Beethoven: Sonata No. 4 in A minor for Violin and Piano, Opus 23
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827) studied the violin as a young man in Bonn and was briefly an orchestral violist there before moving to Vienna in 1792 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, perhaps meaning that he was taking lessons with Ignaz Schuppanzigh, the violinist who would later champion many of his compositions, including the groundbreaking string quartets. Even if he didn’t actually study with Schuppanzigh, he almost certainly did with Wenzel Krumpholz, who had become a violinist with the Vienna Court Orchestra following a period of service under Haydn at the Esterházy Court. Beethoven was also composing music featuring violin during those years, including an incomplete Violin Concerto in C major (WoO 5) and fragments of a violin sonata (Hess 46) in the early 1790s, a standalone Rondo for Violin and Piano (WoO 41) in 1793–94, two single-movement Romances for violin and orchestra around the turn of the century, and many chamber pieces. By the time Beethoven 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 Beethoven knew his way around a violin almost as well as he knew his way around a piano, a fact that is happily put on display in his violin sonatas.
The first three of the ten were published in 1799 by the Viennese firm of Artaria as his Opus 12—beautifully crafted works of an overwhelmingly genial disposition. Two years later, the rival firm of Tarquinio Mollo issued the Fourth and Fifth Sonatas (Opus 23 and Opus 24), which together mark a striking advance from the solid Classical bona fides Beethoven had developed through the 1790s toward the distinctive tone of his maturity. Beethoven conceived of these works as a yin-and-yang pair. In fact, Mollo issued them together in their first edition (in October 1801) as Beethoven’s Opus 23, no.1 and Opus 23, no.2. For some reason that remains unclear, the violin parts for the two were printed in different formats—the first being tall and narrow, the second being wide and squat. This meant that they could not be bound together, which many purchasers would have wanted. Mollo accordingly re-issued the pieces in early 1802 as unconnected works, at that point giving them the separate opus numbers of 23 and 24. One person who must not have been displeased was the dedicatee, since now two opus numbers, rather than just one, carried a dedication “À Monsieur le Comte Maurice de Fries”—Moritz von Fries being a banker, industrialist, and patron of the arts to whom Beethoven would also inscribe his String Quintet (Opus 29) and his Seventh Symphony.