Sunday, February 23, 2014

Beethoven, Kreutzer and Bridgetower: Together Again

This Wednesday's program with Market Square Concerts features violinist Ray Chen and pianist Julio Elizalde at Whitaker Center – concert-time, 8pm – with a sonata written by a 22-year-old Mozart and another written by Beethoven at 32 (he was, by comparison, a bit of a late-bloomer, genius-wise). In between there's Pablo de Sarasate, one of the great 19th-Century virtuosos represented by his gypsy showcase, Zigeunerweisen or “Gypsy Airs.”

On the previous post, here, you can hear clips of the Mozart and Sarasate played by Gil Shaham, plus hear Chen play the finale of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto and some Paganini as well as talk about his “digital music stand” with its foot-powered page-turning device.

Beethoven in 1803
This post is about the Beethoven sonata on the program, as he called it on the manuscript's title page, “Sonata for Piano and Violin obligato in a very [brilliant] concertante style like a Concerto.” He soon crossed out the word “brilliant.”

It was published as the Violin Sonata in A Minor, Op.47. We know it as the “Kreutzer” Sonata.

When we think of “masterpieces,” we tend to imagine a composer taking his time with its creation – a great deal of forethought, careful planning, deep thoughts and considerable artistic concentration and conviction. Imagine Beethoven – with his wild hair, wilder expression, the Titan wrapped in Divine Inspiration. Think of “masterpieces” like his 5th Symphony, not to mention his 3rd or 9th...

Here's how it came down with this particular violin sonata.

First of all, there's the A Major Sonata, Op. 30, No. 1 – you can hear a classic performance with David Oistrakh and Lev Oborin, here  – composed between 1801 and 1802, shortly after he'd finished his first six string quartets and the 1st Symphony. It might not seem a very “great” work, compared to the one published as Op. 47, more in the tradition of Mozart and, to an extent, his teacher Josef Haydn.

The third movement is the key, in this connection.

Originally, Beethoven had composed a much larger, much more powerful and far less “classical” finale, a sonata-form movement of, by comparison, epic proportions, and it made the whole sonata lop-sided, so he put it aside and wrote the less assuming set of variations that now concludes this delightful work.

But what to do with this “rejected” movement? It needed a more powerful couple of movements to make sense of it and it clearly required a better class of performer when it came to that.

In early 1803, he met George Bridgetower, a “mulatto” violinist born in Poland but of English paternity.

Bridgetower in 1800
Bridgetower's father was of West Indian (possibly Barbadian) descent employed as a servant in the court of Prince Esterhàzy, the same Hungarian prince who employed Haydn. With a nod to “Fifty Shades of Downton Abbey,” Bridgetower's mother was a domestic servant in the household of a German princess who had married a Polish prince and it was at Prince Radziwill's estate in the fall of 1778 (some sources say 1779) that Bridgetower was born, most likely within the requisite time after a visit by the Radziwills to the estate of Esterhàza.

The term “mulatto” was a generic word for “mixed-race” and today, Bridgetower is usually referred to as an “African-English” violinist whose father was from England's American colonies, whose mother was German and who was born in Poland (borders being much more flexible politically than culturally in the 18th Century). Let's leave it at that.

He was already concertizing in 1789 – do the math – and by 1791 had gone to London where the Prince Regent (later King George IV) took an interest in his education. The Prince employed him as a violinist in his orchestra. Bridgetower gave 50 solo concerts in London during this decade. There is also mention of a performance given in Paris that was attended by the American, Thomas Jefferson (presumably without Sally Hemings in his entourage).

In 1802, young Bridgetower, now 24, visited his mother who now lived in Dresden with another son who was a cellist. While there, he traveled to Vienna to give some concerts and was introduced by one of his patrons, Prince Lichnowsky, to another artist the Prince supported, the composer Ludwig van Beethoven.

They apparently hit it off quite well.

