What: Violin Sonatas by Beethoven, Cesar Franck, and Claude Debussy; and Bela Bartók's 2nd Rhapsody for Violin & Piano
When: Wednesday, Jan. 9th, 2019 at 8pm
Where: Market Square Presbyterian Church in downtown Harrisburg
Tickets: Tickets are $35, $30 for seniors and $5 for college students. Tickets are free for school students and $10 for one accompanying adult. For tickets and information, go to www.marketsquareconcerts.org/concerts or call 717 221-9599 (remaining tickets will be available at the door).
If you remember a few seasons ago, there was a young Hungarian violinist, Kristóf Baráti, playing our January concert and I don't think many people in the audience had heard of him before; plus he was playing a daunting program of solo violin music by Ysaÿe, Bartók, and Bach. If you were there, you understood why he was engaged to return soon for an all-Bach solo program plus a performance of the Khachaturian concerto with the Harrisburg Symphony.
This January's concert will feature the young Spanish violinist, Francisco Fullana, winner of the 2018 Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Career Grant, who, with pianist Jiayi Shi, will play works by Beethoven, Franck, Debussy, and Bartók.
If you need any convincing to go hear this concert, consider Fullana is a protege of Midori, one of the leading violinists of the day; and then listen to a few minutes of his performance of the Brahms Violin Concerto with Gustavo Dudamel and the “El Sistema” Orchestra of Venezuela:
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(If you don't have time for the entire concerto, the 1st movement begins at 0:32, the soloist enters a little after 3:00; the cadenza begins at 17:00; the 2nd movement begins at 22:10; and the 3rd movement runs from 30:40 to 38:16 – plus there's some Bach for an encore at 41:34.)
In this video, Mr. Fullana and Ms. Shi perform the rarely-heard (and considerably briefer) Violin Sonata by Enrique Granados, recorded in March, 2018 at the Avery Fisher Career Grant Ceremony in New York City.
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And if you need any more convincing, he'll be playing the 1735 "Mary Portman" Guarneri del Gesù violin of 1735, a legendary instrument once belonging to the legendary violinist, Fritz Kreisler, and considered one of the best violins in the world today.
The program consists of three violin sonatas – one of Beethoven's less frequently performed ones; plus the only ones written by Franck and Debussy – and the 2nd Rhapsody by Bela Bartók. Beethoven at 30 during an incredibly productive creative burst at the beginning of his career; Cesar Franck at 63, writing a wedding present for his friend, Eugene Ysaÿe, near the end of his career; Debussy at the end of his life, already ill with cancer; and Bela Bartók, writing this rhapsody in 1928 following his 4th and 5th String Quartets, at the height (and in the middle) of his career.
This post is about Beethoven and his Violin Sonata in A Minor, Op. 23.
(For background about Cesar Franck's A Major Violin Sonata, including a 1937 recording of Heifetz and Rubinstein, check out the next post, here. The concluding post in this series features the Debussy Violin Sonata and Bartok's 2nd Rhapsody which includes recordings of Josef Szigeti and Bela Bartók playing the Debussy Sonata in 1940 and the Rhapsody with the violinist who gave it its premiere in 1929 recorded in 1974.)
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Technically, works like this one were called “Sonatas for Piano with the accompaniment of a Violin.” These days, we think of them as “Violin Sonatas” and often forget to mention there's a pianist or even who the pianist is. Or refer to the pianist as “the accompanist” as if it's something demeaning (the general assumption, when I was a student, “if you can't play well enough to be a soloist, you can always become an accompanist”). The proper term, these days, is “collaborative pianist.”
All that historical perspective and its various nuances aside – (uhm, should the violinist stand behind the piano?) – let's start with a performance of the complete sonata in one video-clip coordinated with the score (at least you don't have to turn the pages).
When I first found this video, I thought “this is a really good performance!” Then I scrolled down and saw the violinist is Kristóf Baráti – and the pianist is Klara Würtz.
