The Strange Tale of Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata

As a (former) violinist, I cannot leave this period without paying homage to one of the great violin sonatas ever composed, Beethoven’s Kreutzer.  In this piece, written more or less contemporaneously with his Third Symphony, Beethoven begins to emerge as a new artist altogether.  I’ve often described him as music’s first punk—smashing the same chord at full volume repeatedly for effect.  But those two chords are still to come. Let’s listen to the butterfly emerge and consider two of the more interesting and famous Conversations provoked by this piece. 

It may come as some surpise, given its published title, but Beethoven did not compose this sonata for the great violinist Rodolphe Kreutzer–he composed the work for another violinist, George Bridgetower. There is something to be said that this work is rather more a duet for violin and piano than a pure violin sonata, and the truth of that becomes evident when you see that the work was premiered by Bridgetower outside of Vienna with Beethoven at the piano. Beethoven had met Bridgetower in early 1803 and they got along famously. Commissioned to write a sonata for the two of them to perform, Beethoven was eager to impress his new friend. Unfortunately, the two quarreled soon afterwards (the persistent rumor is that a woman was involved) and Beethoven, prefiguring what he would do the following year with his Third Symphony, instructed the publisher to dedicate the sonata to Kreutzer instead.

The dedication reads:

Sonata for piano and violin obbligato written in a concertante style, similar to a concerto, composed and dedicated to his friend, R. Kreuzer, member of the Conservatory of Music in Paris, first violin of the Academy of Arts, and of the Imperial Chamber, by L. van Beethoven.

This dedication holds a few clues. Notice that the piano is listed first–again, this is more a duet than a pure violin sonata. Beethoven also suggests that the piano be peformed in grand style–as if an orchestra were playing behind the violin as in a concerto. In other words, tear it up and leave nothing on the table.

Kreutzer, for his part, hated the sonata and told his friend Hector Berlioz that the work was “unintelligible.” He never performed it and likely thought it was destined for the dustbin of history. After all, Beethoven wasn’t quite Beethoven yet.

There is, it must be said, somthing to Kreutzer’s critique–the work is uneven. Perhpas reflecting Beethoven’s rush to finish the score while Bridgetower was still in Vienna, the three movements appear to have little to do with each other. The first is truly magnificent, one of the greatest compositions ever written for violin. The movement opens with a slow introduction in A major, before hitting its stride a couple of minutes later as the key shifts to A minor, rather than the relative minor (F-Sharp minor). Choices for the violinist abound and the great violinists in history have taken dramatically different approaches to both bowing and fingering. For example, most violinists (including my choice here today) take most of the presto with martelé bowing–listen for the hair to bite into the strings repeatedly. This is created by quick pressure into the strings and quick bow movement, but slowing towards the end. Others, notably Jascha Heifetz, use a spiccato technique that is characterized by short bouncing strokes on the strings. Spiccato is frightfully difficult to master but does allow the violinist to play faster. At the close of the first movement, the tempo slows to adagio once more, with the piano and violin exchanging a theme that is both a stark contrast to the rest of the movement and its explanation. Then a flourish at the end. This is truly one of the high water marks in music history.

The next two movements are somewhat unsatisfying after that first and seem somewhat unrelated to each other. There is good reason for this. The third movement was taken more or less wholesale from an earlier work–Beethoven had rewritten the final movement to be less “brilliant.” His work on the first movement was also quite advanced, so it was quickly finished. The second, however, was only in preliminary sketch form and Beethoven, notortiously slow at composition, was under the gun–the commission came in March 1803 with the recital scheduled for the end of May. Bridgetower had to peform from Beethoven’s manuscript, while Beethoven used some notes and played mostly from memory. There was, as was the custom, a lot of improvising of the score during the premiere.

Today’s recording is one of my alltime favorites, a desert island disc if there ever was one. Eschewing my traditional taste for Heifetz where speed is the order of the day, we turn instead to the German violinist Gidon Kremer, who, in the 1970s, Herbert von Karajan himself anointed as the greatest living violinist. But what makes this recording extra special is the presence of Martha Argerich on piano–who better to bring Beethoven’s relentless drive? Any performance of the Kreutzer demands that the two musicians be true equals and this superstar pairing is just what is needed. The DG recording, with its famous “close mics” heightens the drama.

Ludwig van Beethoven, Violin Sonata No. 9 in A, Op. 47 “Kreutzer”:

But that is not the end of the story. The Kreutzer has one of the more interesting musical Conversations in history, with a detour through Russian literature.

The first part of this Conversation (I know the Professor is waiting for it!) is . . . Leo Tolstoy.  In his short story, The Kreutzer Sonata, the protagonist invites a violinist to perform Beethoven’s work with his wife (a pianist).  The results were tragic.  As the protagonist explains: “I was in torture, especially because I was sure that toward me she had no other feeling than of perpetual irritation, sometimes interrupted by the customary sensuality, and that this man,—thanks to his external elegance and his novelty, and, above all, thanks to his unquestionably remarkable talent, thanks to the attraction exercised under the influence of music, thanks to the impression that music produces upon nervous natures,—this man would not only please, but would inevitably, and without difficulty, subjugate and conquer her, and do with her as he liked.”  Eventually his madness causes him to murder his wife.  Listening to Kremer and Argerich burn it down, one can see why. Certainly, a slew of artists were inspired by Tolstoy’s novel.

Czech composer Leoš Janáček owned a copy of Tolstoy’s novel. Writing more than 100 years after Beethoven, Janáček borrows liberally from Beethoven, but twists Beethoven’s themes through rougher rhythms and modern harmonics. Setting out to recreate Tolstoy’s “poor, tormented and run down woman”, you instead get the searing heat of her affair.

Leos Janacek, String Quartet No. 1 “Kreutzer”:

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