Beethoven Violin Sonata no. 4 in Am, op. 23

performed by Gidon Kremer and Martha Argerich, or below by Maria João Pires and Augustin Dumay

(cover image by Jez Timms)

Beethoven’s fourth violin sonata dates from 1801 and is dedicated to Count Moritz von Fries, an Austrian nobleman, banker, and patron of the arts. He was also son of one of the richest men in the Austrian empire, and a collector of Rembrandts, because that’s what you do when you have that kind of money.

This work was originally to be published along with the fifth piano sonata, op. 24 (which we’ll discuss this week) as part of the same opus number, but someone messed up the paper sizes of the two different works, so they were split up and published separately.

This was, thinking about it in the modern day perhaps somewhat surprisingly, the first of Beethoven’s violin sonatas to be favorably reviewed. It is in three movements and has a total playing time of just under twenty minutes, depending on performance:

  1. Presto
  2. Andante scherzoso, più allegro
  3. Allegro molto – rondo

James Reel at AllMusic says the work is “comparatively ascetic” with all three movements ending in a soft pp dynamic. That being said, the first movement presents an expansive development section, at least relative to the previous op. 12 sonatas we discussed. There’s an aggressive, angular first theme, and a more reserved second theme that unfortunately doesn’t get much airtime in the development section. In lieu of that we are presented with some new material, which again shows up in the coda. Listen for some interesting syncopation and rhythms. The movement ends dramatically, but that doesn’t mean loudly, as we have stated, with quiet pauses. That in itself is a surprise after all the struggle in this movement.

The second movement is also in sonata form, A major and E major, with a codetta. The piano begins, stating the theme, and the violin echoes it. At first, you may think this is a proper, serious slow movement, something poetic, and it is indeed very pretty, but it’s also got some humor. The imitation here is like a conversation between siblings mocking or echoing each other. There’s a simple development, with embellished recapitulation. Ethan Allred mentions at CMNW “a serious fugue-like section, then to a silly Haydn-esque bouncing section.” Tongue in cheek, if you ask me.

The finale is a rondo, almost half of which is coda. This is a finale that in this small, early work, still needs to match the intensity of the opening movement, and we can see it does that. The third episode of this rondo is quite long. The 20-bar refrain is a winding, spinning melody which closes quietly, and then we move through a few different keys in the different episodes before reaching the big coda, which serves to wrap up the movement both logically and theatrically.

A rondo may be a little easier for a listener to follow than a sonata-form movement in that we have something that recurs between the other episodes, something to kind of fall back on or use to get our bearings. Listen for that winding, snaking theme in this shortest movement of the work and then you know everything in between is Beethoven being creative and musical.

We said earlier that this is the first of Beethoven’s sonatas to get any kind of positive reaction, but Allred isn’t as positive about it as perhaps was Beethoven’s contemporary audience. He says that “As a whole, the sonata lacks the directionality and focused form of many Beethoven sonatas, leaving space for some very unique experiments.” Now, maybe that’s not a criticism, per se, as much a compliment of the rest of the composer’s output, as to say that the others are of such elevated genius that it’s hard for this work to reach. I don’t know, but listening to the last few busy pages of this work, before the quiet close, it’s hard to think that an audience wouldn’t be at least a bit charmed by the theatrics.

If there’s one thing positive we could say about it in keeping with Allred’s observations, and it may not even sound positive, is that it’s a bit impulsive, youthful, as he said, ‘experimental’. Maybe that’s at the expense of being cohesive, but it does interest me that this work was considered successful when now, as Lewis Lockwood says, considered to be “the wayward stepchild among Beethoven’s violin sonatas, and perhaps among all his chamber music.”

But that’s really all just opinion, isn’t it? If you’re interested in reading some really detailed material about these two sonatas, you can find a thesis here. Otherwise, just make note of the humor in the second movement and the fireworks in the third, with that rondo form.

If you’re sick of Beethoven, then don’t worry. This is the last we’ll see of him for around two months or so. There’s more good stuff on the way, so stay tuned, and thanks so much for reading.

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