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It's in three movements, the usual number of movements for a sonata back then (anything with four movements was often termed a “grand sonata” which had nothing to do the grandeur of the music). The first movement is in a traditional “sonata form” – a first theme followed by a contrasting second theme in a contrasting key (if it's a sonata in a minor key, then the secondary theme is usually in a related major key, according to the Classical Style Book's Standard Operating Procedure) which forms a unit called “the Exposition” which is usually meant to be repeated; then there's the Development Section where bits of the different themes may be taken apart and move off into other keys with a sense of instability and contrasting drama compared to the Exposition; then, stability returns to the home key, called “the tonic” and the second theme is heard in the tonic key as well; there may be a wrap-up segment called a “coda” or “tail” to bring the movement's implied drama to a satisfying resolution.
The second movement is usually a slow movement but this is a more “walking” tempo than a truly slow one, and the adjective scherzoso means “playful.” It too is in sonata form, something that usually implies greater heft and seriousness, certainly more drama, but here there's a kind of playful cheekiness to the idea – there's even one of those “most intellectual of musical procedures, a fugue” hinted at along the way. It's as if Beethoven is tossing off all these ideas just for the sheer fun of it. Then the “minor key intensity” returns with the energetic opening of the finale but some of the contrasting sections almost come to a stop – or at least the energy does – before the opening ideas comes back and push us forward.
I know those who don't read music might not be interested in the score, so if you'd prefer to watch the performers, here's another violinist familiar to Central PA music-lovers, Augustin Hadelich who's appeared with the Harrisburg Symphony three times, now, here with pianist Charles Owen.
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Then, in 1801, he composed his ballet, The Creatures of Prometheus, and was working on four new piano sonatas.
In the midst of this, he worked on two violin sonatas envisioned as a pair but published separately as Op.23 and Op.24. The one in A Minor is the “dramatic” one and the F Major, the “calm” one (its laid-back mood prompted someone to call it the “Spring” Sonata and the nickname has stuck, though Beethoven had nothing to do with it). Begun in 1800, they were both published in October, 1801.
With the 250th Anniversary of Beethoven's birth looming over us in December of 2020, this perhaps most revered composer in the firmament of Classical Music will hardly need such a celebration to have his music heard. There will be commemorative performances of his greatest or most popular works and we'll all wonder in amazement that, standard mythology aside, these could have been created by a mere mortal, and one who was deaf, at that.
One way to listen to Beethoven and actually learn something about his creative evolution – because it's a long road between his earliest works and those Late String Quartets, despite his death at the age of 56 – is to hear them chronologically. This is not as easy as it sounds, since the Opus Numbers are not always a good indication of when a piece was written or of its context with other works written around the same time. Plus, being the composer he was, working out the details over a long span of time – interesting for a composer who was the reigning King of Improvisors in Vienna – a process that might have begun years before it was completed or published, he often worked on several pieces at the same time; or at least their gestations overlapped.
And another habit we tend to overlook now, having become used to the 19th Century tradition of working on one piece till it's finished, is how composers of the 18th Century, both Baroque and Classical, tended to create sets of pieces – Corelli and Vivaldi writing violin concertos or trio sonatas by the dozen (for instance, Vivaldi's famous Four Seasons are only the first four of the twelve concertos of Op. 8); Bach presenting his Brandenburg Concertos as a set of six (not individually, not even as a collection of individual concertos, but a numbered set of not five, not seven, but six different pieces); Haydn writing quartets in sets of six (as did Beethoven in his first quartets published as Op.18), and so on. There was a larger awareness to the “compositional question”: how many different ways can I use the same forms, the same keys, even just the same 12 notes over and over again and still come up with something different?
