Beethoven Cello Sonatas, Op 102, Nos 1 and 2,
and two sets of variations on themes by Mozart and Handel
Beethoven's association with the cello coincided with an era that also saw the dramatic rise in the instrument's status within chamber music. Before the late 18th Century, the cello had mainly been used for reinforcing the bass line and was a faithful standby in continuo ensembles. By the end of the century, the quartets of Haydn and Mozart had accomplished the task of making the cello an equal partner in string quartets, but it was Beethoven who so effectively illustrated through his ground-breaking cello sonatas that the instrument was also capable of holding its own in a duo-sonata situation. In tonight's concert we will hear works that show the cello in both its supporting and emancipated roles.
Beethoven first began writing for the solo cello around 1796, when he visited the royal court of King Friedrich Wilhelm II in Berlin. His first two cello sonatas date from the time of this trip, and although we cannot know for certain, it is also reasonable to assume that Beethoven wrote his sets of variations on popular themes by Mozart and Handel for the same occasion even though they were only published a year or two later. The King loved the cello, played it with some proficiency, and had in his employ the great cellist Jean Louis Duport. The latter served in the court orchestra and historians believe it was also Duport who most likely partnered the composer when the new sonatas were introduced.
The two sets of variations on today's program mostly present the cello in its traditional supporting role. In fact, the covers of the first editions make clear that these variations are primarily piano works “with cello obbligato.” This feature is evident from the outset in both cases, with the opening statement of each tune being given to the piano while the cello simply adds inner harmony notes or doubles the bass line. The first variation in each series is then given to the piano alone while the cello remains silent. In subsequent variations the cello mainly does one of two things: It reinforces the bass or an inner harmony, or adds one of those two elements if either are not already present in the piano part. Only rarely is the cello given the melody, and even more rarely is there anything like a proper dialogue between the two instruments – of which effective examples are found in the twelfth (and final) variations of each set. At this point the composer allows the music to modulate, expand, and blossom while at the same time letting the cello expand its presence as well. One should add that in the Handel Variations Beethoven also allows some of the later variations to highlight the cello a little more, thus gradually shifting some of the attention to that instrument as the work progresses.
Equally important about these two sets of variations is that the pianistic requirements are often considerable. At the same time, the cello part (especially in the Mozart set) is usually within reach of someone with slightly more modest attainments while still throwing in a few demanding passages to challenge the skill and flatter the ego of the amateur. This is especially apparent with the final cello run in the Mozart set and is even more evident in some of the later Handel Variations. One could easily imagine Beethoven deliberately making the cello line manageable for the king while at the same time giving himself a little more to do – showing his own wares during his 1796 visit, so to speak. Also significant is the fact that the music is based on widely circulating operatic hit tunes of the day. This is a reminder that, for centuries, opera had produced more than its fair share of what we now call popular “singles”, and nothing made better use of these singles than the theme and variation format. Clearly, it was a genre that was utilized to great financial advantage by the music publishing industry which was suddenly shifting into high gear around the year 1800 due to the advent of new and much cheaper printing technology.
The fourth and fifth cello sonatas, which together make up Beethoven's op. 102, provide a major contrast to the two sets of variations that fill out this concert. First published in 1817, they are late works from the composer's so-called third period, and like the earlier cello sonatas that were written along side the Mozart and Handel Variations, the cello is once again treated as a fully equal partner. But the big difference in the late sonatas is that the now completely deaf composer has turned inward to a great degree, giving us his most private thoughts. These works are shorter than the early cello sonatas and like so many other chamber works from the final period can be very dense and concentrated in expression, not to mention technically awkward for both players.
Somewhat unusually, the Cello Sonata No. 4 in C major is in only two movements. Both are marked Allegro vivace, and each is preceded by a slow introduction. Although a separate slow movement had been originally contemplated by the composer it was not ultimately included. The work begins with a flowing Andante, very peacefully, and in the home key of C. Throughout the introduction the composer maintains a marvelous sense of calm, which is such an important contrasting feature of his late works. Equally typical of the late works is the abruptness with which this placid mood is then broken when the introduction is interrupted by the main Allegro vivace section with its craggy theme in dotted rhythms. Unexpectedly, the composer has now moved to A minor for the movement proper rather than staying in the home key, and the ensuing music is as stormy and violent as the introduction was calm. The section ends almost as abruptly as it began.
The second movement also begins with a slow introduction, this time taking the form of a very unsettled Adagio. A sense of stillness is still present, but is now disrupted from time to time with a sense of foreboding and unease. The transition to the main Allegro vivace is quiet and wonderfully subtle, at once gradual and yet swift. It helps dissolve the tension of the introduction ends the sonata on a more cheerful note.
The fifth and final work in Beethoven's cycle of cello sonatas is very different again, this time going back to a more standard fast-slow-fast three movement format. It begins with a bold Allegro con brio full of brilliant passage work. An extended Adagio follows, almost as long as the other two movements combined. It forms the heart of the work and finds the composer at his most inward and brooding. The atmosphere in this movement is almost static at times, and out of this sense of stasis there emerge melodic gestures of great tenderness.
The finale is one of Beethoven's famously knotty fugues, if marginally less dense, uncompromising, and relentless than the great Grosse Fuge for string quartet or the finale of the Hammerklavier Sonata. It is as intellectually demanding as it is musically forceful, and generates a heady sense of momentum while at the same time being defiantly oblivious to the physical limitations of the players – a triumph of mind over matter.