Beethoven Cello Sonata no. 1 in F, op. 5 no. 1

performed by Mstislav Rostropovich and Sviatoslav Richter, or below with Maisky and Argerich

(cover image by Eddie Garcia)

I told you we weren’t done with Beethoven.

The young composer’s first cello sonatas are not only his first, but sort of… the first of their kind. John Palmer at AllMusic says that “Beethoven’s composition of sonatas for cello and piano was unprecedented; he had no models in the works of Haydn or Mozart.” In a similar vein, Wikipedia mentions that “Beethoven, indeed, is credited with composing one of the first cello sonatas with a written out piano part.”

Prior to this time, the piano took the spotlight, and the cello was merely a subsidiary role, but Beethoven liberated the form to provide to us what we think of as the modern-day sonata, where the two are at least on equal footing, rather than the cello being merely an add-on.

The two works of op. 5 were written in Berlin in 1796, where Beethoven met the King of Prussia, Friedrich Wilhelm II, who was “a keen cellist.” As a young composer, this obviously proved a great opportunity for connections, so the piece was written for and dedicated to him, but the premiere seems to have been given by a man named Duport, either one of king’s teacher’s or his brother, with the composer at the piano. Beethoven’s student Ferdinand Ries gives his account:

At the court of King Frederic Wilhelm II he played the two grand sonatas with obbligato violoncello, Op 5, written for Duport, the King’s first violoncellist, and himself. On his departure he received a gold snuff-box filled with louis d’ors. Beethoven declared with pride that it was not an ordinary snuff-box, but one that it might have been customary to give to an ambassador.

Well, la dee dah.

The first of these two similarly structured works has two movements, as follows, and plays for a duration of about 25 minutes:

  1. Adagio sostenuto – Allegro
  2. Rondo. Allegro vivace

The first movement is significantly longer than the second, with the latter taking up a mere 6-7 minutes of the total playing time. Matthew Rye states at Hyperion that the first movement is “introduced by an Adagio sostenuto that is almost a movement in its own right.” It’s almost like that of a Haydn symphony, but it interests me how long it would be before Beethoven wrote a single symphonic movement that lasted that long. It would be the second movement of the third symphony for sure. Along with Rye’s statement, it’s almost easier to think of it as a prelude, establishing the key of F major before we move into the movement proper.

The cheery F major beginning is more than just an introduction. Perhaps I’m reading more into it than I should, but the first few gestures of the work, two entire phrases, with similar contour, are in unison, piano and cello together. That’s our departure point: unison.  It doesn’t stay that way for very long, but pay attention and try to pick out the two critical areas of the opening of this movement: when the exposition officially begins (that is to say, the end of the introduction), and then when the cello picks up that melody that the piano first introduced. Secondary to that is the second subject, obviously, but all shows what I feel is the overall effect of this piece, Beethoven’s general musicality.

It’s a huge, even almost unwieldy, first movement, with an introductory section, the exposition, which is repeated, finally leading to the development… all of this in its multiple sections takes a large portion of the first movement, and then there’s the development section.

The recapitulation is abbreviated, but the large coda, complete with its own adagio passage, and a virtuosic finish, fills out this very large movement and brings us to a smaller, lighter, more lively movement, with a welcome dose of humor.

I wrote somewhere recently in an article (maybe already posted; maybe not) about how satisfying structure can be, how something so academic-sounding can actually give the listener a sense of pleasure and delight. This rondo is another example of that. A sonata rondo form hybridizes the sonata and rondo forms (imagine that), so we still have multiple appearances of the main theme (the refrain), punctuated with different sections that contain a development rather than new material.

In any case, you can pick up where the refrain appears, and the overall feel is generally bouncy and cheerful, but the movement overall, in contrast with the big, beefy first movement, feels much like a coda to the entire piece rather than a movement in its own right. If the introduction is taken as its own movement of sorts, it diminishes the sheer weight of the first movement a bit, but in comparison, the light, buoyant rondo, which ends with a burst of energy, feels more like a refreshing epilogue.

That’s not a criticism. It’s a delightful work, but as we shall see, the other op. 5 sonata is also in two movements, and I am curious as to whence came the inspiration or idea for this two-movement structure that’s so top-heavy toward the first movement. Not sure, really, but we’ll talk more about that piece in our next post. Stay tuned for that, and thanks so much for reading.



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