They agreed to give a recital, scheduled for May 24, 1803, at Vienna's “Augarten,” a combination park and restaurant that often gave public concerts. This particular concert was set for 8:00am. That's “a.m.” as in morning. I can't imagine any self-respecting free-lance musician these days agreeing to play a concert at 8am even if it involved a free breakfast, but these were different times.

These were, however, quite popular concerts and were organized by no less a musician than Ignaz Schuppanzig, one of the best-known violinists in Vienna and leader of a quartet that would later premiere works by both Beethoven and Schubert. They were well attended and usually well received: performing at one of these concerts was a major public appearance.

Thank God that tradition has not survived, but I digress...

Anyway, how much time they had given themselves for this program seems to be lost to history – or for that matter, what else may have been on the program. But it remains famous because Beethoven decided to recycle that abandoned finale and write two new movements for a violinist as talented as Bridgetower, one who could match the virtuosity this discarded finale required.

Now, there are sketches for ideas that ended up in this sonata dating back to 1801 but that doesn't mean he began “writing” it then – that was not Beethoven's way. His piano student Carl Czerny said the first movement of this sonata was written in four days – very possible: we know Beethoven was on a tight deadline with Bridgetower's concert, but it might have been easier if he'd had some ideas already knocking around in his sketchbooks.

What he did with those ideas is where the creative process came into play.

But four days?

This would be called “white heat.” Listen to the first movement and imagine what it would have taken to get all this down on paper – long before the days of computer programs and the ability to cut-and-paste – in four days.

In this performance, Nathan Milstein is joined by pianist Georges Pludermacher:
= = = = =

= = = = =

Watching performers live is always a revelation: what did Pludermacher not like about the chord he played at 10:12?

This brings to mind the anecdote Bridgetower later relayed about that early-morning premiere. Near the beginning, Beethoven played a great wash of an arpeggio – at 1:48 in this performance. Though Milstein doesn't take the repeat, imagine that he played a big arpeggio the second-time-around at 1:38 instead of what's written, imitating what Beethoven would do a few measures later?

That's what Bridgetower did and, according to him, Beethoven looked up, rather surprised, but smiled his approval. (Notice, however, he didn't leave it in...)

So now he had a first movement and a last movement (the recycled finale from last year's Op. 30 No. 1 Sonata). All he had to do was finish a 2nd movement.

Given two sonata-form movements, the slow middle movement needed to be, for best contrast, a set of variations. Unfortunately, white-heat or not, the night before the recital, Beethoven had still not completed this movement.

In fact, it wasn't until 4:30am that Beethoven called in his student Ferdinand Ries and told him to get copying – Bridgetower needed his violin part for a concert scheduled to begin 3½ hours later.

Unfortunately, the part wasn't finished in time and so Bridgetower sight-read the part from Beethoven's hand-written score, standing behind him and looking over his shoulder.

Now, I've seen photos of Beethoven's original handwritten manuscripts and I can't imagine, writing at this speed, he was any neater than usual: here's the opening page of this sonata but whether it's the sketch or the later “fair copy” sent to the publisher isn't known. The original manuscript is reported as “lost” in other sources, so I'm guessing this is his “careful” hand-writing.

opening page of "Kreutzer" Sonata MS
Here's a manuscript of the Cello Sonata Op. 69 written a couple of years later which is more typical of Beethoven's calligraphy. Imagine trying to sight-read this?

Reportedly, Beethoven hadn't completely written out everything in the piano part, so whole measures were often blank (try following that!) but that didn't mean he was making it up on the spot: he knew how it would go, so he could just fill in the blanks.

Not so for the violinist...

Anyway, here's the 2nd Movement of the sonata, in this performance with Pinchas Zukerman (mispelled in the YouTube posting) with pianist Marc Neikrug:
= = = = =

= = = = =

Whatever we might imagine – the sight-reading, the calligraphy, the hour of the performance – the second movement went well enough.

The finale, of course, had been completed a year earlier and was already copied out and ready to go.

