Ludwig van Beethoven was born in Bonn, then an independent electorate, probably on December 16, 1770 (his baptismal certificate is dated the 17th), and died in Vienna on March 26, 1827.
Beethoven composed his Sonatina in C major for Mandolin and Fortepiano in 1796, probably in Prague, for the Countess Josephine Clary. We lack specific information about its early performance history. Performance time: about four minutes.
Although the mandolin family can be traced back nearly four and a half centuries and encompasses a variety of designs, the instrument classically exhibits a characteristic pear shape. Mandolins originated in Italy, and in the seventeenth century their relatively humble repertoire emanated entirely from that nation. By the eighteenth century, Italian composers such as Antonio Vivaldi were using the mandolin widely in solo and chamber music. As Italian musical culture swept up past that nation’s borders, the mandolin began to appear in the scores of northern Baroque composers, such as in Handel’s oratorio Alexander Balus (1748) and Johann Adolphe Hasse’s Achille in Sciro (1759). A parallel version of the mandolin evolved in Naples during the eighteenth century, its four courses (pairs) of strings tuned in fifths, just like those of a violin. This meant violinists could double on the mandolin without a great deal of extra study, which led to the instrument’s increasing exposure and popularity throughout Europe during the Classical era. Mozart gave the mandolin some of its most memorable pages as a featured instrument in the opera Don Giovanni, where it is used to accompany that famous lothario in a serenade. The mandolin’s popularity declined in the nineteenth century, though the instrument did maintain a toe-hold in southern Italy, and by the early twentieth century Italian emigration spread the instrument again to international popularity.
Ludwig van Beethoven enriched the mandolin’s repertoire with four compositions, all of which were written in short order, apparently in 1796, in every case for mandolin with keyboard accompaniment. None of these pieces was published in his lifetime, and so each is identified not with an opus number but rather with the catalogue designation WoO, which is an abbreviation for Werk ohne Opuszahl (“work without opus number”). The Sonatina in C major, WoO 44a (performed here) was all but certainly written for the Countess Josephine Clary (1777-1828) of Prague, daughter of Count Philipp Clary-Aldringen and his wife, Barbara, née Countess Schaffgotsch. Although we know little about Josephine’s upbringing, there can be no doubt that it included a rich dose of music lessons. She was a double-threat as a performer: a soprano singer as well as a mandolin virtuoso. Beethoven met her in the course of a trip to Prague he undertook from February through April 1796. In November 1797, Josephine married Count Christian Clam-Gallas, who helped found the Prague Conservatory, and their home gained a reputation for its musical evenings. Beethoven apparently renewed his acquaintance during an ensuing visit to Prague, in 1798—at least so we surmise in light of the comment by the Czech composer Václav Tomášek that “I heard Beethoven for the third time at the house of the Count von C …” (which was almost certainly short for “Clam-Gallas”).
Surely the Countess would have been seduced by Beethoven’s little Sonatina in C major—and little it is, running perhaps three and a half minutes counting all repeats. There is no point in hoping to find Beethovenian monumentality in this charming moment musical. Beethoven’s title would suggest something in an abbreviated sonata form, and one could read the piece that way if one were liberal about definitions. In real terms, though, the piece sounds more like a little rondo, with the principal refrain making three appearances, separated by one episode of contrasting material in the dominant key and another in the parallel minor.
The autograph manuscript of this Sonatina was preserved in the Clam-Gallas archives in Friedland, Bohemia, and went unnoticed until 1912, when the musicologist Arthur Chitz brought it to the public’s attention through an article on Beethoven’s mandolin music in the Viennese cultural magazine Die Merker, which printed this sonatina in an appendix to the article. Chitz pointed out that the autograph carries the inscription “Pour la belle J. par L.V.B.” (“For the lovely J. by L.V.B.), which leaves little doubt that this amiable, entertaining work was written for Countess Josephine
—James M. Keller
More About the Music
RECORDINGS: For the Sonatina—Alison Stephens, assisted by Richard Burnett on fortepiano (Amon Ra) | Duilio Galfetti, assisted by Diego Fasolis on fortepiano (Arts Music) | The C major Sonatina is also currently available on CD in transcriptions featuring guitar, cello, recorder, and panpipes.
READING: Beethoven, by Maynard Solomon (Schirmer Books) | Beethoven, by William Kinderman (University of California Press) | Beethoven: The Music and the Life, by Lewis Lockwood (W.W. Norton) | Beethoven, by Barry Cooper (Oxford, Master Musicians Series) | The Beethoven Compendium, edited by Barry Cooper (Thames and Hudson) | Thayer’s Life of Beethoven, in its most recent revision by Elliott Forbes (Princeton University Press) | Beethoven and his World: A Biographical Dictionary, by Peter Clive (Oxford)
DVD: Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony explore the composer and his world in Beethoven and the Eroica, part of our Keeping Score series (SFS Media). Also available at keepingscore.org.