Beethoven-Sonata Op 96 – Recording and writing

Posted on January 13th, 2010 by

The Sonata Op 96 was the last work for piano with violin ‘accompaniment’, which Beethoven completed. His previous work for this combination, the somewhat inappropriately named ‘Kreutzer Sonata’, was his earliest incorporation of the concertante chamber aesthetic in the duo genre, anticipated by Samuel Wesley a full decade earlier. Beethoven dedicated the Op 96 Sonata to his pupil, patron and confidant, the Erherzog (Archduke) Rudolph of Austria (1788-1831), who had first premiered a major work, the ‘Triple Concerto’ at the age of 16. It was the Archduke, who, in collaboration with the Princes Kinsky and Lobkowitz to provide Beethoven an annuity in 1809 to persuade him to stay in Vienna.   The Sonata was premiered on 29th December 1912, in a private concert that the Archduke gave with the great French virtuoso, Pierre Rode in the Lobkowitz Palace.  The ‘public’ premiere took place on the 7th January 1813.  The first edition of the Sonata appeared in the imprint of Steiner and Co (Vienna), in July 1816, as well as in a London edition published by Birchall and Co the same year.

Jacques Pierre Joseph Rode (1774-1830) had been a pupil of Viotti, who incidentally had been Marie Antoinette’s solo violinist. Rode, one of the leading lights of the young Paris Conservatoire, was appointed Napoleon Bonaparte’s solo violinist in 1800, before going to St Petersburg in 1803 as first violinist to Tsar Alexander 1st, to whom Beethoven had dedicated his Op 30 Sonatas for Piano and Violin. He had returned to Paris in 1808 after 5 stressful years in the intrigues and cabals of the Russian court; it was widely rumoured that the experience had broken both his spirit and his playing.

There was a certain irony in that whilst the Hapsburg Archduke-cleric was playing very careful politics in concert with this pillar of the post-revolutionary Parisian musical establishment, Napoleon’ defeated Grande Armée, once the largest military force ever assembled, that had frozen to death in the snow, ice and mud on the retreat from Moscow, was arriving on the Prussian border allegedly reduced to thousand men, and sixty horse. Beethoven himself was never above politicking, and this concert might be seen as yet another step on his way to becoming effectively ‘composer-in-residence’ to the multilateral ‘Vienna Congress’ which would establish the next hundred years’ balance of  power three years later. There is little evidence of how it was decided to play concerts with Rode, but plenty that both Rudolph and Beethoven were anxious about the choice of string player. One is almost driven to speculate that it might have been something that was foisted upon them.

Truth be told, establishing close links with the French music establishment was perhaps one of the wisest moves that Beethoven made. These dated back to his close friendship and correspondence with the Czech composer, theorist and pedagogue, Anton Reicha (1770-1836), who had played with him in the Bonn court orchestra; after moving to Paris in 1808, he trained two generations of the leading French composers. After all, it was in Paris where the earliest societies were founded specifically for the performance of Beethoven’s music, and where the best performances of his instrumental music, played to truly professional standards, could be found over the next three decades, thanks to the efforts of Francois-Antoine Habeneck and Jean-Pierre Maurin. In Paris, Jean Francois le Sales Baillot, who collaborated with Kreutzer, Rode, and Boucher, wrote the first pedagogical tutor, L’Art du Violon (1834) that systematically advocated the study of Beethoven’s violin music. There can be little doubt that the reputation of Beethoven’s late quartets as music’s ne plus ultra was ensured by the performances that Hector Berlioz heard in Paris at the end of the 1820’s, performed by the trail-blazing Bohrer Quartet.

However, in the autumn of 1812, Beethoven was concerned about the prospect of working with this essentially unknown eminence grise, particularly since he was not in the habit of collaborating with musicians not part of his circle, of his ‘team’. Over the years, he built extraordinarily close relationships with a series of gifted violinists; one might observe that no composer before since Beethoven had a more gifted circle of ‘initiate’ collaborators. The violinists in particular, including Andreas Romberg, Wenzel Krumpholtz, Ignaz Schuppanzigh, Franz Clement, Josef Mayseder, Joseph Boehm, and of course the irrepressible George August Polgreen Bridgetower, a litany of the most influential teachers, virtuosi, the creative forces of the day. An 1812 entry in the Tagebuch, begun earlier that year, stressed the importance Beethoven attached to spending time with ‘his’ musicians, as if he felt that through such social osmosis, he could imbibe the technical and musical aspects of the instruments, not to mention, the spirits of the players, along with the cheese and wine.

