Week 21 – Beethoven’s Blog

Posted on August, 12th 2021

Derived from Latin, Cantata is a piece to be sung. Sonata is a piece to be sounded or played. These terms reach far back to the second half of the 16th century with music by Giovanni Gabrieli, a figure who bridged the Renaissance and Baroque periods. The sonata flourished during the baroque period, especially in Italy with composers such as Corelli, Vivaldi, Veracini, etc. Baroque sonatas were typically written for one or two solo instruments, a keyboard (harpsichord), and a bass line instrument that would support the bass of the keyboard. For instance, that instrument could be a cello, bass viol, theorbo, lute, etc.

As we gradually moved into the Classical period (c.1750-1800), the sonata became more formalized, typically for a single solo instrument with keyboard or even just a solo instrument, usually piano in that case. (Beethoven wrote 32 sonatas for piano alone that are monuments in the pianist’s repertory.) Early sonatas from this period relied heavily on the virtuosity of the keyboard player with the other instrument, violin, or flute perhaps, playing a supporting role. But as time moved on, more of a balance between the two voices was achieved, especially in the hands of our hero, Ludwig van Beethoven. Do you recall the week we spent looking at Beethoven’s Op. 47, his Kreutzer sonata for violin and piano? There is no question at all that by then, in Beethoven’s mind, the two instrumentalists were equal in importance. Such it is also with Beethoven’s monumental Op. 69 Sonata in A Major for cello and piano.

I have asked Marina Hoover, wonderful cellist and friend of the White Lake Music Society, to offer a few thoughts on this piece from a cellist’s perspective. Many of you will remember her participation in last year’s White Lake Chamber Music Festival as she played three concerts with the Avalon String Quartet. She and Andrea Swan were scheduled to perform this very sonata on the 2020 White Lake Chamber Music Festival that so sadly, had to be canceled due to the virus. The following are some of her thoughts paraphrased by me at times.

“The A Major possesses an overt optimism and lyricism, even with the occasional outbursts, there is always a certain regalness.”
“The first two sonatas (Opus 5 No’s 1,2) were more like piano concerti with the cello commenting. Beethoven sonatas were the first example of the piano part fully written out. With Beethoven’s meticulous writing, there is no room for the pianist to elaborate on the figured bass that was traditionally written.”

“In the A major sonata each part has equal responsibility and music making, total equality.” Therefore, “The challenge is finding a partner that speaks the same musical language and has the same musical approach. The parts are so interwoven that it is really the melding of two voices into one.”
“The last movement has to be played with a certain ease and facility.”

Thank you Marina! As an instrumentalist myself let me say that, playing Beethoven with a certain ease and facility, is as the saying goes, much easier said than done. I’ve always been struck by this sonata being so sunny in its first and last movements. Then the incredibly whimsical second movement where Beethoven likes to play with us with the rhythmical tricks he uses. Just where is the beat? I’m always touched by that short little slow movement going into the finale. It has to be in the right hands however, to achieve the kind of emotional impact that Beethoven demands.
I am including links to two recordings of very different character. The first by Jacqueline Du Pre, so heartfelt and personal. The second by Paul Tortelier, very patrician and perfectly played.

Jaquiline Du Pre

Paul Tortelier

I hope you all enjoy this brilliant sonata by Beethoven!