, and Beethoven’s March: it comes from a suite of incidental music that he wrote for August von Kotzebue’s drama The Ruins of Athens, and was first performed in Pest in Hungary in 1812.

Egmont Overture Op.84 (1809–10)

Sostenuto ma non troppo – Allegro con brio

In the early part of the nineteenth century, two of the leading artists who inspired the Romantic Movement were Goethe and Beethoven. Liberty, justice and the rights of the individual concerned both men who tried to live against the tide of social convention. Through their art they wanted to express a new vision for humanity. While Goethe, as a Privy Councillor in Weimar, viewed these matters with a practical perspective, Beethoven was more idealistic, using music to inspire the hearts of men. Because they shared many artistic and political opinions, Beethoven was drawn to Goethe’s play of 1787, Egmont. The Count of Egmont is a charismatic and principled Flemish freedom-fighter who resists the tyrannical authority of the Duke of Alba. Alba represents the interests of the Spanish who ruled the Netherlands at that time. He deceives Egmont into capture and condemns him to a martyr’s death. Egmont also loses his beloved Klärchen, when she commits suicide in despair at her predicament. Beethoven’s incidental music was written in 1810 for a new production of Goethe’s play at Vienna’s Burgtheater. The work is in ten sections, ending with the death of Egmont, but also includes this overture and a melodramatic depiction of Klärchen’s appearance to Egmont in a dream. Although the play ends tragically, the Netherlands succeeded in their struggle for independence against their Spanish oppressors, and Egmont’s death surely helped to secure that victory.

The Egmont Overture is among Beethoven’s most dramatic music, opening with an imposing unison chord and a slow introduction in F minor. The main thematic motto is played with great force by the strings. Dark and doom-laden, it could equally represent the ruthless power of the oppressor or the stubborn resistance of the oppressed. The bitter struggle between them is fated. It is answered by sweeter, more lyrical music in the winds, representing the peace and harmony to which righteous men aspire. A descending melodic fragment grows increasingly agitated, leading to the Allegro section. The main theme of the Allegro is obsessively defiant and aspiring, but runs into the motto from the introduction as if it were an obstacle. The development is also marked by a series of abrupt cadences which halt the music’s progress. The Allegro’s main theme is recapitulated, rising to an angry climax before the motto once again returns. The horns take it up heroically, but with devastating finality, the rest of the orchestra responds. It is the signal for Egmont’s execution and the crowd falls silent. A commotion develops, building to a burst of ecstatic trumpet fanfares. These are intended by Alba to silence the prisoner’s death cries, but they also announce the triumph which will surely follow Egmont’s noble sacrifice.

Piano Sonata No.26 in E flat major, Op.81a, ‘Les adieux’ (1809–10)

1 Das Lebewohl (Les adieux): Adagio – Allegro
2 Die Abwesenheit (L’absence): Andante espressivo
3 Das Wiedersehn (Le retour):
Vivacissimamente – Poco andante – Tempo I

Among Beethoven’s sonatas, ‘Les adieux’ (or ‘Lebewohl’) is exceptional in having an explicit programme. When Breitkopf & Härtel published the work in 1811, it produced two separate printings, one in German, one in French, though what Beethoven had wanted was a single bilingual edition – which would have been a symbolic gesture in those war-torn times.

The work grew out of the composer’s terrible experiences of Vienna in 1809, when Austria suffered defeat at the hands of the French, leaving the imperial family (which included the Archduke Rudolf of Austria, one of Beethoven’s most important patrons as well as a close personal friend and pupil) no choice but to flee the capital. That departure is made explicit by the opening horn call of this sonata (after which he wrote ‘Le-be-wohl’), unexpectedly harmonised and with a troubled chromatically falling bass-line; indeed, there’s an unsettling volatility to the entire piece, right through to the eruption of joy in the finale, its marking Vivacissimamente, an indication found nowhere else in Beethoven’s music.

The work is as tautly written as you’d expect of Beethoven by this stage in his career: the Allegro section of the first movement may launch with a new idea but in the bass there’s an inversion of the ‘Lebewohl’ motif and Beethoven builds an entire movement from just these two ideas, with the already short motifs deconstructed still further.

