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The San Francisco Symphony and the Fine Arts Museums are thrilled to once again present the acclaimed Chamber Music Series at the Legion of Honor. Bask in the bright, brilliant sounds of rich and diverse chamber repertory performed by members of the San Francisco Symphony and guest artists in a breathtaking setting, the Legion of Honor.
At A Glance
Music of Beethoven
Sonata No. 3 in E-flat major for Violin and Piano, Opus 12, no.3
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) studied the violin as a young man in Bonn and spent a stint as an orchestral violist before moving to Vienna to seek his fortune as a pianist and composer. In his diary for the year 1794, he wrote of meeting three times a week with Schuppanzigh, possibly referring to lessons with Ignaz Schuppanzigh, the violinist who would champion many of his compositions, including the groundbreaking string quartets. Even if he didn’t study violin with Schuppanzigh, he almost certainly did with Wenzel Krumpholz, who had joined the Vienna Court Orchestra following service under Haydn at the Esterháza court. Beethoven worked on an incomplete Violin Concerto in C major (WoO 5) in the early 1790s and composed two single-movement Romances for violin and orchestra around the turn of the century; by the time he got around to writing his famous D major Violin Concerto, in 1806, he had completed all but the last of his ten violin sonatas. There is no doubt that he knew his way around a violin almost as well as he knew his way around a piano, a fact that is happily displayed in his violin sonatas.
Typical of Classical violin sonatas, Beethoven identified his first set of three (Opus 12—c. 1797-98) as being written “for the Harpsichord or the Pianoforte with Violin.” In many earlier sonatas the violin did “play second fiddle” to the keyboard instrument; indeed, many composers designed their sonatas so the violin could be omitted with no deleterious effect. But with Beethoven that designation is little more than a remnant. In each of the Opus 12 sonatas we find true dialogue between the violin and the piano, and the E-flat major Sonata includes writing so utterly insubordinate it would not be out of place in a violin concerto. For that matter, the piano writing—particularly in the effervescent opening movement—could just as easily figure in a piano concerto, so virtuosic is this piece in general.
At the beginning of the second movement we find the old-fashioned texture of somewhat earlier violin-and-piano sonatas, with the violin simply adding discreet chords to what is at first a piano solo, enhancing the sonority without adding any harmonic or melodic thrust. In this gently meandering music we may imagine Beethoven the nature lover strolling in the Vienna Woods, the composer who, a decade later, would achieve one of music’s supreme nature portraits in the Pastoral Symphony. To conclude his sonata Beethoven gives us a Rondo that bubbles continuously with good humor.
Antonio Salieri, the rather conservative Imperial Capellmeister of Vienna to whom Beethoven had turned for coaching in vocal composition, received the dedication of the Opus 12 sonatas when they were published, and he may well have raised an eyebrow at some of their more daring passages. Certainly, the critic of Leipzig’s Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung did in June 1799. He found “after having looked through these strange sonatas, overladen with difficulties, that after diligent and strenuous labor he [the critic] felt like a man who had hoped to make a promenade with a genial friend through a tempting forest and found himself barred every minute by inimical barriers, returning at last exhausted and without having had any pleasure.” Perhaps such music is not for everybody, he suggested. “There are always many who love difficulties in invention and composition, what we might call perversities, and if they play these Sonatas with great precision they may derive delight in the music as well as an agreeable feeling of satisfaction. If Herr v. B. wished to deny himself a bit more and follow the course of nature he might, with his talent and industry, do a great deal for an instrument which he seems to have so wonderfully under his control.” As it happened, Herr v. B did not so wish, and his Opus 12 sonatas stand not only as beacons of late Classicism but also as harbingers of the “course of nature” to come.
Sonata No. 4 in C major for Cello and Piano, Opus 102, no.1
The eight works for cello and piano by Ludwig van Beethoven are remarkable for the quality and variety of the individual pieces and for how they illuminate the distance Beethoven traveled in his career. His first two sonatas (Opus 5) and his Variations on a Theme from Handel’s Judas Maccabaeus date from 1796, just when his career as a composer was beginning to take off. Two further sets of variations, both on themes from Mozart’s opera Die Zauberflöte, followed shortly, the “Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen” Variations between 1796 and 1798, and the “Bei Männern” Variations in 1801, reaching the era of Beethoven’s first two symphonies and the culmination of what is considered his early style.
Three further works for cello and piano would follow. Beethoven’s A major Sonata (Opus 69), written in 1807-08, is one of the crowning glories of his middle period; and his final two sonatas (Opus 102) were composed in 1815, just as he was entering his visionary late period. The span of nineteen years separating Beethoven’s first works for cello and piano from his last is surpassed in his chamber catalogue only by his string quartets. Neither his piano trios nor his violin-and-piano sonatas convey the breadth of stylistic development that are captured in these cello pieces.
Joseph Linke, the cellist of Count Razumovsky’s private quartet (which introduced many of the composer’s string quartets), was almost certainly the cellist attached to Beethoven’s Opus 102 cello sonatas, which he and the composer premiered in the summer of 1815 at the country villa of the Countess Anna Maria (or Marie) von Erdödy, to whom they are dedicated. (This dedication dates not from the sonatas’ initial publication, in Bonn in 1817—which carries no dedication—but rather from their first Viennese edition, in 1819.) She was an accomplished pianist and one of Beethoven’s recurrent patrons. She had already been the dedicatee of his Opus 70 Piano Trios, the second of which follows here. This sonata stands on the verge of the composer’s late style, in an increasingly interior world enforced by almost total deafness, in a musical terrain marked by the constant condensing of material to expose its essential points and by Beethoven’s obsessive fascination with arcane processes of counterpoint. We have not yet reached Beethoven’s late style in full-blown form, but these last two cello sonatas—along with such seminal pieces as the F minor String Quartet (Opus 95), the G major Violin Sonata (Opus 96), the Archduke Trio (Opus 97), and the A major Piano Sonata (Opus 101)—are well along the way to the uniquely imagined world of Beethoven’s final years.
