The Beethoven Cello Sonatas

Note: This paper is also available as a pdf

Introduction

As a cellist, I have played many pieces of varying style, difficulty, and genre. In my opinion, the Beethoven sonatas for cello and piano are some of the greatest compositions that I’ve had the opportunity to perform. I have always been curious about the circumstances under which Beethoven composed these sonatas and his motivations.

After some cursory research about Beethoven, I discovered that his works are often divided into three distinct periods. The cello sonatas happen to be a perfect example of these periods, so this is the topic I have decided to research.

How and why did Beethoven’s compositional style change throughout the course of writing his sonatas for cello and piano?

Beethoven’s development as a composer

First period

The first period of Beethoven’s career as a composer is often called his “formative period”, and extends to the year 1802. Beethoven started composing at a very young age, and went to study composition in Bonn under Christian Gottlob Neefe around 17791. There, he wrote his first published compositions in 1783, at age 13.

Beethoven’s works from this period generally follow the strict traditions of Classical composition. As a student, he was focused on the mastery of writing classical music in the Viennese style.

Consider Piano Sonata No. 1 in F Minor, Op. 2. Dedicated to Haydn, this early sonata illustrates Beethoven’s focus on mastering and extending the typical Classical form of a sonata. Compared to his later works, he seems to imitate the popular composers of the time such as Mozart:

The slow movement … well illustrates the rare cases in which Beethoven imitates Mozart to the detriment of his own proper richness of tone and thought.2

Middle period

Beethoven’s middle period, usually considered to span from 1802 to 1812, marks a departure from the style of Mozart and Haydn. Coinciding with the beginning of the Romantic era, Beethoven’s works from this era are increasingly more virtuosic and musically complex.

In my own experience, these “middle period” works make use of extremely frequent key modulations, developing established themes within a piece, and a more frenetic style in general.

A clear example of the middle period’s modulations and dynamic changes is in the first movement of the Kreutzer Violin Sonata, Op. 47, bars 194 to 214. Beethoven starts with the main theme played piano in A major, and modulates to G minor over a 2-bar crescendo to forte. Then, over another 4-bar crescendo, modulates to E-flat major, this time remaining forte. Throughout these modulations, Beethoven alternates the main theme between the violin and piano parts repeatedly. These modulations, everchanging dynamics, and conversation between the two parts are all put together to result in a piece of music that could only have been written by Beethoven.

Third period

By the third period, lasting from 1812 until his death in 1827, Beethoven had stopped performing and conducting due to his deafness, and–according to his own diary–distanced himself from his friends and colleagues. Many of Beethoven’s most innovative works were written during this time, including the Große Fuge Op. 133, and the Hammerklavier Piano Sonata No. 29 Op. 106.

Beethoven refined many of his signature techniques during this period, notably counterpoint and expanding themes. He also developed a habit of linking movements of a piece together, without a break between them. Many of Beethoven’s pieces from this era were criticised because he no longer stuck so strictly to predefined Classical techniques.

Many of Beethoven’s larger works from this period were truly epic. The Große Fuge was originally going to be the finale of String Quartet No. 13 in B-flat major Op. 130, but was split into its own piece as the fugue was longer than the other five movements put together.

The Sonatas

Sonata 1 in F Major and Sonata 2 in G Minor

The first two sonatas (Opus 5 Nrs. 1 & 2) were written back to back in 1796, while Beethoven was in the court of King Friedrich Wilhelm II in Berlin. It is reported that “Beethoven composed the sonatas for Duport and himself to perform”.3

The name “Duport” has led to some confusion, as there were two cellists with that name in the court of the king. We now know that they were written for Jean Louis Duport, rather than his brother Jean Pierre Duport.4

F Major

The first sonata in F major has a very “posh” feel, clearly influenced by the likes of Haydn and Mozart. It uses a typical two-movement sonata form, starting with an adagio introduction to an allegro first movement which develops the main themes, followed by an allegro vivace third movement in rondo form.

In this sonata, Beethoven made frequent use of arpeggios–a common characteristic of earlier classical music such as Haydn or Mozart. Consider this excerpt from bar 302 of the first movement:

f-major-arpeggios.png

G Minor

The G minor sonata is written in a distinctly Beethoven style. It doesn’t have the same posh sound as the F major sonata, but rather it is imbued with anger and indecision. In my opinion, it doesn’t feel as “Viennese” as the first sonata and works by Haydn or Mozart. That said, Beethoven made extensive use of common Classical techniques such as imitation–repeating a theme in a different voice.

Having studied this sonata countless times, I think that–in spite of being written in quite early in Beethoven’s career–this piece is an indication of what was to come in Beethoven’s middle period more so than an apt example of his early period.

An excerpt from bar 67 of the first movement shows Beethoven’s excessive use of staccatissimo accents, and abrupt dynamic changes–a trait of the middle period rather than the first:

g-minor-outburst.png

Sonata No. 3 in A Major

The third sonata (Opus 69) was written in 1808, about a decade after the first two, and was dedicated to Baron Ignaz von Gleichenstein, a cellist, who played a part in securing a lifetime annuity for Beethoven1.

This sonata, unlike the first two, is written in three movements. Unlike most three-movement sonatas, however, its middle movement is a scherzo. This shows Beethoven’s willingness to stray from common convention, as three-movement sonatas almost always have a fast movement, followed by a slow one, and an allegro finale.