“Every day share a meal with someone, such as musicians, where one can discuss this and that-instruments etc, violins, cellos, and so on.” Entry 36, Tagebuch 1812

Beethoven had good reason to be worried; letters from the Archduke Rudolph warned him that Rode was past his prime. Beethoven always took great care to ensure that the performances of his chamber music were at the highest level. In 1825, he even went so far as to force his one-time violin teacher Schuppanzigh and his quartet colleagues to sign an ersatz contract, in which they promised to practise their individual parts for the premiere of the E flat major quartet Op 127 (This did not have the desired effect; the performance was disastrous). It does not seem to have crossed Beethoven’s mind that part of the problem might have been that he habitually asked players to explore not only technical, but musical and spiritual vistas for which no chamber musicians before had ever been trained. However, Rudolph counselled him to ‘customise’ the new sonata to fit the Rode’s limitations. Josef Meyerbeer, who heard Rode in Paris one month before the Vienna concert, observed the falling-off audible in his playing:

‘In November Pierre Rode came and played at court and gave a public concert. His beautiful tone is the same as it was ten years ago; on that occasion, however, I found greater passion and warmth in his playing. It has been left with a dubious correctness that left me quite cold…the reception and the opinions of this were much divided.’ Giacomo Meyerbeer-Diaries December 1812


The main issue of concern for Beethoven and his royal pupil was the veteran violinist’s right hand, his bowing arm.

‘Tomorrow very early the copyist will be able to begin the last movement. As I myself, meanwhile am writing several other works, I have not hastened very much with this last movement for the sake of mere punctuality: and all the more, as in writing it, I must take into account Rode’s style of playing. We are fond of rushing passages in out finales. Yet that does not suite Rode, and that really troubles me. Everything else will go to plan.’ Beethoven to the Archduke Rudolph December 1812


The result was extraordinary, almost unprecedented within Beethoven’s oeuvre, a sonata specifically tailored not only to the requirements, but the limitations of its intended performer. Up till this point, there was not a Beethoven single sonata for piano with violin that did not exploit the violin and piano’s shared ability to articulate with great variety and brilliance at speed. From the classicising Op 12 Sonatas, up to the pugnacious Sonata that Beethoven wrote for the fiery George August Polgreen Bridgetower, both instruments are pushed to the limit of high-speed ‘separate-bow’ virtuosity There is only one documented case of Beethoven actually adjusting a speed indication at the behest of a violinist, in the final ‘coda’ of the Op 127  E flat quartet, which Pierre Rode’s student, Joseph Boehm tentatively suggested might ‘sound’ better at a slower speed. Beethoven, for once, concurred but archly inscribed, allegro comodo. As Rudolph pointed out, Rode could not play effectively with fast separate bows, ruling out spiccato, staccato, balzato, jeté, all the Rossini-esque feux d’artifice that distinguished much of his violin writing to date. This provided dazzling peroration to the quartet that was being finished as he wrote this sonata, the F minor Op 95 ‘Serioso’. In Beethoven’s decision to avoid this type of writing lies the character of the whole of the Op 96 sonata; ever the ‘integrating’ composer, Beethoven not only took Rudolph’s advice, but built much of the work out of long slurred lines, only writing brilliant roulades of semiquavers when the bow was resolutely legato, and made this style the very heart of his new sonata, and one might observe, opened up a new possibilities for the future of the Sonata Finale, that would lead to the refulgent lyricism of Op 109 and the Op 132 Quartet over the ensuing decades.

