Cello Sonata in C major, op. 102, no. 1

December 13, 2015 – Paul Watkins, cello; Gilles Vonsattel, piano

Beethoven dated the present C major Sonata “toward the end of July 1815” and its D major companion “beginning of August 1815.” These two works, along with the Opus 90 Piano Sonata, the song cycle An die ferne Geliebte, and the Opus 101 Piano Sonata, show the Romantic depth of feeling, experiments with form, delicately interlaced lines, and unexpected harmonies that mark the threshold of his celebrated late style.

The impetus for writing cello sonatas at his time lies in a series of extraordinary events, connected in various ways with the Hungarian Countess Marie Erdödy. She was not only a generous patron but an excellent amateur pianist, though often bedridden, and was his astute advisor on business and personal affairs. In 1808 he had lived in rooms she generously furnished in her spacious Viennese apartment, and he called her his Beichvater (father confessor)—that is, until he stormed out in 1809 in the first of several rifts in their friendship.

On New Year’s Eve 1814, the palace of one of Beethoven’s other patrons, Count Razumovsky, burned down. His house quartet—the celebrated Schuppanzigh Quartet, which had premiered many of Beethoven’s works—had to be disbanded, and the cellist, Joseph Linke, one of Beethoven’s good friends, took up employment as musical tutor to the Erdödy family. Shortly thereafter Countess Erdödy wrote to Beethoven to mend a rift that had lasted since 1810. Her letter doesn’t survive, but Beethoven responded on February 29, 1815, thanking her for renewing their friendship and promising to send her his Opus 97 Trio and other works that hadn’t yet been published.

The countess must have then requested some music for Linke, judging by Beethoven’s letter (undated but probably that summer) saying that “the promised music will be sent from town”—most likely one or both of the cello sonatas. Since the Erdödys had moved to Jedlesee, east of Vienna just across the Danube River, Beethoven delighted in making a pun on linke (left in German): “The violoncello [Linke] is to apply himself, starting on the left (linke) bank of the Danube and playing until everyone has crossed from the right bank of the Danube; in this way your population will soon increase.” Beethoven dedicated these fruits of their renewed friendship to Countess Erdödy.

The C major Sonata divides neatly into two movements, each containing a slow introduction to a fast section. Beethoven acknowledged his unusual structure with the subtitle “free sonata” in his manuscript. He had explored free structures much earlier—as in his Opus 27 Sonatas, subtitled “quasi una fantasia”—but here there is a new concision and concentration on contrapuntal lines. And, though slow introductions were nothing new for him, the sweet tenderness and contrapuntal intricacy of the opening Andante sounds more personal, like an exchange of confidences.

Beethoven shatters this intimacy with the vehement unison opening of the Allegro vivace, which is doubly striking for its minor mode. He finds myriad uses for the dotted rhythm of the Allegro’s opening as the movement progresses, and also opens up brief miraculous moments of poignant sweetness within the prevailing vigor.

The reflective conversation resumes in the Adagio introduction to the finale, but now with florid embellishment of insistent lines and with many passages in the cello’s lowest register. A building anxiety gives way to a varied recall of the first movement’s introduction in all its tenderness, which provides a perfect foil for the humor of the finale. A recall of this kind appears occasionally in earlier works—significantly in one of his “fantasia” sonatas, Opus 27, no. 1, though in a slightly different position—but it becomes more pronounced in his late works, most notably in the Ninth Symphony.

Built from one of his most concise motives, the lively finale again shows complex contrapuntal thought, but also humor with a touch of irony. Commentators relatively recently have discussed “Romantic irony” in Beethoven’s late style, indicative of ambivalence and self-doubt. This parallels his verbal sense of humor, which at the time became infused with ironic self-deprecation—a famous example being his death-bed remark: “Applaud friends, the comedy is over.” In his music the irony shows in contradictions, interruptions, fragmentation, and seemingly indecisive moments. The present finale’s dramatic interruptions and clever fragmentation all lend an ironic subcurrent to the jollity.

The new style of these cello sonatas, unsurprisingly, evoked puzzlement at first. In 1815 Mannheim Kapellmeister Michael Frey heard Linke and Beethoven’s former student Carl Czerny play the premiere of one of the Opus 102 Sonatas (he did not record which), and confided to his diary, “It is so original that it is impossible to understand on first hearing.”

© Jane Vial Jaffe

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