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Violin Sonata No. 3 in E-flat major, op. 12, no. 3

February 20, 2022 – Paul Huang, violin; Juho Pohjonen, piano

Though he achieved his early fame as a pianist, Beethoven had also developed as a respectable violinist. He played violin in his native Bonn and, upon moving to Vienna, took lessons with celebrated violinist Ignaz Schuppanzigh and with Wenzel Krumpholtz, who was one of the first to recognize Beethoven’s genius as a composer. His ten sonatas for piano and violin—his generation still thought of the piano first and the violin second—have always held a prominent place in the literature and contain some of his most delightful music.

Beethoven completed his three Violin Sonatas, op.12, in 1798, and had them published by Artaria in 1799 with a dedication to composer Antonio Salieri. The dedication is a curious one on two counts—one that Salieri was his mentor in vocal not instrumental music, and the other that most of Beethoven’s dedications went to nonprofessional musicians—aristocrats, patrons, and friends.

It is difficult for modern listeners to hear in these Sonatas the “striving for strange modulations,” “inimical barriers,” and “perversities” that upset contemporary critics. His innovative features in these works may also have puzzled Salieri, who, though he admired Beethoven’s talents, thought him wilful and difficult. All three works fit an overall framework that includes a sonata-form first movement, full-fledged slow movement, and rondo, but the rich interplay of motives and Beethoven’s emphatic style took them beyond the comfort level of his contemporaries.

The E-flat major Sonata, op. 12, no. 3, is a grand, virtuoso work, whose opening shows just the kind of expansive rhetorical gestures that set Beethoven’s themes apart from those of his Classic period counterparts. And yet, there are enough elegant eighteenth-century-isms to show Beethoven’s deep roots in this tradition, and particularly his study of Mozart’s sonatas for piano and violin. The graceful second theme particularly evokes his forebears. One of the many striking moments in this movement comes just before the close of the exposition when Beethoven builds tension with fast figuration and pounding octaves only to relax into a humorous new little theme. The tempestuous development reminds us of the proximity to his Pathétique Piano Sonata, and the recapitulation is capped by a coda that dramatically suggests the start of a new development section before coming to an emphatic close.

The reposeful slow movement highlights first the piano’s lyrical capabilities then the violin’s in the main theme, whereas the violin “sings” the entire middle section over rippling accompaniment. The regular return of the opening section of this aria-like movement seems straightforward until Beethoven takes off on an extended section that almost sounds improvised in its freedoms and unexpected turns.

The jolly rondo that rounds off the Sonata contains three contrasting episodes alternating with its dancing refrains. The first, which returns for the third episode, sounds like a variation on the lively main theme, and the second shows Beethoven indulging in his love for contrapuntal devices without actually launching a fugue.

© Jane Vial Jaffe

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