The brief second movement – little more than a narrow bridge between the two fast outer ones – has a halting tread, C minor at its most anguished, and – like that of the ‘Appassionata’ and ‘Waldstein’, it leads straight into the hectic finale.

There are parallels here with the closing movement of the Fifth Piano Concerto – also in E flat and also written for the Archduke. Friends are reunited in one of Beethoven’s most confidently surging movements, complete with jubilantly ringing bells, before giving way to an initially hushed development section that increases intensity and loudness. And Beethoven has one more trick up his sleeve: a slower epilogue, complete with an echo of the opening horn calls, a last moment of introspection before we’re swept up in utterly affirmative E flat major.

Symphony No.7 in A major, Op.92 (1811–12)

Poco sostenuto — Vivace
Presto — Assai meno presto
Allegro con brio

Beethoven began work on his Seventh Symphony during 1811, while staying in the spa town of Teplitz in the hope of improving his health, but it was not completed until 1812. By then, he was a famous man at the height of his powers, who had already written six ground-breaking symphonies. Yet the mood of the times remained uneasy because of the lingering threat of the Napoleonic wars. Beethoven had famously erased Napoleon as the dedicatee of his Eroica Symphony in 1804 on hearing that he had declared himself Emperor of the French. No longer Europe’s revolutionary saviour, by 1812 Napoleon had become the continent’s bogey-man.

Against this unstable background, the Seventh Symphony received its first performance in Vienna on
8 December 1813. The occasion was a charity concert for Austrian and Bavarian troops who had been wounded in the Battle of Hanau; scene of a minor tactical victory by Napoleon’s retreating Grand Armée. It was not intended to be an outright celebration, but there was growing relief that the proximity of military conflict was receding. Beethoven conducted the concert himself, which included Wellington’s Victory: his musical depiction of the English Duke’s success at Vitoria in Spain during another skirmish with the French. The gathering of musicians for the event was impressive. The orchestra featured many of the finest musicians of the day; Spohr, Hummel, Meyerbeer and Mozart’s rival, Salieri. The symphony was greeted with enthusiastic applause, and the second movement even had to be repeated. Throughout, Beethoven’s musical direction was eccentrically animated, as he leapt about with extravagant gestures.

Wagner famously described Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony as ‘the apotheosis of the dance’. The
symphony certainly possesses unprecedented rhythmic vitality. Yet this is not the aristocratic and tasteful dancing which inspired Bach’s Suites or the measured minuets of Haydn and Mozart. Instead we hear music that has spontaneous physicality, verging on the primitive. Elemental rhythms and pithy melodic fragments are repeated with obsessive intensity. However, the Dionysian mood is not apparent
immediately, as the work opens with the longest slow introduction of any Beethoven symphony; almost a movement in itself. The music is at first formal with the stately nobility of a traditional symphony, but distinctive rising scales soon take on a life of their own, opening up broad vistas before us. When the Vivace section finally breaks out, a dotted rhythmic ostinato in triple time drives the music forward relentlessly. It is a roller-coaster ride reaching a state of wild exuberance, as French horns whoop with joy in the closing bars.

The second movement is, by contrast, a gloomy march in A minor punctuated throughout by a plodding dactylic rhythm. A series of variations ensue with gathering intensity, rising to a tutti characterised by a sense of tragic fortitude. Relief comes as two episodes of sustained transcendence in A major, where the dactylic rhythmic figure remains prominent. At the movement’s close, with its energy utterly spent, gloom descends.

The scherzo is the most genuinely dance-like movement of all. It is in F major and harks back in part to the dancing peasants of the Sixth Symphony, but the music also has epic qualities which go far beyond the boisterous humour of the Pastoral. The two D major trio sections open up broad vistas again. At their climaxes, the music reaches for the stars. The trio material returns a third time, but it is a false reprise. Suddenly we are thrown into the abandon of the work’s Allegro finale; an insanely quick march, marked by syncopations which spill over the bar lines. Manic in its energy, the intensity subsides only briefly. The movement’s final surge over a dramatic ‘sawing’ pedal-point is one of Beethoven’s greatest masterstrokes, bringing the symphony home with a euphoria which leaves everyone breathless with excitement.