And so Beethoven's pair of violin sonatas should be considered a “unit” just as he would later write a pair of symphonies at a time, often simultaneously or one-after-the-other before, then, waiting a few years to go on to the next. The old complaint that Beethoven's Even-Numbered Symphonies aren't as “good” (or certainly “not often played”) as the Odd-Numbered Symphonies – 3rd & 4th, 5th & 6th, 7th & 8th – lies in the fact the more dramatic ones of the pairs seem bolder and more extroverted (and more popularly appealing) than the quieter, by comparison more introverted ones. I mean, the contrast between the 5th and its companion 6th, the Pastorale, says it all. But also keep in mind, after the epic universality of the 9th, he was sketching an apparently mellow and expansive 10th at the time of his death.
So here's a dramatic violin sonata in a minor key – actually in the key of A Minor – very much in the Classical Viennese Style of Mozart and Haydn (keeping in mind, as a student of Haydn, Beethoven's original plan as a teenager was to go to Vienna and study with his idol, Mozart; too bad Mozart had died before he could work it out so, oh well, then, he'll go study with Haydn).
The so-called “Spring” Sonata, its companion, is entirely different: where the A Minor is, at least in outer movements, energetic and often turbulent, the F Major, a mellower tonality on the strings of a violin, is calm and, for lack of a better word, smiling, bringing to mind Beethoven enjoying his countryside walks outside the bustle of Vienna – but here, a further “by the way” is required: do not follow down the garden path of thinking “ah, here is Beethoven imitating his impressions of nature, a bird singing, a brook babbling...” Wherever the music might eventually take him, it always began with a sense of Classical architecture and proportion. The scope of that would, eventually, expand beyond anything considered “normal” for the times.
Anyway, back to 1801. Assuming you've listened to the recordings of Beethoven's A Minor Violin Sonata earlier in this post and heard the little middle movement which is a combination slow movement and scherzo (not too slow but not a dance, either), here's the slow movement of the companion F Major Violin Sonata, again with Kristóf Baráti and Klara Würtz - and you'll hear two different responses out of the many possible answers to the question, “how do I write a contrasting middle movement which has a different balance both architecturally and emotionally to the two more significant outer movements?”
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Early sketches for these two sonatas are mixed into a notebook along with sketches for the Op.22 Piano Sonata in B-flat Major which he completed in 1800 (it wasn't published until 1802, a delay which annoyed him). The Violin Sonatas also took a while to find their way into print: not only was Beethoven a slow, pains-taking composer, often working out details on several compositions over the same period of time, his publishers were often slow to complete the process.
The intent had been to offer them as a pair, a companion to the set of three published in 1799 as Op.12 and dedicated to Antonio Salieri, but something happened – one story is that the A Minor was printed on larger paper than the F Major and so, since they couldn't be bound in a single volume, rather than becoming Op.23 No. 1 and Op.23 No. 2, they became Op.23 and Op.24. Curiously, Op.24 had been the number agreed upon for The Creatures of Prometheus since Beethoven had already arranged to have the piano score (a reduction of the full, orchestral score) of Prometheus published as Op.24. The ballet was subsequently (for some reason) given the later number, Op.43.
Beethoven the Student hoped to carve a niche for himself in Imperial Vienna as a recognized and successful professional composer by mastering the current Classical Style, but it is intriguing to hear, amidst all these works of classical perfection the average listener today would find “Haydn-like,” there are works that sound to us so “Romantic” (in the stylistic sense of the word) it's surprising to discover some of them were actually written at the same time.
If you compare the piano sonatas, for instance, with the violin sonatas of the period, the piano ones seem mostly more “advanced” chronologically – in other words, a more 19th-Century style than evocations of 18th Century Viennese classicism, more what we associate with the maturer, “Romantic” Beethoven – and yet the turbulent opening of the C Minor Piano Sonata known as the Pathetique contrasted with its aching lyricism in the famous slow movement was published as Op. 13 and actually dates from 1799! While the dreamy 1st movement (which, uncharacteristically is the slow movement) prompted one critic to call it the “Moonlight” Sonata, the C-sharp Minor Piano Sonata, Op.27 No. 2, ends with tempestuous virtuosity in what might have earned it the nickname “Thunderstorm” from somebody else – and yet it was composed in 1801, within a year of the A Minor Violin Sonata.
