Beethoven’s Cello

Marc Moskovitz, cello
Larry Todd, piano


Beethoven’s five sonatas for piano and cello mark Western music’s first true ensemble sonatas for the combination of these two instruments; works that in time would become regarded as cornerstones of the cello-piano repertoire. Until Beethoven, music for cello and piano tended to favor the cello as a virtuosic vehicle, and more often than not subjugated the keyboard to an accompanying role. But in 1796, Beethoven, then a twenty-six-year-old virtuoso pianist and a composer of some promise, set out from his adopted home of Vienna on a tour and while underway began sketching ideas for two cello sonatas, works that would forever revolutionize the nature of this ensemble. Once in Berlin—as far from home as Beethoven would ever travel—Beethoven performed his newest offerings for Frederick William II, the reigning Prussian monarch, along with Duport, his court cellist. That the king was an avid cellist no doubt inspired Beethoven to write for the instrument, though the results must have been shocking, even for one as worldly as Frederick. Rather than scores that traversed traditional, conservative musical terrain, like any number of works that the king’s own cellists had often dispatched, the cocksure composer delivered not one but two breathtakingly original compositions, true ensemble sonatas overflowing with a wealth of ideas. This was hardly music for the sake of virtuosity and though each sonata certainly makes challenging demands on both players, Beethoven’s vision was something more akin to a real musical event. This, along with their daring musical gambits, and the fact that both sonatas were more than double the length of anything that had come before, must have astounded both the king and his retinue. Though his thoughts went unrecorded, Frederick sent the brash young Beethoven home with a gold snuff box, a gift the composer would proudly boast about later. It is not known what became of the snuff box, but as for the two sonata manuscripts that accompanied Beethoven in his travels back to Vienna, they were to forever alter how subsequent composer’s conceived of the cello-piano duo.

Both of the Op. 5 sonatas are constructed along similar lines—each begins with a slow introduction that segues directly into the fast first movement proper. Then, forgoing a formal slow movement, each concludes with a brilliant rondo, finales that open with memorable themes which are brought back repeatedly throughout. But that is where the similarity between the two sonatas ends. Each is a world unto itself, the F major robust and humorous, the G minor (at least the first movement) a dramatic tour de force. And despite being relatively early works in Beethoven’s oeuvre (his last published work was Op. 135 and many opus numbers contained multiple compositions), Beethoven’s explosive dynamic ranges, unexpected harmonic shifts and an unprecedented uses of silence, techniques that will serve him well for years afterwards, are all already present, evident throughout the G minor sonata presented this afternoon.

Some ten years passed before Beethoven returned to this instrumentation, having since composed monumental works like the Third (“Eroica”), Fifth and Sixth (“Pastoral”) Symphonies, the “Appassionata” Piano Sonata and the “Razumovsky” String Quartets (Op. 59). His reputation as one of the greatest of living composers was by now well established and certainly his concerts in Vienna were major events. He had also established a string of benefactors, men (mostly) who ponied up generous sums of money to allow Beethoven to compose unimpeded by the grind of a day job and whose names, in most cases, are remembered today solely on account of their names gracing the title pages of his published compositions. The A major Cello Sonata, Op. 69, is a case in point. It is dedicated to a Count Gleichenstein, a man long thought to have been an amateur cellist, but who in all probability was simply a generous patron. Gleichenstein also harbored one quality shared by a number of the composer’s other long-time patrons: the ability to put up with Beethoven’s tempestuous outbursts. They understood that his moodiness was a consequence of his growing deafness, ongoing illnesses, and his stubborn unwillingness to bow to the whim of the nobility, even if they paid his bills. And by allowing him to do what few if any others could, the music world would be all the richer.

The A major Sonata is a product of Beethoven’s so-called “heroic” period, middle years that witnessed the mastery of his craft and gave way to some of the most titanic works of the repertoire. Op. 69 fits squarely into this period. Though less than 30 minutes long, the effect is that of a much longer piece of music, a consequence of its exquisite craftsmanship, emotional breath, and overall musical arc. Indeed, as with other works from this period, there is a sense of long-range direction, the finale a logical conclusion of events set in motion from the sonata’s opening bars. This is of course amplified by the fact that the truncated slow movement moves directly into the finale, but even so, as with the triumphant Fifth Symphony, the overall plan of the Cello sonata demonstrates masterful, majestic long-range architecture.

By 1815, the now mature Beethoven had come to a crossroads, as the tumultuous, highly personal works of the Heroic decade appear to have played themselves out. Beethoven dispatched a couple works performed during the Congress of Vienna, scores that like the Congress celebrations, were filled with a bombast but lacked sophistication. And then musical silence, as Beethoven went into a sort of musical hibernation, as if gathering strength and ideas for what was to come. The first works of consequence following this musical hiatus were the Op. 102 Sonatas for Piano and Cello, works whose language was so altered from what preceded them as to almost appear inked by another composer entirely. Gone is the Op. 5’s sense of unlimited ideas or the romantic majesty of the Op. 69. Now we have Beethoven entering his late phase, a period marked by experimentation with new textures, reliance on tight-knit motives, and an intense ability to say what needed to be said within a remarkably brief span of time. Like the Op. 5, the final two cello sonatas were composed as a pair, but their differences outweigh their similarities.

The C major Sonata heard this afternoon is certainly the more accessible of the two, though throughout both Beethoven achieves a sublime partnership, an unsurpassed equality between two players who evenly share both the leading and accompanying roles. That the cello has fully liberated itself is evident in the opening solo bars of the C major—perhaps inspired by the opening of the earlier Op. 69?—but it’s Beethoven’s juxtaposition of his forces, and his handling of the rapidly shifting emotional swings, that makes this sonata what it is. Among the many striking features found in the C major Sonata is a passage halfway through the Adagio, which recalls the sonata’s very opening notes. This technique, which would play out fully in the finale of the 9th Symphony, would greatly influence generations of composers to follow. The humorous finale features a game of cat and mouse (as in life, Beethoven certainly had a playful, mischievous streak when he chose to exploit it), with each player attempting to intercept the other, until finally both work together to bring the sonata to a brilliant conclusion.

It has almost become cliché to say Beethoven was ahead of his time, but certainly the sonatas for piano and cello offer abundant proof of this fact. For years after the composer’s death they were rarely performed, then they gradually gained adherents until finally becoming established foundations of the repertoire. The Op. 5 sonatas were unlike anything heard before, completely revolutionizing the nature of this partnership. Op. 69, of course, stands as a crowning achievement of the literature and the gold standard for every composer that followed. And as for the Op. 102 sonatas, their progressive language and intense emotional shifts befuddled critics well into the 19th century, but are today regarded among the cello world’s greatest treasures. Beloved of cellists across the globe, these works like so much that Beethoven wrote, demand as much as the performer can give but pay out generous dividends in return.

© Marc Moskovitz