Beethoven's Cello Sonatas

March 6, 2020

A Beethoven Celebration: The Complete Cello Sonatas

Ludwig van Beethoven 2020 is the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth and effulgent celebrations abound. Among the symphonies, concertos, chamber music and piano sonatas (to name only the most obvious), there is ample, if not endless, music to explore: music not just for a year, but also for a lifetime. For chamber music lovers in particular, nearly every year features Beethoven’s extraordinary output comprising ensembles from three to eight players centering most especially on his unparalleled “cycle” for string quartet. But Beethoven also wrote numerous “duo sonatas” (for featured instrument and piano) including a rich trove of ten violin sonatas. But the special program tonight focuses on a wonderfully unique and most appropriate showcase for this Beethoven celebration: the complete sonatas for cello and piano. Comprising five individual works, a performance of the complete set remarkably fits within the compass of a single concert. And magically, unlike the violin sonatas, the cello sonatas span the three traditionally named periods of Beethoven’s creativity (early, middle and late) thereby representing, in a single microcosm, the totality of his musical life. Unknown to many, it is the last cello sonatas that inaugurate Beethoven’s late period. At the opposite end of the spectrum, Beethoven’s early cello sonatas constitute an important milestone in themselves as they are the first “thorough composed” sonatas for cello and piano, the essential beginnings of the repertoire. A finer comprehensive as well as compact Beethoven celebration with such a compelling theme is hard to imagine.

The Early Cello Sonatas, Op. 5, No. 1 and No. 2, 1796

Beethoven completed his first sonatas for piano and cello in 1796 while on tour in Berlin, at the time, the capital of Prussia. They are dedicated to the King of Prussia, Friedrich Wilhelm II who was a great music lover, an amateur cellist and the dedicatee of various works including the “Prussian” string quartets of both Haydn and Mozart. At the time, Wilhelm’s court musicians included two French brothers, Jean-Pierre and Jean-Louis Duport, both among the finest professional cellists throughout Europe. According to an account by Beethoven’s student and assistant Ferdinand Ries, Beethoven and Jean-Louis Duport performed the sonatas at court for which the king famously rewarded a delighted Beethoven with a golden snuffbox filled with one hundred Louis d’or. One can only imagine Duport’s astonishment with these “new fangled” sonatas, both the music and Beethoven’s performance at the keyboard.

Prior to Beethoven’s first two cello sonatas published in 1797 when he was in his mid-twenties, sonatas for cello and keyboard were apt to be one of two types. The first, based on Baroque practices, was for cello and “accompaniment”, the latter specified in a shorthand known as “basso continuo” that provided a bass line with numeric symbols for the harmony which had to be extemporaneously “realized” by one or more players, in this case, a harpsichordist. The other type of sonata typical of the early or “proto” classical period was a keyboard sonata with “obbligato” cello whereby a cellist of modest ability might “play along” by duplicating the bass notes already in the left hand of the keyboard part that otherwise dominated the proceedings. In either case, either cello or keyboard would assume a prominent foreground position with the other party “filling in” the background.

Beethoven’s op. 5 sonatas established a new approach particularly for the cello sonata. The original published title page reads (translated into English), “Two Grand Sonatas for the Harpsichord or Pianoforte with a Violoncello obbligato). But unlike the proto-classical “obbligato” sonatas, the thoroughly composed cello part was far more than just reinforcement of the keyboard bass; it had its own voice. It would take Beethoven until his middle period sonata before the cello and piano would be treated as completely equal partners and while some might regard these first works as “piano sonatas with a cello part”, the cello is both integral and independent. Thus begins the modern cello sonata repertoire. It is worth noting that, while Beethoven’s first creative phase is often characterized as one of imitation and mastery of preexisting models, with these sonatas for piano and cello there is no preexisting model: here Beethoven is treading new and original ground.

The two op. 5 sonatas share a similar formal design that is both unusual and unique for Beethoven. Both sonatas comprise two movements. The first movements begin with a substantial adagio introduction leading, without pause, into a lively sonata-allegro form. The second movement finale is a fast-paced rondo where a recurring refrain alternates with contrasting episodes. There is no middle slow movement in these sonatas. Rather, the calm, lyrical character normally found at the center occurs at the beginning in a meditative and rhapsodic prelude to the main action of the first movement. For contrast and a kind of complementary whole, Beethoven cast the first sonata in a major key, the second in a minor key. This difference is most pronounced in the first movement where the introduction and the principal themes emphasize this chief emotional difference. By any reckoning, these are wonderfully fresh and inventive first-rate classical sonatas that predate any of Beethoven’s violin sonatas, string quartets or symphonies.

The Middle Cello Sonata, Op. 69, 1808

Beethoven’s middle period features expansion, innovation and, as at least one defining characteristic, epic heroism. Essential works of this phase are the Third and Fifth Symphonies, the “Razumovsky” String Quartets, the "Waldstein" and “Appassionata” Piano Sonatas as well as the final piano trios. In 1808, Beethoven composed his third cello sonata published as op. 69, one number below the pair of op. 70 piano trios composed at the same time and with which the cello sonata shares much in character and innovation. Beethoven dedicated the sonata to Baron Ignaz von Gleichenstein, a German aristocrat and amateur cellist who was a close friend and a significant patron.

