Landscape with Noah, Offering a Sacrifice of Gratitude (1803) by Joseph Anton Koch
Sonata no.9 for piano and violin in A major Op.47 ‘Kreutzer’ (1803, Beethoven aged 32)
1. Adagio sostenuto – Presto
2. Andante con variazioni
Dedication Rodolphe Kreutzer
by Ben Hogwood
Background and Critical Reception
Beethoven’s biggest violin sonata has a curious back story. Its dedication to Rodolphe Kreutzer, who never played the piece, masks its intention as a performing vehicle for George Bridgetower, a violinist with whom Beethoven had recently become good friends. A charismatic child prodigy of mixed race, the violinist ultimately settled in Britain but left his mark all over the piece, due in part to a West Indian heritage that was exotic to those he encountered. Simon Nicholls, writing booklet notes for the recording by Paul Barritt and James Lisney on Woodhouse Editions, writes how Beethoven’s friend and contemporary Carl Czerny described Bridgetower as a ‘bold, extravagant’ virtuoso.
The change in dedication allegedly came after the two had rehearsed the piece. Bridgetower had shown his prowess in an early concert performance, particularly in the slow movement, but soon after he and Beethoven quarrelled over a female friend, and the dedication was altered.
The musical style, however, reflects the original violinist’s technical ability and ambition, confirmed in its labelling ‘scritta in uno stilo, molto concertante quasi come d’un concerto’ (written in a highly concert-like style, almost in the manner of a concerto’). It is in a sizeable three movements, lasting around 40 minutes – almost double the length of any of the other violin sonatas. Beethoven wrote the Rondo finale before the other two movements, originally intending it as the finale of the sonata Op.30 no.1. In writing the Kreutzer, he ensured the other two movements’ themes were still related to this Rondo.
Lewis Lockwood writes that ‘with Op.47 we reach the summit of Beethoven’s early violin sonata style, now raised to a brilliant pitch of virtuosity in the most difficult violin writing of the period’. He notes Berlioz’s opinion of the Kreutzer as ‘one of the most sublime of all violin sonatas’, and that Leo Tolstoy, who wrote a short story entitled The Kreutzer Sonata, described the work as ‘the supreme example of the power of music’.
Kreutzer Sonata, painting by René François Xavier Prinet (1901), based on Leo Tolstoy’s 1889 novella, ‘The Kreutzer Sonata’
Right from the start it is clear we are on different ground with the Kreutzer sonata. The dramatic chord from the violin beginning the piece is on a grand scale, a cadenza in all but name. The violin takes much more of the lead in proceedings, much more so than in the previous works, dominating the introduction of the first movement. When the Allegro arrives, however, both instruments share the theme. As the work unfolds so too does a tension between the ‘home’ key of A major and A minor, where a lot of the music sits. This abates a little with the serene second theme, but the first movement nonetheless ends emphatically in the minor key.
The second movement, a theme and variations of consistently high quality, starts sweetly from the violin before the two instruments engage in close conversation. They exchange a wealth of melodic ideas, and both have fun once Beethoven starts flexing his muscles. Variation IV in particular would present a lot of fun for the piano with the trills, once the techniques are mastered! The variations are closely stitched together and flow almost seamlessly, their sentences entwined, leading to a closing paragraph of great serenity.
After the contented finish to the theme and variations, the third movement bursts out of the blocks with vim and vigour. The music is quite rustic, with dotted rhythms from the violin and a bubbly stream of harmony from the piano. The lively exchanges continue, the violin’s bird-like figurations restless and unwilling to settle. This being a rondo, the principal theme becomes engrained in the mind, and the virtuoso profile continues through to the exuberant finish. Major key just about triumphs over minor too, the sparring between the two having been one of the principal dramatic features. Little wonder that some – such as Kreutzer – did not fully understand the piece, for its forward thinking nature is unlike anything written for the two instruments together to this point.
Recordings used and Spotify playlist
Midori Seiler (violin), Jos van Immerseel (fortepiano) (Zig Zag Classics)
Yehudi Menuhin (violin), Wilhelm Kempff (Deutsche Grammophon)
Josef Suk (violin), Jan Panenka (piano) (Supraphon)
Alina Ibragimova (violin), Cédric Tiberghien (Wigmore Hall Live)
Tasmin Little (violin), Martin Roscoe (piano) (Chandos)
Frank Peter Zimmermann (violin), Martin Helmchen (BIS)
Paul Barritt (violin), James Lisney (piano) (Woodhouse Editions)
Arthur Grumiaux (violin), Clara Haskil (piano) (Philips)
Augustin Dumay (violin), Maria João Pires (piano) (Deutsche Grammophon)
There are several recordings of the Kreutzer sonata to have gained ‘classic’ status, including (but not restricted to) Arthur Grumiaux and Clara Haskil, David Oistrakh and Lev Oborian and Nathan Milstein and Artur Balsam. The three I found myself engaging with most were Yehudi Menuhin with Wilhelm Kempff – with compelling chemistry and total control of Beethoven’s ensemble work – then Mayumi Seiler and Jos van Immerseel, for their brio and verve on period instruments. The newest recording, too, made a strong impact, with Frank Peter Zimmermann and Martin Helmchen delivering a reading of poise and power for BIS.
You can chart the Arcana Beethoven playlist as it grows, with one recommended version of each piece we listen to. Catch up here!
Also written in 1803 Haydn – String Quartet in D minor. Op.103
Next up 7 Variations on ‘God Save the King’, WoO78