Beethoven’s Sonata exists in an extraordinary manuscript from 1812, which also incorporates his adjustments made around the time of the work’s first publication four years later. The work was typically printed in multiple cities around Europe, as, by this time, Beethoven was a past master of coordinating publication with any number of Verlag, all of whom were typically under the impression that they were getting exclusivity over the piece. At this time, the manner in which a publisher ensured their unique rights over any piece was by having the manuscript, not a copy, sent to them. Beethoven was not above creating ‘fake’ manuscripts, as in the case, famously of the violin concerto. These extra versions were not fair copies, Rheinschriften, but apparent ‘working’ texts. The result was obvious. In the case of the violin concerto, the two versions, created for the reason above, are different. It was simply impossible for a composer and improvising performer like Beethoven to write out a piece, without engaging his creative, his interpretative faculties. The result was that each ‘copy’ became a further or different compositional step, to a degree, an act of ‘transcription’. Busoni would throw his hands in the air and say, ‘ what did you expect to happen!?’ This has ramifications for Beethoven’s manuscripts in general; all of them contain the ‘charge’, the energy of the ‘composer-performer-transcriber’ (all of which Beethoven was), constantly re-evaluating and interpreting with every ink stroke. In the case of this manuscript, we have an almost unique circumstance of a major accompanied chamber work, in which the piano part was explicitly written for another player than Beethoven himself; after all, it must not be forgotten that Beethoven had been a string player of professional accomplishment, who had begun his studies in Bonn with the distinguished pedagogue Franz Ries, father of Ferdinand, who studied the piano with Beethoven in Vienna. The manuscript itself was not given to Rudolph to play from, as is clear from two factors. Firstly the letter quoted above-‘ Tomorrow very early the copyist will be able to begin the last movement.’- of his hands to be used in rehearsal and performance. Clearly Beethoven had no intention of letting his original out of his hands, indicating that the various sections were being sent to Rudolph to study as Beethoven finished them, and secondly, the state of the manuscript  itself compared to Beethoven’s other ‘accompanied’ sonata works, Op 23, 24, and 30, which of course were all written to be Ignaz Schuppanzigh. The legion alterations to dynamics and articulation in these works evidence their having been made in the course of rehearsal with his colleague, perhaps explanation for their scrawled and blotched appearance, in marked contrast to the neatness of the writing underneath. Beethoven has a completely unjustified reputation for bad handwriting. Admittedly, the scores of his solo piano sonatas can sometimes be almost indecipherable to the untrained eye, but where he needed the copy to be as legible as possible, quite possibly because Schuppanzigh or Bridgetower was reading over his shoulder as they worked together, and maybe even in performance, these scores are quite beautiful, with the exception of the emendations and alterations under consideration. The simple explanation for the scruffy appearance of these changes is that Beethoven was doing them in haste, as he and his partner experimented in rehearsal. Perhaps he was making the ill advised attempt to write with his ever more stubby quill pen on the music desk of this Streicher or Broadwood piano; even were he turning to an adjacent table or desk to do this, somewhat unlikely in the white heat of ‘workshopping’ with Schuppanzigh, this might explain blotches on, say, the first page of the G major sonata Op 30 no3.

The alterations in Op 96 betray no such signs of haste; they range from harmonic alterations, rewriting of figuration, to refinement of accents, rerouting of slurs and staccato marks. Remember the reference to the copyist; were Beethoven to have been sitting watching the rehearsal, score in hand, observing the movements of Rode and Rudoph, he would no doubt, like any composer, have sat there with this score in hand, maybe on a desk or table in front of him, perhaps notating the results of their rehearsal as all three tried out refinements of syntax or dynamics. This would have enabled him to adjust the manuscript comparatively neatly. This might also explain the presence of some extraordinary violin fingerings, written on the full score of the last movement in ink, in a firm hand, which is apparently Beethoven’s. The last virtuoso flight of the violin, smartly imitated by the piano, is a ‘broken chord’ in G major, reaching up to the stratosphere of the early nineteenth century violin. The fingering that Beethoven marked on the last four notes as the player goes off the end of the fingerboard is ‘4-4-4-4’. This has often been treated with a degree of circumspection by writers and players, but can be seen as a window into the expressive vocabulary of contemporaneous performers. There are a number of exciting possibilities. This might be a technique that Beethoven demanded of Rode,  either to introduce more energy in into the arpeggio, to avoid a first finger ‘anchor’ on one of the notes used, which would introduce an undesirable sense of harmonic resolution, to make the ‘fireworks’ even more ‘dangerous’. Perhaps this was a fingering which Rode himself suggested, producing the classic French expressive portamento, the porte de voix. Even more excitingly is the possibility that this fingering was a reflection of a piano fingering, perhaps a ‘chopping’ finger repetition to the top of the instrument; perhaps the reason that this was not written into the piano part as well was that this was something that he had discussed extensively with Rudolph, in advance of the rehearsals with Rode in November 1812. Whatever the origin of this fingering, it opens exciting possibilities for performance today. What is somewhat extraordinary, in my experience, is that this instruction, and instruction it surely is, is usually ignored-it was pointed out to me one of my professors, a distinguished musician, who really should have known better, as an amusing example of impractibility of Beethoven’s fiddle writing, rather than a challenge to be faced.


It is likely that also on one of  the Christmas 1812 concert programmes was the Erherzog Rudlph’s unprecendently large scale variations in F minor, based on a Minuet by another prince, the late Louis Ferdinand of Prussia. Thomas Carlyle, in his monumental biography of the most famous of all German royal ‘musician warriors’, Frederick the Great, wrote,

“That fine Louis Ferdinand, who was killed at Jena: concerning whom Berlin, in certain emancipated circles of it, still speaks with regret. He had fine qualities,; but went far a-roving, into radicalism, into romantic love, into champagne, and was cut down on the threshold of Jena, desperately fighting, perhaps happily for him.’

Beethoven would have relished this image of the dashing prince, fighting to the last; he too was an admirer of the Prince. Ferdinand Ries wrote:

“Beethoven went around Berlin a good deal with Himmel, about whom he said that he had quite a pretty talent but nothing further. His piano playing was elegant and pleasant but he was in no way comparable to Prince Louis Ferdinand. He paid the latter what he considered a great compliment when he once told him that he did not play in a royal or princely manner, but like a capable pianist!”