Piano Sonata No.30 in E major, Op.109 (1820)

1 Vivace, ma non troppo – Adagio espressivo –  Tempo 1 –
2 Prestissimo
3 Gesangvoll, mit innigster Empfindung

Beethoven’s three final sonatas are often bound together in performance and on recordings. But while it is true that there are certain links between them, not least motivically, each inhabits an entirely distinct emotional world, in the same way that each of the late string quartets possesses a highly developed individuality. What is worth remembering is that Beethoven was working on his choral masterpiece, the Missa solemnis, at the same time as Op.109, and their musical origins and workings-out are inextricably interrelated in his sketchbooks. The final works of Beethoven are dominated by extremes – both the most large-scale (his Hammerklavier Sonata, Diabelli Variations, the Missa solemnis and the Ninth Symphony) and the smallest, including the extraordinary, terse Op.126 Bagatelles. The germ of an idea that launches Op.109 in fact began life as a bagatelle. It is also striking that this was the sonata that followed the mighty, keyboard-berating Hammerklavier. It could hardly be in greater contrast: far from throwing down any gauntlet, it starts almost imperceptibly (the term Vivace gives little concept of its mood), and its key, E major, is diametrically opposed to the omnioptent B flat major of Op.106 – and one that he hadn’t visited since his ninth sonata, Op.14 No.1, written over two decades earlier. But if we know anything about late Beethoven, it is to expect the unexpected. The opening of Op.109 is also striking because it sounds almost improvised – like that of the Bach Partita we have just heard – and virtually weightless. Its unassuming quality does not last long, though, being rapidly interrupted by a slower, but passionate outburst and a switch to the minor. From the juxtaposition of these contrasting ideas Beethoven builds an entire movement, albeit a compact one.

The next movement follows without a break, Beethoven ensuring continuity by instructing the pianist to hold the sustaining pedal into the first note of the Prestissimo. But it is a false sense of continuity, with the composer thwarting our expectations yet again, this time with a concise movement full of dramatic intent – driven, where the Vivace, ma non troppo dreamed. This Prestissimo may be miniscule in length – a mere two and a half minutes in most performances – but its impact is out of all proportionto its size, a firecracker of a movement, hovering between fury and fear and building a sense of relentlessness through its insistent worrying of the slenderest of material, its jagged contrasts of rhythm unsettling the ear. It creates as full and compelling a world as Webern was to do a century and more later, in his terse masterpieces.

It is in the finale, though, where the weight of the sonata lies, a movement more than double the length of the previous two combined. And it revisits aspects of both of them, its almost Baroque-sounding theme echoing the unassuming quality of the very opening of the sonata. This forms the basis for six wide-ranging variations. Beethoven instructs his pianist to play it ‘Gesangvoll mit innigster Empfindung’ (‘Song-like and with the most ardent feeling’).

After a lyrical first variation, which develops the theme’s innate yearning quality, the second finds Beethoven beginning to fracture the elements of the theme, both rhythmically and melodically. This is followed by an Allegro vivace variation, which moves further still from the theme itself, though maintaining its harmonic progressions. Variation 4 reverts to the original tempo but the effect is of something speeded up, with a time signature of 9/8 (rather than the original 3/4) and triplets taking the place of quavers. This subdivision of the basic beat into increasingly smaller note values to create the illusion of an increased tempo is something of a feature of these late sonatas, culminating in the extraordinary finale of Op.111. With the fifth variation comes an increase in basic speed (as opposed to the illusion of one), played out with intense counterpoint.

The sixth variation reverts to the simplicity of the opening theme but through the rhythmic diminution that we heard in Variation 4, plus time-stopping trills – another favourite device of Beethoven at this stage of his career – the music attains an ecstatic, other-worldly quality. Finally, we hear one last utterance of the theme, unadorned; it has the same effect of homecoming after an epic journey as the return of the Aria at the end of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, and gives rise to a similarly complex array of emotions. 

Programme note © Harriet Smith

Piano Sonata No.31 in A flat major, Op.110 (1821)

1 Moderato cantabile, molto espressivo
2 Allegro molto
3 Adagio, ma non troppo – Arioso dolente – Fuga: Allegro, ma non troppo – L’istesso tempo di Arioso – L’inversione della Fuga

Nowhere did Beethoven produce a more tightly controlled, unified work from such highly differentiated movements than in his penultimate sonata, Op.110. It is cast from a small range of related motifs that occur and reoccur throughout the entire sonata. And he challenges convention by placing the structural emphasis on the finale rather than the first movement.