Cast in three movements, op. 69 is the longest of the five cello sonatas and undoubtedly the most popular. In this lone middle period cello sonata, Beethoven arguably achieves a true equality between cello and piano for the first time. This is seemingly announced from the onset as the solo cello alone sings the first theme while themes throughout the sonata are generously shared by both instruments and often entrusted first to the cello. The first movement presents a robust and sprawling sonata-allegro form with many themes, one with a dark, exotic flavor in a “Gypsy” vein that finds kindred themes across all three movements. The middle movement in A Minor begins with another “Gypsy-esque” theme famous for its arresting rhythmic displacements that seem to constantly confound a regular metrical pattern. Beethoven’s fecundity of invention finds expression in not one but two contrasting trios. The rousing Allegro vivace finale begins with a sweetly singing adagio introduction that very briefly seems to recall the extended introductions of the earlier op. 5 sonatas and provides the only real hint of a slow movement that will otherwise have to wait for the last cello sonata for its fully independent flowering. Typical of his middle period, the mood throughout the three movements is extroverted, full of bold dramatic contrasts and largely “unperturbed” by overly profound emotional or spiritual ruminations.

The Late Cello Sonatas, Op. 102, No. 1 and No. 2

Beethoven returned to the cello sonata one more time in 1815 producing a set of two sonatas that were published the following year as op. 102 with a dedication to Countess Marie Erdödy. Erdödy was a Hungarian noblewoman and amateur pianist who maintained a close relationship with Beethoven dating back to at least 1802. She was often seen with Beethoven’s company who considered her a close confident in spite of the occasional ruptures in their turbulent friendship. She, like Gleichenstein, was a significant patron who, along with him, was able to secure a crucial annuity that supported Beethoven throughout his years in Vienna. It seems that she was also instrumental in commissioning Beethoven’s op. 102 cello sonatas for the benefit of a mutual friend, the professional cellist Joseph Linke. Linke was the cellist in the legendary Schuppanzigh Quartet that premiered many of Beethoven’s string quartets. They were the “house” quartet for yet another of Beethoven’s royal patrons, the Russian Count Razumovsky. On New Year’s Eve the previous year in 1814, Razumovsky’s palace burned to the ground leaving him in financial ruin and forcing him to return to Russia. Losing their main gig, the Schuppanzigh Quartet disbanded and the disenfranchised cellist Linke sought new work to make ends meet. Countess Erdödy hired him as a musical tutor for the family and subsequently asked Beethoven to write some new music for him to play. Beethoven composed his last two cello sonatas as a kind of farewell gift.

Although Beethoven’s third and final “late” period is most famous for the Ninth Symphony, the late string quartets and the last four piano sonatas, it begins with the op. 102 cello sonatas of 1815 composed just before the first of his late piano sonatas. The cello sonatas contain many features typical of late period Beethoven including unconventional form, deeply probing emotional expression, as well as transcendental technical and experiential difficulty particularly concerning his complex exploration of fugue. And while today the last cello sonatas are firmly in the repertoire, at the time, they caused some of the same confusion and even dismay as many of the late works in terms of difficult comprehension by the listener.

The first of the set, the fourth cello sonata is sometimes called the “Free Sonata” after the same title Beethoven used in his manuscript to suggest something unconventionally fantasia-like in its structure. It comprises only two movements and, like its op. 102 companion, is significantly shorter that the three previous cello sonatas. Both movements begin with a soulful, slow introduction and both introductions share thematic materials in a manner suggesting an interconnected, cyclic design or, rather, that one theme influences both and thereby the whole. Following the introduction, the first movement presents a sonata-allegro form made especially potent for being grounded not in C Major (like the introduction and the finale) but A Minor. The second movement introduction is at once darker and more probing than the first but it lightens and coheres as it invokes the luminous theme from the beginning of the sonata. This leads to the main material of the finale that emerges, newly born, as if from some kind of primordial simplicity. This indescribable “new simplicity” sustains the brief but buoyant finale to the end.

Beethoven’s last cello sonata (the second of op. 102) seems to move even further into the realm of his late period while retaining an exuberant vitality that runs throughout all five sonatas. Like the third sonata, the fifth comprises three movements. The first is an extremely compact sonata-allegro form that seems to dispense with anything unessential including any sort of introduction. The thematic material is minimal and based on “mere” scales and intervals but it richly exudes a heroic affect. The longest movement is in the middle and for the first time in all five cello sonatas, it is a substantial slow movement with the cello as its chief protagonist. By turns, it is dark then light, brooding then tender, suffused with that ineffable admixture of profundity and simplicity that is a hallmark of Beethoven’s late works. While the movement nearly concludes in final, dark resolution, it does not. At the last second, it makes a turn and runs, without pause (attacca), into the finale where we encounter yet another cardinal aspect of Beethoven’s period: a transcendental fugue. Using on a deceptively simple subject, again stated by the solo cello, Beethoven weaves a short fugue that, for its simultaneous brevity and complexity, is both a marvel and a thumbnail sketch of what is yet to come in Beethoven’s remaining late oeuvre.

© Kai Christiansen Used by permission. All rights reserved.