Beethoven’s five Sonatas for piano and cello offer a magnificent distillation of twenty years of development as a composer into two hours of listening. His mastery of the conventional musical forms and structures of the time was clear from his earliest published works, and that mastery made it possible for him to subvert the listeners’ expectations in ways that would create a radically new expression of emotion in music.
The “original instrument” and “period performance” movements of the second half of the twentieth century gave audiences and performers alike new insight into and experience of the sound of western classical music as it might have been performed historically. Despite those developments, the solemn ritual of modern concert life has little to do with the manner in which much of this music was presented when new. Small-scale chamber works were not often presented in grand concert halls, but were meant for performance in more intimate environs. The domestic nature of these events was well described by the violinist and composer Ludwig Spohr, and music was often one of many simultaneous entertainments. Conversation, food, wine, card games and music intermingled in the social fabric, and one was free to listen attentively or not, and there could be lively comments made to the players even as they performed.
It was for just such an occasion that the Opus 5 sonatas presented here were written. They were dedicated to King Friedrich Wilhelm II, a gifted amateur cellist for whom Haydn and Mozart composed string quartets with unusually prominent cello parts. These Sonatas served to introduce young Beethoven to Europe’s influential musical society. Beethoven performed these works with the great French cellist Jean-Louis Duport, the solo cellist of the King’s orchestra. In these two works, Beethoven establishes his mastery of the conventional forms even as he utterly defies their conventions. Most of the sonatas of Haydn and Mozart with which Beethoven’s audience would be familiar were cast in three or four movements, and were typically ten to fifteen minutes in length. Both of the Opus 5 Sonatas are twice that duration, and each consists of only two movements. Even more radical is that each begins with an extensive slow introduction, a feature usually employed by Haydn and Mozart in symphonic literature to signify a particularly serious work. More importantly, that attention is richly rewarded as these works unfold. In these two sonatas, dramatic contrasts of volume and mood, and of sound and silence in the introductions serve the purpose of demanding that the audience pay heed. Not a bad idea for a young composer looking to make his way in the world. The first sonata has another unusual characteristic that Beethoven develops further in his “late” works. Nineteen minutes into the first movement, the tempo changes abruptly three times within a few seconds, first with a sudden slow echo of the introduction, followed by eighteen extremely fast measures before returning to the original tempo. In the second movement, the tempo becomes much slower for just two measures, again echoing the introduction, just seconds before its conclusion. It is both radical and brilliant. In working on such a large canvas for his “domestic” works, Beethoven set the stage for the “heavenly lengths” of the works of later composers.
By the time he completed the Sonata in A major, twelve years after those of Opus 5, Beethoven was at the peak of his fame. The first four symphonies, nine of the string quartets, and four of the piano concertos were before the public, and his growing deafness had yet to keep him from performing. The A major sonata is both the most widely performed of these sonatas, and is, at least on the surface, more conventional than its predecessors. It is cast in three movements, but instead of the expected fast-slow-fast progression, its movements proceed as fast, faster, and fast again. The opening movement has a lyricism and generosity of spirit that is reminiscent of the first “Razumovsky” quartet or the later “Archduke” trio. The middle movement, called a scherzo, is not in the form conventionally associated with that term. In place of the clearly defined scherzo-trio-scherzo one might expect, he presents two alternating contrasting themes, the first of which features a melody that begins (and remains) on the “wrong” beat, while the second is more lyrical and more gracefully comported. The last movement is in “sonata” form rather than a rondo, and begins with a slow introduction that at first hearing could seem to be the slow movement one might have expected.
The two sonatas of Opus 102 came into being after the longest period of compositional inactivity of Beethoven’s career. Crises in the personal, physical and professional realms had combined to affect his creative output for almost two years. When he did return to serious work as a composer, his music was transformed. These sonatas contain many of the hallmarks of Beethoven’s later music: the use of counterpoint, the contrast of ethereal, almost ecstatic passages alongside more agitated ones, sudden changes of tempo, and the use of “cyclic” formal elements are all contained in these two brief works.
The first of these sonatas is cast in two movements, and it is the most unconventional, the shortest, and perhaps the most profound of all the sonatas. The entire sonata is shorter than the first movements of either of the Opus 5 sonatas, yet the materials are so diverse and are so perfectly argued and presented that by its conclusion, one has been taken on an extraordinary emotional journey. Beethoven originally labeled it a “free sonata,” and it opens with a serenely lyrical introduction in C major that leads to an allegro in A minor that is by turns furious and ruminative. The second movement opens with a short Adagio that never truly settles into either C or G major before giving way to a brief return of the introduction from the first movement. Finally, the movement settles into an allegro that is equal parts ecstatic and ebullient music.
The D major sonata is Beethoven’s final accompanied sonata of any sort, and it is the only truly conventional work of this set. Its three movements are in the more typical fast-slow-fast arrangement, although the slow movement does connect to the finale without pause. It is with the finale that Beethoven again upturns convention, as the entire movement is a fugue.