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Sonata No. 10 in G, Op. 96 (1812)

March 11, 2018: Benjamin Beilman, Violin; Orion Weiss, piano

Beethoven wrote his ten sonatas for piano and violin (his generation still thought of the piano first and the violin second) during his early and middle periods. Of his celebrated late, introspective, otherworldly style we catch only a foretaste—in his very last Sonata, the present G major, op. 96. Drawing on materials he had begun earlier, Beethoven composed this Sonata in December 1812 for French violinist Pierre Rode, who was visiting Vienna. Rode’s inclinations surely account for some of Beethoven’s leaning in the introverted direction, especially in the finale. As the composer wrote to his patron and pupil Archduke Rudolph:

I have not hurried unduly to compose the last movement merely for the sake of being punctual, the more so as in view of Rode’s playing I have had to give more thought to the composition of this movement. In our finales we like to have fairly noisy passages but R does not care for them—and so I have been rather hampered.

Rode played the premiere of “his” G major Sonata with the Archduke joining him on the piano December 29, 1812, at a soiree of another of Beethoven’s patrons, Prince Lobkowitz. The Sonata was one of a group of works that Beethoven sold to publisher Anton Sigmund Steiner in 1815 in repayment of a debt. The debt must have been substantial because the batch also included the Archduke Trio, the Seventh and Eighth Symphonies, the Serioso Quartet, and several smaller works. As with many of his other works, Beethoven dedicated Opus 96 to the Archduke.

Beethoven gives the delicate opening of the first movement with its signature trill figure to the violin alone. Opening with an unaccompanied stringed instrument was a device he had used before in his Kreutzer Sonata, Cello Sonata, op. 69, and Trio, op. 70, no. 2, and would again in his Cello Sonata, op. 102, no. 1. With such highlighting he assures that the motive will be recognizable even in its most disguised permutations. Here such manipulations occur throughout the movement, as in the mysterious low-range interplay between violin and piano at the beginning of the coda. This spot apparently came to Beethoven as an afterthought when he was preparing the Sonata for publication in 1815.

With the sublime serenity of the Adagio espressivo we enter the intimate, personal world of Beethoven’s late style. The glorious hymn tune of the piano’s opening moves fluidly into a tender continuation by the violin. After a decorative flourish we listen awestruck as Beethoven lingers with infinite patience over the unfolding of his harmonies in the middle section. Another flourish brings us back, not to the real world, but to the serene main theme. As this final section continues he savors each fragment of the intimate conversation between the two instruments.

After seeming to come to rest Beethoven adds one unsettled chord to lead directly into the brief Scherzo. Here the minor-mode outer sections impishly play with our metric expectations by accenting normally unaccented beats. The interior trio settles into a lyrical dance tune—straightforward until with seeming innocence he plays again with our sensations of the basic pulse.

Beethoven’s solution for a finale to please Rode is one that also offers great variety—a theme-and-variations movement. He takes a simple little theme, with one nice harmonic twist, and treats it ingeniously in six variations. These are not simple embellishments of the tune, but foreshadow his great Diabelli Variations in their remarkable transformations of the theme. The general momentum halts for the meditative fifth variation, which distances itself utterly from the folkish simplicity of the tune. The resumption of the movement’s high spirits points to the composer’s well-developed sense of humor. But Beethoven is far from finished—further surprises include an introspective fugal passage and one additional application of the brakes before the final race to the close.

© Jane Vial Jaffe

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