He had, of course, indicated his approval of this ‘capable’ pianist, by dedicating his 3rd piano concerto to him. The fifth, the ‘Emperor’, ironically partially written in the cellar whilst the Napoleonic mortar shells screamed over the house was dedicated to Rudolf.

It is tempting to consider Rudolph’s’ extraordinary set of variations as a panegyric to the dead prince-artist. Certainly the range of the piece suggests something of the radical, educated, brave bon viveur and man of letters that had so impressed Beethoven and Carlyle. Perhaps, like his, who played his flute every day, he also practised even on campaign, though I doubt whether he was able to haul a fortepiano around the battlefields of central Europe.

The set of variations, which begins with Prince Louis Ferdinand’s unostentatious menuetto stated in the simplest terms, then progresses through various contrapuntal  couplets, canons and inversions, before bursting into romantic rhapsodising, and a Adagio variation worthy of Chopin; I have always been tempted with the idea that this F minor variant was not by the Archduke Rudolph, but by Beethoven himself, ensuring, that his charge, and by extension, himself, looked as good as possible. There is no suggestion that Rudolph’s compositional technique was below par (Beethoven himself was particularly fond of a set of variations that Rudolph wrote on one of his themes), but rather, this variation has a depth of expression, a profound beauty that is of quite a different order from the rest of the piece. Particularly noteworthy, is that the ‘scale’ of not only each variation, of the piece itself grows from minute to minute, as the two instruments progressively vie with each other more and more, both in terms of virtuosity and emotional depth.

This work negotiates the dividing line between the ‘accompanied’ genre, for virtuoso keyboard and ‘subservient’ melody instrument, and the air variée made popular by Rode, where the piano provided an ‘oompah’ backdrop to violinistic rills and roulades. Having begun in the former, it switches to a ‘democratic’ sharing-out of the material, allowing the violin to have a virtuoso role that is completely absent in any of Beethoven’s ‘stand-alone’ works for piano and solo instrument, from the 1792  Variations on Se Vuol Ballare, to the 1817 Variations on National melodies Op 107 for flute and piano. However, this equality having been established, the piano suddenly switches over into concerto-esque mien as if evocation of the pianistic brilliance of the pugilistic prince, brushing the violin aside with warlike cadenzas, Hummel-esque chromatic flights and cannonades. At the last, the silenced violin tentatively reintroduces the original theme, now seeming seems rather pallid in comparison to all that it has engendered, maybe the last gasp of the slain prince on the battle field of Jena.

Of all the Viennese composers, perhaps it was Schubert who most successfully ‘solved’ the problem of the ‘stand-alone’ virtuoso duo variation. Works such as the flute Variations (clearly written with his violin in hand) on Trockne Blümen, and the 1825 variations that he wrote for the Czech Paganini-disciple Josef Slawik, Sei Mir Gegrüsst manage to eschew excessive ‘your-turn-my-turn’ deferment or the subservience of either player, incorporating mutual virtuosity and completely interwoven improvisational duetting in a manner that was frankly, not interesting to Beethoven. Curiously, earlier sets of variations for piano and violin by Weber come close to this model but were composed, typically for the period, in tandem with his violinist, the French virtuoso and composer, Lafont. He later worked extensively on joint works with the young Liszt, resulting in a set of variations on Le Marin.

Curiously, Beethoven seemed more ready to experiment with interwoven duo-writing within the medium of the ‘accompanied’ form.  Perhaps the fact was that autonomous duo variations tended to be aimed at the broader range of abilities of the amateur market, necessitating simpler string writing; of course, there was no financial imperative driving Rudolph’s compositions, so there was no need for him to tone down the demands on either player. Even in 1816, Beethoven was smartly rebuked by George Thomson, from whom he was making a lot of money with his folksong transcriptions for piano trio with voice, that his instrumental parts were too difficult and, would therefore reduce the potential sales. Beethoven had an ever keener eye to his profit margin, so this would quite naturally be a consideration in the composition of works, such as variations, aimed at the dilettante, bourgeois audience, huddled around their new fortepianos in the evenings.

Beethoven was writing chamber music for both ‘audiences’ simultaneously, skilled dilettante amateurs, and the rarefied circle of intellectuals around Baron von Swieten. A few years later, Beethoven sent George Smart the score for the aforementioned Op 95 F Minor quartet, pointedly named ‘Serioso’. In the letter attached to this Quartet, he wrote:

‘Nota Bene; this quartet is written for a small circle of connoisseurs and is never to be performed in public.’

©Peter Sheppard Skaerved 2003