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Violin Sonata in A major, op. 47, “Kreutzer”

December 13, 2015 – Kristin Lee, violin; Gilles Vonsattel, piano

In March 1803 Beethoven’s patron Prince Lichnowsky introduced him to the twenty-four-year-old violin virtuoso George Polgreen Bridgetower. Fresh from wildly successful concerts in Dresden, the violinist was visiting Vienna, having lived in London since his West Indian father had showed him off there as a child prodigy. After including the young violin virtuoso in a quartet reading at the home of the famous violinist Ignaz Schuppanzigh, Beethoven arranged to give a public concert with Bridgetower on May 22—postponed to the 24th—and immediately set to work on a violin sonata for the occasion.

Because time was short Beethoven drew on sketches for two movements begun earlier that year, and added a finale that he had originally written in 1802 for the A major Violin Sonata, op. 31, no.3, but had discarded and replaced because he thought it too brilliant. Even with these short cuts, Beethoven was scrambling to finish the piece in time, and summoned his student Ferdinand Ries at 4:30 one morning to copy out the violin part of the first movement. Poor Bridgetower had to read the middle variation movement from Beethoven’s messy manuscript at the concert, while the composer played from sketches. Luckily the last movement, because of its earlier origin, was in decent shape.

Bridgetower later wrote that Beethoven was pleased with his playing, especially his improvisation on a “flight” in the piano part during the repeat of the fast part of the first movement. For his part Beethoven highly recommended Bridgetower as “a capable virtuoso who has a complete command of his instrument.” The composer wrote in his typical punning style on a draft score in quasi-Italian—untranslatable since “mulattica” and “mulattico” are made-up words—“Sonata mulattica composta per il mulatto Brischdauer, gran pazzo e compositore mulattico,” meaning something like “A sonata of mixed colors, for the mulatto Bridgetower, big crazy person and mixed-up composer.”

So why did Beethoven dedicate the Sonata to French violinist Rodolphe Kreutzer instead of Bridgetower? Late in his life Bridgetower reported that he and Beethoven had been constant companions at the time the Sonata was composed and that the first copy bore a dedication to him. Before he left Vienna, however, they had a quarrel “about a girl” and when Beethoven published the work he dedicated it to Kreutzer. Beethoven may have been trying to help pave the way for a projected visit to France with this dedication, but there seems to be no evidence that Kreutzer ever played the Sonata.

This powerful Violin Sonata, associated with two violin virtuosos, is Beethoven’s most popular and brilliant. The composer acknowledged this quality when he labeled it: “written in a highly concertante style, almost in the manner of a concerto.” Russian author Leo Tolstoy also recognized its power when he used the first movement of the Kreutzer Sonata in his short story of the same name to incite his tragic hero to a crime of passion. Leoš Janáček, in turn, based his First String Quartet on Tolstoy’s story.

The Kreutzer Sonata is Beethoven’s only violin sonata to open with a slow introduction. He presents the violin alone at first, in regal A major, but the demonic, tempestuous main part of the movement occurs in A minor. A momentary halt of the driving momentum allows the chorale-like second theme to illuminate the scene briefly. It bears a certain relationship to the slow introduction, which Beethoven also recalls in the coda.

In the second movement a rich theme begets four variations—the first playful, the second with repeated notes in perpetual motion, the third with an air of tragedy, the fourth ethereally florid—followed by an extended introspective coda. Bridgetower recalled about the premiere: “Beethoven’s expression in the Andante was so chaste, which always characterized the performance of all his slow movements, that it was unanimously hailed to be repeated twice.”

The transplanted finale caps the Sonata brilliantly. A crashing A major chord cancels the remote key of the variation movement and launches a whirling movement based on the rhythm of the fast Italian dance known as the tarantella. Leading a merry chase through quasi-fugal terrain, “hunting” calls, breakneck “spinning” passages, and witty restarts, Beethoven ingeniously unfurls a sonata-rondo that pauses only to regain momentum.

© Jane Vial Jaffe

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