Beethoven Sonatas Op 30

Posted on December 29th, 2009 by

 Beethoven  – 3 Sonatas, for Piano and Violin,  Op. 30

(Dedicated to Tsar Alexander 1st)

 Beethoven dedicated his three Sonatas for Piano with Violin, Op. 30, to the Tsar Alexander 1st (1777-1825). In 1800, Alexander took the throne after the murder of his father, the Tsar Paul; it was widely assumed that he was behind the assassination. Upon his accession, he led a bloodthirsty campaign to the Caucasus, which resulted in the death of 25,000 Circassians.  Nonetheless, he was perceived as a true child of the Enlightenment; he had been educated by his grandmother Catherine the Great, who put him in the charge of a  radical Swiss tutor, who was a disciple of Rousseau. This in itself was not necessarily a badge of strictly liberal credentials, as Marie Antoinette herself had been a loyal adherent of the cult of the author of the ‘Social Contract’, and frequently made pilgrimage to his tomb. Alexander introduced many reforms in the early part of this reign, most particularly instigating governmental, legal and educational reforms. In 1793, he had married a German, the Princess Marie Luise August von Baden (1779-1826). Upon joining the Russian Orthodox Church in order to marry, she had taken the new Christian names Elisabeth Alexievna.

 The new Tsar was lionized in Vienna, and in 1802, always quick to seize the opportunity to make a political advantage; Beethoven requested permission to dedicate the three new Sonatas to him. Alexander supposedly sent a diamond ring in appreciation, and in advance of the promised commission. However, the Tsar left Vienna without paying Beethoven for the works, which debt still remained unpaid when he returned for the Vienna Congress in 1814, where he met Beethoven again.

 Beethoven sought to resolve this through a ruse, devised by Dr Andreas Bertolini, his medical adviser from 1806 to 1816.  Bertolini hatched an elaborate plan which involved obtaining permission to dedicate a Polonaise for piano, to the German Tsarina, who was an ardent fan of this new dance fad. When Bertolini first suggested the plan to Beethoven, the composer demurred, saying that he had no wish or inclination to write Polonaises, and that he especially disliked writing music to order.  Bertolini persisted, and suggested that Beethoven should sit at the piano and improvise dance tunes, until Bertolini heard one which would suit. This was duly done, and Beethoven wrote out the resulting Polonaise Op 89.   With help from Count Pyotr Wolkonsky, one of the imperial household ministers, Beethoven and Bertolini gained an audience to present the new piece. Exactly as planned, he successfully exploited the German empress’s embarrassment at the 12-year old outstanding fee, extracting 100 Ducats for the three sonatas, and 50 more, for the piano piece. It is of course, worth noting, that it was not entirely surprising that the outstanding fee for the sonatas had slipped Alexander’s mind; after all, a war, including the Battle of Borodino and the burning of Moscow, had intervened. Alexander later became obsessively religious, and was one of the ten subscribers to the Missa Solemnis. 

 The three manuscripts of the Sonatas, Op. 30 are among the most expressive of the surviving original material of Beethoven’s chamber music. They also offer a unique insight into Beethoven’s working methods, particularly into his collaboration with the violinist Ignaz Schuppanzigh (1776-1830).

 Schuppanzigh had been Beethoven’s violin teacher, from 1794, a replacement for Ferdinand Ries’ father, Franz, his teacher in Bonn. A memo written that year reveals that he was taking three lessons a week, along with his technical studies with Johann Albrechtsberger and Anton Salieri. Information is sketchy at best, but is seems clear that their regular lessons gradually morphed into consultations on string techniques and eventually into what, for better or worse, can best be described as workshops. As ever, Beethoven’s correspondence is unhelpful on this subject. He did not habitually write to the people that he saw very regularly.

 An example of this was the Czech composer  and flutist Anton Reicha (1770-1836), his exact contemporary. Reicha was his colleague in the Bonn court orchestra, and then was in Vienna for eight years from 1802. There is evidence of a deep collaboration between the two, of mutual development of ideas, but practically no surviving correspondence. Nor would there needs be, for as a rule, the closer artists collaborate, the more frequently they work together, the less documentation there will be of that collaboration. Their communication takes place face to face, over the dining table, or in the rehearsal room.

 And so it is with Ignaz Schuppanzigh (the dedicatee of the first three Sonatas for Piano and Violin, Op. 12.  Schuppanzigh had been pupil of Anton Wranitsky. In the mid-1790’s he had become leader of the Prince Lichnowsky’s private quartet. Wranitsky’s  other pupil, Josef Mayseder, who Beethoven called, ‘the Genius Boy’, became the most successful composers of Polonaises in Vienna, and the second violin of Schuppanzigh’s quartet. 

 Ignaz von Mosel wrote:

 “Schuppanzigh, who understood so perfectly how to interpret Haydn’s and Mozart’s ideas, was perhaps even more qualified to perform Beethoven’s compositions, The inspired composer soon realised this and chose him has his favourite interpreter. No sooner had his creativeness given forth, no sooner was the music copied, than Beethoven would give him his works to perform, first in the house of the music-loving Prince Lichnowsky, then later at von Zmeskall’s, the Royal Hungarian Court Secretary, a universally admired art connoisseur, and Beethoven’s trusted friend, who gave the most interesting concerts, to which the elite of the art work thronged.”

