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Violin Sonata No. 5 in F major, op. 24, “Spring”

June 19, 2022 – Pinchas Zukerman, violin; Shai Wosner, piano

This most famous of all Classical violin sonatas arose out of Beethoven’s impulse to write a contrasting pair in which the F major Sonata would serve as the more relaxed, genial resolution to its more intense companion. Thus he composed his A minor Violin Sonata in 1800 and immediately after, the present Spring Sonata, completed in 1801. He intended to publish both as Opus 23, but owing to a printer’s error in which the violin parts were engraved in different sizes, they were issued separately to save the expense of redoing one of the parts. Beethoven dedicated the pair to his patron Count Moritz von Fries, whose home had been the scene for the famous piano improvisation duel between Beethoven and Daniel Steibelt.

Though Beethoven had composed in pairs before, these Violin Sonatas are the first of his famous companion pieces of such different character, one in the minor and one in the major, carried out most notably in his Fifth and Sixth Symphonies. The Spring Sonata’s F major key and its flowing, pastoral qualities, especially in its outer movements, are responsible for its nickname, which, however, did not arise with the composer.

The first movement’s charming main theme, which has endeared the Sonata to millions, points up several notable features, the first of which is the rigorously impartial parceling out of themes and accompaniment between the two instruments—the violin plays the melody first with accompanimental piano figuration, then the roles are reversed, and this trading off occurs throughout the Sonata. This was not always the case in most eighteenth-century works in the genre, in which the keyboard was considered the primary player. Second, the very fact that there is a great deal of accompanimental figuration—for whichever instrument—is also particularly noticeable in this Sonata as compared to Beethoven’s earlier works. And finally, the technical challenges are not overwhelming for the players, which contributes to the easygoing quality—and to the remarkable number of amateur performances this Sonata has always attracted.

The trading off continues in the slow movement, whose unhurried main theme receives florid bits of ornamentation as it returns in varied guises. Certain of these ornaments, fragmented interjections, and especially the repeated oscillations toward the close have suggested bird song to a number of listeners.

The briefest of scherzos presents a playful theme that delights the ear as it sets the violin at rhythmic odds with the piano. Apparently fascinated by this theme, Schumann adapted it for the Soldier’s March in his Album for the Young. The busy scales of the trio lead to the short return of the main theme, which trails off delicately.

As in the first movement Beethoven employs a lyrical main theme in his finale, here as a rondo refrain between contrasting episodes. One of the movement’s most unusual features is the return of this theme—elaborately set up—in a remote key before it elegantly rights itself. Toward the end he introduces a galloping variation on the theme, and continues to vary the ensuing sequence of ideas to make a conclusive finish.

© Jane Vial Jaffe

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