In this performance, it's Gidon Kremer and Marta Argerich:
= = = = =

= = = = =

Seeing that this is the Violin Sonata No. 9, it's easy to think it's a fairly late work – after all, he only wrote 10 violin sonatas, didn't he?

But it's actually a fairly early work, written when he was 32: composing it for this 1803 concert, he had just finished a large-scale oratorio in March, Christ on the Mount of Olives, and was at work on a new symphony, at this stage to be called the “Bonaparte” Symphony and which, after its completion, would be rechristened the Eroica.

Some sources call it the Sonata in A Minor and others, the Sonata in A Major. Truth is, the bulk of the first movement is in A Minor but it begins with a slow introduction where only the first four measures are clearly in A Major. So, technically, it should be the “Sonata in A Minor.”

More important might be the name we know this sonata by: the “Kreutzer” Sonata.

Admittedly, citing the low-level Austrian monetary unit at the time, the kreuzer which was the equivalent of 4 pennies, I nearly convinced a colleague that the sonata was written to repay a friend of Beethoven's who'd bought lunch.

There was also the famous catcall made at the premiere of the Eroica – “I'll give you another kreuzer if you'll make it stop!” Another time, I joked that remark had been made about this particular sonata and that's why it's called that - it's quite possible somebody would believe it.

And that was before the days of the Internet.

No, really, the sonata is known as “The Kreutzer Sonata” because Beethoven had a falling-out with Bridgetower not long after the premiere.

The original manuscript was not only dedicated to Bridgetower, he even light-heartedly inscribed on the score, “Sonata per un mulattico lunatico.”

But they were hanging out (perhaps right after this performance) when Bridgetower (himself a tall, handsome man) made an off-color remark about a woman it turns out was a friend of Beethoven's, and the composer, a man of conservative morals (witness his issues over his brothers' private-lives and especially the incident of the Sister-in-Law he nicknamed the “Queen of the Night”), took offense at this.

In fact, he was so offended, he asked to have the manuscript of his sonata back and threatened to withdraw the dedication when it would be published.

Despite all Bridgetower's protests and apologies, that's exactly what Beethoven did when he sent it to his publisher in 1805.

When dedications were often a way to “curry favor” among the aristocracy, the wealthy or the simply famous, “name-dropping” in the best (or worse) sense of networking, Beethoven apparently figured “Who was Bridgetower, after all?” and decided he would dedicate this grand sonata to the greatest violinist of the day – who happened to be Rodolphe Kreutzer.

Now, Kreutzer lived in Paris and it seems, at this time, Beethoven, tired of the backwater that Vienna seemed to be becoming, was thinking he might pull up stakes and move to the French capital. He was writing a Bonaparte Symphony in honor of the French consul, Napoleon Bonaparte, and certainly an inside track with the city's foremost violinist wouldn't hurt.

Two things happened: Bonaparte became the Emperor Napoleon, the direct opposite of Beethoven's political inclinations, and the Symphony was recast as the Eroica instead.

Kreutzer, for his part, examined this odd piece sent to him and thought it unplayable (despite the fact it had already been played), claiming that Beethoven hadn't the least idea how to write for the violin. Consequently, he never performed it.

Today, Rodolphe Kreutzer is primarily known for having Beethoven's violin sonata dedicated to him. And George Bridgetower, who inspired at least the first two movements, died in poverty and completely forgotten, remembered today only in conjunction with this sonata's origins.

But of course, other sources indicate that when Bridgetower died, he left his rather considerable estate of ₤1,000 to his daughter, so who knows...?

(I'd give a kreuzer to know the facts...)

But hardly the stuff you'd expect would yield a masterpiece...

By the way, you can read my post about the novella written by Leo Tolstoy (a climactic moment in the plot takes place during a performance of this sonata, giving the book its title) and also the string quartet Leos Janáček composed inspired by it - at my blog Thoughts on a Train.

Dick Strawser

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