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It is always tempting to turn details from a composer's biography into influences on the music written at the time. The “Moonlight” Sonata is dedicated to a beautiful, young, not yet married countess named Julie Guicciardi (he called her “Giulietta” in her dedication) whom Beethoven was supposedly in love with. Smitten, perhaps, and she was the cousin of the two Brunsvik sisters who were close friends and piano students of his at the time (Julie herself studied with him briefly) – one of a musician's major sources of income would've been teaching the unmarried daughters of the upper class how to play the piano since they were expected to provide the household with entertainment in the days before TV and stereo sound systems (as for other duties, you hired cooks and maids for the housework). But sad to say, the dedication to Countess Guicciardi isn't quite so romantic as that would imply: he was not thinking of her, certainly not depicting his feelings or moods inspired by her when writing the piece. In fact, the dedication was an afterthought.
Normally, dedications were like an author getting a blurb from somebody famous to grace the new novel's cover and attract potential buyers with the thought, since the dedicatee's name often appeared in large print on the title page, “well, if So-and-So endorses him, he must be a good composer.” In this sense, Beethoven dedicating his first set of piano sonatas to Haydn was not just out of gratitude to his long-suffering (and frequently absent and uninspiring) teacher, just as dedicating the first set of violin sonatas, Op. 12, to Antonio Salieri was also primarily political. Yes, Beethoven had studied (briefly) with Salieri – the art of setting words to music being the course – but Salieri, all that unpleasant Mozart business aside (rumors!), and Haydn were still the most politically powerful musicians in Vienna! Call it “networking.”
Dedications also were a way of thanking patrons, those aristocrats or wealthy citizens who supported a composer with financial remuneration or who, in a sense, commissioned a work. Beethoven's Op. 1, a set of piano trios, was dedicated to Prince Lichnowsky who would receive many such dedications until problems arose between the two not always well-tempered friends. The Op. 18 Quartets were dedicated to Prince Lobkowitz as would be the Eroica Symphony and several other significant works for similar long-term support. It was through Lobkowitz he would also meet many important amateur (and often wealthy, well-placed) musicians like the Archduke Rudolph who would eventually become a piano student of Beethoven's and his only composition student, in addition to receiving numerous dedications himself (the “Archduke” Trio, for one; the Missa solemnis for another). The fact Rudolph was also the Emperor's youngest brother didn't hurt.
|Title Page of the Original Edition of the "Sonata for Piano" [then, in smaller letters] "with a Violin"|
So who is this set of two violin sonatas dedicated to? Who is Count Moritz von Fries?
|Moritz von Fries & his wife, 1801|
Beethoven subsequently dedicated his String Quintet Op. 29 to Fries and, in 1812, more significantly, the 7th Symphony. Though written in 1814, Schubert published his famous song Gretchen am Sprinnrade in 1821 with a dedication to Count Moritz von Fries.
|The Family Palace of Moritz von Fries, Schloss Vöslau|
Between his palaces in Vienna and Vöslau where he frequently hosted lavish parties, Fries owned numerous paintings by Rembrandt, Raphael, and Dürer, and had about 16,000 volumes in his libraries.
|The Count & Family (c.1805)|
On the other hand, he also served as the model for the main character in a popular 1834 play by Viennese dramatist, Ferdinand Raimund, called The Wastrel. (Hmmm...)
Fries' heir, Moritz II, however, born in 1804 (see family portrait, above left), managed to survive this turn of events by marrying the heiress to the next wealthiest banking family in Austria in 1836 and, after buying back the family castle at Vöslau, apparently lived happily ever after.
Stay tuned for future posts about the sonatas of Franck and Debussy, and Bartók's Rhapsody.