Beethoven repeats certain motifs in different ways, which is a clear demonstration of his growing compositional maturity. Beethoven reworks the following theme numerous times:

a-major-theme.png

An example of this is in bar 51, where the theme is inverted:

a-major-var1.png

Sonata No. 4 in C Major and Sonata No. 5 in D Major

The composition of Beethoven’s final cello sonatas (Opus 102, Nrs. 1 & 2) began in spring of 1815, another seven years after the previous cello sonata. In summer and autumn of 1815, Beethoven created first versions of both sonatas, which he revised throughout the year4. The two sonatas were published together by N. Simrock in late 1817 or early 1818, with a dedication to Countess Marie von Erdődy.

These two sonatas never became as popular as the others, and critics of the time were sceptical about them. The following is an excerpt from German periodical Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung regarding Beethoven’s final cello sonatas:

They elicit the most unexpected and unusual reactions, not only by their form but by the use of the piano as well… We have never been able to warm up to the two sonatas; but these compositions are perhaps a necessary link in the chain of Beethoven’s works in order to lead us there where the steady hand of the maestro wanted to lead us.5

C Major

Beethoven’s C major cello sonata is quite a bit shorter than the others, and consists of two movements–both allegro with a slow introduction. This differs from most conventional sonatas, as a finale movement typically doesn’t have an introduction, which shows Beethoven’s willingness to ignore the traditional structure of the sonata.

For me, this sonata is a demonstration of the anger Beethoven had built up over the years due to his deafness and isolation. The first movement starts with a gentle, somewhat dainty theme:

c-major-intro.png

The introduction to the first movement largely resembles this first theme, never reaching a dynamic above piano apart from phrasing crescendi. But the true nature of this movement is revealed at the transition from the introduction to the Allegro vivace section:

c-major-allegro.png

Accompanied by a dramatic increase in dynamic from piano to fortissimo, the immediate modulation to A minor–the relative minor–invokes a sense of desperation and anger. This is one of the defining characteristics of Beethoven’s music, and it mimics a similar transition in the G minor sonata.

D Major

The final cello sonata, written in D major as three movements, seems at first glance to return to the canonical sonata template. The second and third movements are linked with a fermata, which is a feature that Beethoven often included in his later compositions.

The final movement, a fugue, is reminiscent of some of Beethoven’s later works such as the last string quartets, and the Hammerklavier piano sonata. Beethoven’s obsession with counterpoint is a characteristic trait of his third period, and is demonstrated in this final movement.

Conclusion

Are Beethoven’s periods reflected in these sonatas?

I think that these cello sonatas, with the possible exception of the second sonata in G minor, are indeed good examples of Beethoven’s shift to a more avant-garde style in his later years.

Although the G minor sonata (Op. 5 Nr. 2) was written in Beethoven’s early period, it demonstrates the temperament that we expect in his later works. This is unlike most classical music of the late 1700s, and in my opinion evidence of Beethoven’s individuality as a composer.

Haydn’s influence shows itself evidently in Beethoven’s first cello sonata in F major (Op. 5 Nr. 1), like many works from Beethoven’s first period.

Beethoven’s final two cello sonatas show the trend of adjusting and extending existing techniques, leading to a more avant-garde style in general.

Why did these changes happen?

Beethoven’s deafness played a big part in his stylistic and compositional evolution. His ailment caused him to seek out a solitary life in his final years, without which I don’t think we would have many of Beethoven’s greatest compositions. Utterly depressed in his final years, he wrote the following:

I must confess that I lead a miserable life. For almost two years, I have ceased to attend any social functions, just because I find it impossible to say to people, ‘I am deaf.’ If I had any other profession, I might be able to cope with my infirmity; but in my profession, it is a terrible handicap.

friedrich.jpg

Beethoven’s development to a more personal and agitated mode of expression is indicitave of a more general change in art–the Romantic era. Beethoven’s later compositions can be compared to German art of the same era–Caspar David Friedrich’s 1818 painting Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog comes to mind.

In my opinion, this painting is an excellent companion to Beethoven’s agitated later music–both convey a similar sense of vastness and tumult.

Much of Beethoven’s early music is written in the style of his teachers and contemporaries, but his greatness exceeded the confines of the music du jour. I believe this is why he developed his own unique style so much more thoroughly than most composers of the same period.

Legacy

Beethoven is now known as one of the greatest and most revolutionary composers of all time. In 1963, Stravinsky described Beethoven’s Große Fuge (Op. 133) as “an absolutely contemporary piece of music that will be contemporary forever.” His innovations brought on the Romantic era of classical music, and some of his later works predicted the evolution of contemporary classical music to an unbelievable degree.

Bibliography

Footnotes:

1

A. W. Thayer, The Life of Ludwig Van Beethoven, Vol 1, The Beethoven Association, 1921

2

Donald Tovey, Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition, 1910

3

Franz Gerhard Wegeler/Ferdinand Ries, Biographische Notizen über Ludwig van Beethoven, Koblenz, 1838, p. 109

4

Jens Dufner, Sonatas for Piano and Violoncello, G. Henle Verlag, 2008

5

Jean and Brigitte Massin (trans), Ludwig van Beethoven, Fayard, 1967

Author: Jamie Beardslee

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