 Beethoven’s abuse of Schuppanzigh over his obesity, and later, over his problems performing the final quartets, is well-documented. It tends to overshadow the evident depth and subtlety of their collaboration. The Op. 30 manuscripts provide elegant clues as two their rehearsal and workshop processes. The two met when Beethoven moved into Alserstrasse 45, the building owned by Prince Lichnowsky. The Prince ran Friday morning chamber concerts, where from 1794, Schuppanzigh’s group regularly played.  From 1795, the responsibility for the string quartet mornings was shared with Count Rasoumovsky.

 It is clear from the three Manuscripts, that Beethoven brought the completed score to work through with Schuppanzigh.  At this point, the MS was clean, a Rheinschrift.  But the scores provide evidence of at least three separate processes at work in those rehearsals. These are the processes which any musician who has collaborated with a living composer will recognise. The first is structural alteration. Beethoven was a structural perfectionist, but also a pragmatic performer. The upshot of this was that he was on occasion willing to break the structural integrity of a work in order to render it more impressive, more effective. In the Scherzo movement of the second sonata, the C minor, the manuscript incorporates a pasted-in addition. That is to say that Beethoven finished the movement, and brought it to Schuppanzigh. However, when they played it through, the passage did not seem effective, and so Beethoven, provided a patch, a few more bars, to emphasise his musical point. This is the kind of process that often happens when a composer hears their music for the first time; a practical musician such as Beethoven would be keen to spot such aural weaknesses, and maybe through joint improvisation, come up with an improvement.

 Wegeler describes this process, with Beethoven working on his Op. 1 Piano trios with Schuppanzigh and Anton Kraft, Haydn’s great collaborator, and at that point the cellist of the Schuppanzigh quartet:”

 “Kraft pointed out for him that he should mark a passage in the third trio with  sulla corda G , and that in the score of the this trio, the finale, which Beethoven had marked 4/4, should be changed to 2/4″

 The second result of the collaborative result is most clearly evident in the exquisite manuscript of the G major Sonata, Op. 30 No 3. Of all the three manuscripts for the Op. 30 sonatas, this is one where the neatness of Beethoven’s handwriting, or otherwise, betrays most of all the places where intervention has taken place at the rehearsal stage.

 It is worth pointing out, that it seems clear that Beethoven was not in the habit of making separate copies of the violin parts for Schuppanzigh to play from. It seems that their normal practice was most that the violinist would play looking over Beethoven’s shoulder at the manuscript score on the piano music desk. The modern conceit of printing  a piano score of a sonata or chamber music with the string part in fainter type, as a cue or mnemonic for the pianist, was still some way off, as when these and similar works were published, it was never in full score, but in separate ‘part books’.

 It is particularly clear from the opening of the G major sonata Op. 30 no 3 that dramatic changes have been made to the dynamics of the movement. Large, messy inkblots obscure the barely visible original ‘f’, the original dynamic given to the whirling motif of the opening. This was the obvious volume at which a movement like this should begin, particularly, notated, as it is in unison triple octaves. However, one imagines the two musicians trying it out, and then one of them, whether Beethoven or Schuppanzigh, it matters not, blurting out, ‘but what if it was piano’. From a performer’s point of view, this is a vital piece of information. Knowing that this opening is not a ‘pure’ ‘piano’, but in point of fact, a suppressed ‘forte’, lends it a completely different tenor.

 The notion of a ‘suppressed’ dynamic brings us to a third piece of evidence of collaboration which these scores afford. The Variation movement of the first and subtlest of the set, in A major, Op. 30 no 1, includes some triple and quadruple stops, which are notorious amongst violinists for their awkwardness. The difficulty arises from the fact that in the score these chords are marked to be played ‘piano’. At no other point in Beethoven’s output for violin does he mark stressed three and four note chords so quiet; they are distinctly uncomfortable to play.  The manuscript reveals what might have been suspected all along, that this variation was more traditional, balancing ‘forte’ violin chords with the piano’s soft and rather chorale-like response, played as one would expect, quietly.  This point, does call to mind the joshing relationship that Beethoven had with Schuppanzigh, whom he and his friends were accustomed to taunt as ‘Sir Falstaff’, and to whom he later, famously said: ‘What care I for you and your damned fiddle when the spirit moves me.’  One might speculate that Schuppanzigh seized on the opportunity of these grand chords, as originally written, with great virtuosity, perhaps eliciting an oath from the composer at the piano. This might explain the somewhat frantic scratching out that is visible on the autograph, and the overwritten ‘piano’, simply to spoil ‘Falstaff’s’ fun. This change introduces introduce a novel feeling of delicate bulk to the hitherto sui generis chords. It is worth noting that Beethoven’s cruel ‘Musikalischer Scherz’, ‘Lob auf den Dicken’ (Hymn to the Fat), was written in the same year as these sonatas. It begins with the soloists singing: “Schuppanzigh ist ein Lump, Lump, Lump…”