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Nine of the ten sonatas composed by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) for the duo of piano and violin were composed in a period of six years, between 1797 and 1803, the last one in 1812. One can attribute the early industry to Beethoven’s need at that time in his career for the kind of public vehicle provided by this type of pièce d’occasion – remember that his early Viennese reputation was based on his striking keyboard virtuosity. Also, publishers were on the alert for music that would attract the growing number of people who were making music at home, and it is interesting to note that, what with the piano’s burgeoning popularity as a domestic instrument in the early 1800s, Beethoven’s duo sonatas were designated “for piano and violin” rather than the expected vice versa.
The Op. 30 sonatas represent a Beethoven just into his 30s, ready artistically and technically to plunge into a Third Symphony, the “Eroica,” that would burst through symphonic boundaries, but also a Beethoven heavily weighted by the knowledge that deafness, the bitterest scourge for a composer to bear, was a malady that would only become worse with the years.
In 1801, Beethoven wrote to his doctor of his despair over his growing deafness. “My hearing has grown steadily worse for three years,” he lamented. “I am living a wretched life; for two years I have avoided almost all social gatherings because it is impossible for me to tell people – ‘I am deaf.’” The following year, depressed by the worsening condition and on the advice of his doctor, Beethoven took a house in the quiet Viennese suburb of Heiligenstadt. There he wrote what has become known as the “Heiligenstadt Testament,” a document in which he tells first of his thoughts of suicide and then of his resolve not to leave the world until he had “brought forth all that I felt called upon to produce.” Rising from the depths of personal anguish, the composer brought forth, among other works, the three Opus 30 sonatas for piano and violin published in 1803.
In the first piece of this set, his sixth sonata for the string-keyboard duo, Beethoven has become very much his own man, striking out with a distinctly formed individuality almost free of the ties that bound him to his predecesors.
We find this to be apparent immediately in the first movement’s main idea, which is an organic entity rather than a theme. In truth, this main matter is more utilitarian than it is compelling, but the secondary theme’s songfulness more than compensates for its predecessor’s shortcomings. Both themes are brought to fruition in a development section whose distinctiveness is the mark of Beethoven’s inventive strength.
The Adagio second movement has a longbreathed main theme in D major that turns quite magically to B minor. The heart of the movement, however, is in a wonderful contrasting section whose modulations remind one of just how important an influence Beethoven was on Schubert.
The flights of the final movement’s six variations on an unassuming little tune illustrate well the advancements Beethoven had made in the important realm of theme and variations. Not only in the matter of musical inventiveness but also in the element of ensemble unity does one find Beethoven well into his second compositional period, when his strengths were coming together to make a magisterial creative artist.
— Orrin Howard