The C major Sonata (Opus 102, no.1) is cast in two movements, but here the first movement is divided into a slow introduction and a “main” fast section, while the second movement comprises an “interior slow movement” (Adagio, leading to an Andante) and a rapid finale. Intensely contrapuntal episodes permeate this work, and already in the ethereal first-movement introduction Beethoven uses a device that will become a fingerprint in his later works: transforming the once-ornamental contrivance of the trill into a sustained method for intensifying texture. (The trills of the Hammerklavier Piano Sonata, Opus 106, lie just around the corner.) The second portion of this movement is launched in A minor; indeed, one often feels in Beethoven’s late works that his modal scheme embraces both a major key and its relative minor in a sort of extended tonality. The second movement proper begins with an Adagio that ranges from the timelessly metaphysical to the humanly brooding, and then breaks forth in an ebullient Allegro vivace. This finale, however, is interrupted by sudden stops and starts, and it takes a detour through a dense fugato episode before arriving at its end, which—a word to the wise—comes only after a false ending that has embarrassed more than a few over-eager applauders.
Trio in E-flat major for Violin, Cello, and Piano, Opus 70, no.2
The name of Countess Anna Maria von Erdödy has already come up as the dedicatee and the host of the premiere of Beethoven’s Opus 102 Cello Sonatas at her summer home in 1815. Seven years earlier, her home on the Krugerstrasse in Vienna had resounded with the first performance of Beethoven’s two Opus 70 piano trios, which were similarly dedicated to her. Beethoven lived there for several months from late 1808 until the spring of 1809. An accomplished pianist, she was a devoted friend and supportive patron of Beethoven’s at that time (he is said to have referred to her as his “Father Confessor”), and she was delighted to include his music in her at-home musical soirées.
Compared to the first of the Opus 70 trios, the intense and often foreboding Ghost Trio, the Trio in E-flat major is overwhelmingly genial and warm-hearted: a yin-and-yang dyad. This work entirely lacks a slow movement, which would have been a natural repository for deep thoughts, and the whole four-movement span remains within the bounds of relatively moderate tempos. An elegant (if not entirely unruffled) introduction launches the piece, its carefully plotted, step-wise lines in slow counterpoint—canonic at the outset—lending a searching quality. This leads to the main section of the movement (Allegro ma non troppo), a lyrical effusion; and just before the end, the composer brings back a reminiscence of the “searching music” of the introduction, this time with the scoring altered.
Both of the middle movements are Allegrettos but they have quite different characters. The second movement sounds resolutely old-fashioned, beginning with a neo-Baroque gavotte, though modernized with wry figuration, as if an eyebrow were raised at the opening motif. Major key variations then alternate with minor key sections based on a more vehement element.
The marking Allegretto already represents a moderate tempo; adding ma non troppo (but not too much), as Beethoven does in the third movement, seems not particularly helpful. Does he mean that players should shade the Allegretto to the fast or the slow side? Perhaps the former, as this spot in a composition would most characteristically have been the place for a triple-meter minuet or scherzo, and the movement is cast in the meter and structure of those forms (though with the main episode and the “trio” repeated). But at heart we have no scherzo here. The spirit is Apollonian rather than Bacchic, and the phrases are studiously symmetrical, again displaying something of an antique character. In fact, the spacious main theme of the movement was, if not literally antique, at least not new, since Beethoven had already used it as the opening theme of his Piano Sonata in A-flat major (Opus 26) of 1800-01. Beethoven doesn’t repeat himself verbatim, but the similarity is unmistakable. One of his enhancements in the Trio is memorable indeed: the odd passage in the principal-theme section (heard several times in the course of the movement) in which the unaccompanied piano slowly cascades down through a series of unlikely notes that leave us momentarily in tonal limbo before the main theme grounds the tonality once again.
With the Finale we finally have a full-fledged fast movement: not a rip-roaring Presto or Vivace, to be sure, but at least a solidly rapid Allegro. And yet, hardly does the movement get started with energetic, ascending piano flourishes than the strings pull on the reins. This proves to be a momentary interruption of the momentum—though not the last, even apart from when the exposition is repeated—but in general the movement proceeds apace as it works through its episodes. Beethoven’s pupil Carl Czerny maintained that in the G major section in the middle of this finale Beethoven drew on Croatian melodies popular in Hungary—an appropriate nod from the composer to the Countess, who belonged to a family of Hungarian aristocrats.
While many details in this trio are grounded in middle-period Beethoven, they seem to some extent overlain on an older template. The commentator Donald Francis Tovey rightly viewed this as a work “where Beethoven discovers new meanings for Mozart’s phrases and Haydn’s formulas.” In doing so, it foreshadows the sound of another composer who would emerge a decade later: Franz Schubert.—James M. Keller
James M. Keller is the longtime Program Annotator of the San Francisco Symphony and the New York Philharmonic. His book Chamber Music: A Listener’s Guide (Oxford University Press) is available in hardcover, paperback, and e-book formats.