Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) Violin Sonata in G Op 96 (1812)
During the years 1810-12 Beethoven produced three remarkable chamber works: in 1810 the Op 95 ‘Serioso‘ String Quartet, in 1811 the Op 97 ‘Archduke‘ Piano Trio, and in 1812 today’s glorious Op 96 Violin Sonata. The dedicatee of the two latter works was Archduke Rudolph, youngest son of the Emperor Leopold II and a piano and composition pupil of Beethoven. Their relationship was close and long-lasting: Rudolph not only admired Beethoven and tolerated his foibles but, together with the Princes Kinsky and Lobkowitz, had contracted to provide Beethoven with an annuity so that ‘the necessities of life shall not cause him embarrassment or clog his powerful genius’. During Napoleon’s occupation of Vienna in 1809 Rudolph had sought sanctuary in Hungary, prompting Beethoven’s regretful ‘Lebewohl‘ (‘Les Adieux‘) Piano Sonata.
However, Rudolph, the dedicatee, is not the focus of this G major violin sonata. That privilege arguably belongs to Antonie Brentano (née Birkenstock), the intended recipient of Beethoven’s long, impassioned ‘Immortal Beloved’ letter which was contemporary with the sonata. Unhappily married to a workaholic Frankfurt banker, Antonie had fallen for Beethoven, and he for her. To her, Beethoven ‘walked like a god among mortals…guileless, straightforward, wise and wholly benevolent…[with a] soft heart (and] ardent nature’. For his part Beethoven improvised for her in the next room when she was unwell and composed settings of a short poem An die Geliebte. Antonie’s return to Frankfurt in July 1812 prompted not only the Op 96 sonata, but also An die ferne Geliebte, (To the distant loved one) Beethoven’s impassioned Op 98 song cycle.
A third personality contributes to the sonata’s arrival: the virtuoso violinist Pierre Rode who was visiting Vienna in December 1812. He was invited to give its first performance together with Archduke Rudolph on piano. Rudolph had prepared punctiliously for the performance, but Rode approached it with an arrogance bred of a diet of virtuosic trivia. The performance was a disappointment, although discerning critics saw through Rode to the profound and intimate wonders of the music.
The sonata opens, like Beethoven’s previous sonata, the 1803 ‘Kreutzer‘, with the solo violin, but the mood could not be more different. Where the earlier sonata is dramatically arresting, here we have a tender request, encouragingly echoed by the piano, and then elaborated by the violin (illustrated). The mood is sunny, the two instruments making beautiful music – Beethoven’s ‘soft heart‘ never more on his sleeve.
The slow movement begins with a profound and slow hymn, whose last phrase (illustrated), echoed by the violin, starts with the three notes of the Lebewohl motif. The departure is now that of Mrs Brentano for Frankfurt rather than of Archduke Rudolph for Hungary. This intense and reflective movement leads straight into a contrasting, short cheerful Scherzo whoseTrio theme exultantly arches up and back through two octaves.
The last movement, based on variations, starts blandly with a modestly rustic tune, but beware of Beethoven bearing innocuous themes. After building the tension over four variations, the tempo drops abruptly to a serious Adagio espressivo. The piano and violin alternately accompany each other’s intense reflections separated by brief piano cadenzas. Their dialogue leads to this heart-rending passage on the violin (illustrated), before we are released into a determinedly energetic Allegro. A brief, poignant, Adagio reminiscence is brusquely dismissed by the final Presto eight bars.
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) Beethoven Horn Sonata Op 17 (1800)
Poco adagio, quasi andante
Rondo – Allegro moderato
In 1746, the dedicatee of this work was born Jan Václav Stich, the son of a Bohemian serf bonded to Count von Thun of Žehušice. Thun generously ensured an excellent musical education for the boy: singing, violin, and finally horn. He was sent to study horn in Prague, Munich and Dresden where he learned the hand-stopping technique (to extend the number of notes the natural horn could play), which he was later to improve and develop. Aged 16 he returned to Thun’s estate but after four years fled. Thun, incensed by his investment’s ingratitude, sent a posse after him with instructions to knock out his two front teeth so he would never play the horn again. Fortunately, the posse failed to catch him; Stitch crossed into Italy and changed his name into its rough Italian translation Giovanni Punto.
Punto become the foremost horn player in Europe, travelling widely. He met Beethoven in Vienna in 1800 and inspired this sonata which was premiered by the two of them that April. It is said that Beethoven wrote out the horn part the night before the concert, and largely improvised the piano part. To expand his sales, Beethoven arranged the sonata for cello, and it was subsequently also arranged by the Bohemian oboist Carl Khym for string quintet.
The arresting opening on the horn is built on the unmodified harmonic notes of the natural horn in F (illustrated: the numbers are the harmonic numbers of the notes). Its dotted rhythm opens the short second movement (illustrated) which leads directly into the last whose opening (illustrated) also shares aspects of the initial phrase.
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) Horn Trio in E♭ Op 40 (1865)
Allegro con brio
For Brahms the early 1860s were a productive time for chamber music: 2 string sextets, 2 piano quartets, a piano quintet and a cello sonata as well as this horn trio. As a child Brahms learned piano, cello and natural horn, so perhaps this work, written shortly after the death of his mother, involved the instruments of his youth (he specified that the horn part could be played by the cello). The quality of the notes produced by hand-stopping a natural horn are significantly different from those of a valve horn, and Brahms exploits these particular qualities in the piece.
The overall structure of the work is unusual for Brahms since it echoes the old Church Sonata (Sonata di Chiesa) – a form much used by Corelli, with four movements alternating slow-fast-slow-fast. The first movement in turn alternates a broad, nostalgically tender Andante with a more animated section. The opening theme, though introduced by the violin (illustrated) is well-suited to the natural horn, which repeats it and later re-introduces it when the Andante section returns twice more.
The rhythmically complex Scherzo leads to the emotional heart of the work, the Adagio mesto. Dark colours from the piano in the 6 flats of Eb minor, make even more sad a theme of mournful semitones to make a movement of great intensity. But, with the end of the movement, mourning passes and we can move on to the Finale.
Its joyful theme, introduced by the violin (illustrated), along with the subsequent rising fourth hunting call motif again exploit the harmonics of the natural horn and the work ends in blazing sun.