Beethoven Violin Sonata no. 1 in D, op. 12 no. 1

performed by Gidon Kremer and Martha Argerich

(cover image by Annie Spratt)

Do you think there could be anything challenging about this work? Well, you’d probably not have agreed with the critics of Beethoven’s time.

As this is the first of three works in Beethoven’s op. 12, we’ll spend a bit more time here discussing their history, and a bit less in the subsequent two articles, (spoiler alert) both to come later this week. (The above is the video we’ll be using all week; it’s 53 minutes long, but only the first 20 minutes of that are this first sonata.)

All three of the violin sonatas belonging to opus 12 date from 1798 and were dedicated to Antonio Salieri, with whom Beethoven studied for a time, and also around the time of his studies with Haydn. Interestingly, eight of Beethoven’s ten violin sonatas come before 1803, thus even coming before his third symphony. They are also almost all in three movements.

Taking a listen to this work, you might be baffled at what could possibly be so off-putting about this work that it would be described as “strange” with “what we might call perversities.” Really? Yup, even Beethoven had haters, at least a few.

He was an innovator, breaking molds and doing new things that obviously don’t seem so new anymore. The violin was given more independence from the piano part in these works, and there was also Beethoven’s penchant for interesting or non-standard modulations or moving to new or “distant” keys.

All that being said about its former controversy, the confident opening sounds perfectly suited to the first in a series of three violin sonatas. In this first movement, there are “at least three themes”, covering the D major of the work, as well as F major/D minor. There’s that refreshing, deeply satisfying “spiritual” quality, as Mitsuko Uchida refers to it (in reference to the op. 1 trios). In what I suppose is the second theme, after the violin has its moment, the ear is then drawn to piano, which repeats itself in various registers with a typically pristine, satisfying melody. The dialogue between the two instruments is pristine. A side effect of that bold opening gesture (and the Classical-Era practice of a good final cadence at the end of the exposition) is that it’s very clear when the entire opening is being repeated. “Here we are again!” In all of the simplest, most fulfilling ways, the movement is so beautiful on its own, but to know as we do now that they were only glimmers, echoes, of the greatness to come makes it so much more exciting.

The second movement is a theme-and-variations one, not ternary form. Writing a theme and variations, for Beethoven or Brahms, must have been as enjoyable for them as it is for us to listen to, because there’s something so special about them. The movement is marked by effortless, simple elegance until one major point. The third of the (only) four variations is in a minor key, and it is certainly a highlight, the most poignant, impassioned section of the movement. In contrast, the closing is reserved and tender.

The third and final movement of the work is in A major, 6/8 time, a rondo with sections that call back to the F/D minor of the opening movement. It’s playful, and maybe the most memorable movement of the three. The opening theme is one of Beethoven’s melodies that can stick with you for weeks. We have the whole package in this rondo: spirit, a sense of breadth, not only in itself, but also in the way it refers back to the opening and closes the entire piece. Structure and form aside, there’s also something contagiously jovial about this close that you can enjoy no matter what kind of musical education you have. If i can really put my finger on what exactly is so magical and perfect about Beethoven’s writing even in these early works, I’ll consider this blog a roaring success.

With the full exposition repeat and short development sections, it’s clear Beethoven is working in the smaller, Classical Era form, but he’s still pushing those limits already, as we discussed with some of the things that contemporary audiences found difficult about this work, which is so odd to think of now.  We see him innovating in so many ways, be it in the relationship between the instruments, the form of the movements, harmony, and so on. But again, all that aside, it’s just such pristinely crafted music.

Excitingly, this is only the first of ten violin sonatas we will eventually get around to, but we can at least see the other two this week, so do stay tuned for that, and thank you very much for reading.

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