Beethoven Horn Sonata, op. 17

performed by Andrew Clark, natural horn; Geoffrey Govier, fortepiano

Who is this Beethoven? His name is not known to us. Of course, Punto is very well known.

Hungarian Music Critic, in response to a performance of the work by its composer and dedicatee in Pest, 1800

As I mentioned in a concert review a week or two ago, even a superstar composer like Beethoven has some more obscure works in other forms that people likely don’t know much about unless they play those instruments. For example, op. 16, or 25, or 41, or the 3 marches for piano four hands, op. 45… are some more obscure works, not a piano sonata or string quartet or concerto or symphony, but still from Beethoven’s pen. Today is one of those works, I think, and you horn players likely know it and its dedicatee.

The piece was dedicated to Giovanni Punto, who was not Italian, but Czech, having been born Jan Václav Stich. We won’t talk much about him now, because we’ll be featuring a work of his in a few days, but he was a great virtuoso horn player, and Beethoven composed the work to showoff Punto’s ability (as well as his own at the piano). There is a story/rumor, perhaps apocryphal, that Beethoven composed the work just the day before it was to be performed by him and Punto at a concert honoring the horn player, and that Beethoven was so late in completing it that he improvised, to some degree or other, the piano part and was criticized for taking the attention away from his soloist and the star of the evening. This might be in part due to Beethoven’s relative lack of recognition outside of Vienna, and his taking a strategic opportunity to make an especially good impression. Who knows?

That being said, though, some people doubt this, because no matter how talented a performer Punto was, he must have either been able to learn the piece, almost from memory, within a few hours, or else be a superhuman sight-reader. In any case, no matter how late Beethoven wrote the piece (or just his own accompaniment), while the piece itself is “light and fairly uncomplicated”, says Robert Cummings at AllMusic, both parts are quite virtuosic. The work is in three movements and has a duration of about 16 minutes. Also, always thinking pragmatically, Beethoven (likely the composer himself, but maybe someone else) made an arrangement of the sonata for cello and piano to give the work a larger potential audience.

Listen to that first gesture from the horn, though, before the piano enters. I can’t imagine any instrument other than a horn giving that triumphant call that suddenly jumps down into the lower register of the instrument, almost comically, to me. This first movement is by far the longest of the work, at about half the piece’s performance time. Listen for that memorable call that opens the work. It appears a few times, obviously, and marks important points in the first movement. Listen also for the demanding, expressive piano part, and how the work goes from extroverted and bold to quiet and almost whispered, and of course back. If you’re familiar with the earliest piano sonatas of Beethoven, this piano writing might sound quite familiar, and the interaction between the two performers is plentiful, indeed putting the pianist, at least in my estimation, on almost the same level as the horn.

The return of that horn call marks the repeat of the exposition. We hear it all again: horn call, piano, horn call again, followed by longer horn line. The first movement is, indeed, more fully structured, with lots of really exquisite music here to enjoy. Would you expect anything less?

The second movement is beyond short, at not even 90 seconds in Clark’s reading, acting as a slight break between the bigger, more serious (but still quite ebullient) first movement and what comes next. Robert Cummings says at AllMusic that the first movement “features attractive, if not particularly memorable music”, while praising the mood and writing in the very brief second movement, even if it does act as no more than an interlude to what Cummings says “may be the best movement of the three,” the rondo.

I would tend to agree with that statement, but with the clarification that, as we have recently discussed elsewhere, it’s hard for some of Beethoven’s works in less common forms to stand up to the more commonly-seen  genres (quartets, piano [or violin or even cello] sonatas, not to mention symphonies and concertos). That being said, anyone who loves Beethoven and all that his music embodies is glad to have anything from his pen to listen to, and maybe for some of you this is a new work. The rondo bears that out, with an expressive, varied, colorful and challenging horn part, energetic piano writing, making for a chamber work that screams Beethoven but is (more) rarely heard. The rondo has bursts of energy that would likely have given the audience a surprise if it didn’t also sound infused with a sense of humor and jollity.

In fact, speaking of rarely heard, this work is indeed the only horn sonata we’ll be addressing in the series, but that’s obviously not to say there aren’t others. There assuredly are, but as I said, and as you have already seen, we’ll be focusing on concertos. There are chamber pieces lined up, certainly, and even a solo piece, but that’s all to come later. For now, go give a(nother) listen to an early Beethoven work which you as of yet might not have paid much attention to. This is the last we’ll see of Beethoven for a brief while, but we obviously couldn’t go through this series, especially mentioning this work, and not give Punto a bit more attention, so we’ll be seeing him again in the coming week. Stay tuned, and thank you for reading.

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One thought on “Beethoven Horn Sonata, op. 17

  1. There he is – Punto. My apologies. 😄 Have a great day. I’ll be back with Shostakovich in a few minutes. Seems sppropriate in these dystopian times.

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