The outward gentleness of the opening movement, which rarely rises above mezzo-forte, belies its tautness of form, and the contrast with the brief but highly muscular Allegro molto scherzo – capricious, gruffly humorous, even violent – is extreme. Beethoven sneaks in references to two street songs popular at the time, which go by the tantalising names of Unsa Kätz häd Katzln ghabt (‘Our cat has had kittens’) and Ich bin lüderlich, du bist lüderlich (‘I’m dissolute, you’re dissolute’)!

The finale opens with a declamatory, recitative-like passage that begins in the minor, moving via a shadowy sequence of harmonies to an aria-like section, the rawness of its pained emotion laid bare. The mood switches again as Beethoven introduces a quietly authoritative fugue, based on a subject that bears more than a passing resemblance to the contours of the theme that opened the sonata.

Compared to the rugged fugue subject of the ‘Hammerklavier’ Sonata, this is almost anonymous-sounding, though what Beethoven does with it is anything but predictable. It builds to what we anticipate will be a majestic close, only to have its progress interrupted by the aria once more, its line now disjunct and almost sobbing for breath. The way in which Beethoven ducks into the major via a sequence of G major chords is a passage of pure radiance, one that the great pianist Edwin Fischer described as ‘like a reawakening heartbeat’. This leads to a second appearance of the fugue, upside down this time but now unstoppable in its progress, culminating in a magnificent and ultimately triumphant conclusion, closed with a sweeping arpeggio that is both reminiscent of the texture of the first movement and almost shocking in its abruptness.

Piano Sonata No.32 in C minor, Op.111 (1821–2)

1  Maestoso – Allegro con brio ed appassionato
2  Arietta: Adagio molto, semplice e cantabile

The key of C minor traditionally inspired from Beethoven works of vehemence and drama (just think of the Fifth Symphony or the Third Piano Concerto). But by the time of this, his final sonata, matters had become a lot more ambiguous. So, too, had the expectations of sonata form itself. On paper, this work looks quite peculiar – wrongheaded even, with just two movements, the second being the more extended by some distance. No wonder some contemporaries wondered if Beethoven’s profound deafness had affected his judgement (and his publisher even thought the finale was missing).

But this marriage of opposites was absolutely intentional, and it’s almost as if Beethoven uses one to resolve the other: setting fast against slow, appassionato against semplice, minor against major, with the seraphic C major second movement resolving the C minor angst of the first. And that angst is laid bare in the very opening bars of the Maestoso introduction, its starkly jagged writing surely inspiring Liszt when he came to write his B minor Sonata. Those dotted rhythms and the preponderance of diminished chords set the tone for the driven Allegro con brio, in which semiquaver motion contrasts with more rhetorical writing, giving it an almost desperate-sounding edginess as shards of the main motif, often dramatically accented, are thrown about in all ranges of the keyboard. The motif itself sounded ripe for contrapuntal treatment when we first heard it, and so it transpires, as it now fulfils its destiny as a full-blown fugue in a development section which abounds in contrast and again exploits the extremes of the keyboard – as if to remind us how far the instrument had developed since Beethoven’s first sonata. The movement finally comes to rest on a C major chord, pianissimo, apparently resolved but still sounding uneasy. And here it stays as the music edges into the Arietta finale.

The violence and the earthiness of the first movement are exchanged for a rapt, almost ethereal set of variations that become ever more weightless, tension gradually dissipating. But for all the formal restraints of this variation movement, it’s also one mired in mystery: as it opens you have no idea where Beethoven will take you. Strikingly, the music only once departs from C major (in Variation 5) and while the basic pulse is unchanging, the sense of momentum comes from the smaller and smaller subdivisions of the pulse and the increasingly intricate figuration of each variation. By the third variation the calm of the opening has become almost euphoric, its dotted rhythms forming a mad kind of dance; the fourth is calmer in mood, the theme presented over a murmuring demisemiquaver accompaniment; glistening trills adorn the penultimate, fifth, variation, a feature that continues into the sixth, the theme now in the uppermost realms of the keyboard. The brief coda reinforces the sense of calm. A more fitting, touching farewell to the piano sonata could not be imagined.

Programme note © Harriet Smith


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