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When Beethoven wrote his first two Cello Sonatas in 1796, he was still in the process of making a name for himself. He had moved to Vienna in November 1792 to study with Joseph Haydn, who was Europe's most famous living composer. Haydn left for London in 1794, and Beethoven continued his studies with Johann Georg Albrechtsberger, an able composer who was in charge of music at St. Stephen's, the city's main cathedral.
In 1795, Beethoven made several decisive steps toward establishing himself as a professional. He made his first public appearances as a pianist that year, playing one of his own piano concertos (probably the B-flat work, known today as No. 2) in March and another (most likely the C-major Concerto, No. 1) at a concert in December, the latter put on by Haydn to showcase not only his most outstanding pupil, but also three of the symphonies Haydn had written for London. The appearances seem to have paid off, for Beethoven was invited to compose dances for a benefit ball, a sign of his growing reputation.
In February 1796, Beethoven set out on a tour of East-Central Europe, starting with Prague and working his way to Berlin via Dresden and Leipzig. Berlin had been one of Europe's musical centers but was, by the time Beethoven arrived that May, in dire musical straits. Johann Friedrich Reichardt, the distinguished composer who had brought the city's musical life to distinction in the 1780s, had been relieved of his post for pro-French-Revolution sympathies. (He apparently let slip that the best kind of king was one with no head during a card-game in Hamburg, something that didn't exactly thrill his boss, King Friedrich Wilhelm II of Prussia.) Vincenzo Righini, who had succeeded Reichardt, was hardly a great composer, and the keyboard-player Friedrich Heinrich Himmel, who was responsible for the royal chamber music, was also nothing special. (Himmel, perhaps foolishly, offered to improvise for Beethoven, who was a master-improviser, at one point during the visit. After Himmel had been banging away for a while, Beethoven, who thought he was just warming up, asked him when he was actually going to start, causing mortal offense.)
Among the few performers of distinction who remained in the Prussian capital was the cellist Jean-Louis Duport, a favorite of the king, who was himself a fine amateur cellist. So it was only natural that Beethoven should write some music for cello and piano during his stay in Berlin. His first two Cello Sonatas, Op. 5, and the Variations on "See the conqu'ring hero comes" from Handel's Judas Maccabaeus were the results. Ferdinand Ries, as quoted in Alexander Wheelock Thayer's massive biography of Beethoven, recalled that "he played several times at the court, where he played the two grand sonatas with obbligato violoncello, Op. 5, written for Duport, first violoncellist of the king, and himself. On his departure he received a gold snuffbox filled with Louis d'ors. Beethoven declared with pride that it was not an ordinary snuff-box, but such a one as might have been customary to give to an ambassador."
According to another of Beethoven's close friends, the pianist Carl Czerny, Friedrich Wilhelm may have offered Beethoven a post, but the composer had been annoyed by the heightened emotional state of the audiences there, many of whom broke into sobs when he played. Czerny remembered, in a piece for a London music journal published half a century later, that "sometimes he would feel himself insulted by these indications of sympathy. 'Who can live among such spoiled children?' he would cry, and only on that account (as he told me) he declined to accept an invitation which the King of Prussia gave him after one of the extemporary performances above described."
The Judas Maccabaeus Variations date from this Berlin visit; they, too, were published by Artaria (without an opus number) in 1797. The theme - probably the best-known from Handel's entire oratorio - was an especially felicitous choice on the part of the young Beethoven. He may not have known it, but Handel occupied a special place in Friedrich Wilhelm's affections. The king, during his days as crown prince, had declared his musical independence from his predecessor, Friedrich the Great, by sponsoring a massive performance of Handel's Messiah in the Berlin Cathedral. Beethoven, too, held Handel's music in the highest esteem. The theme, with its measured tread and lofty bearing, provided the composer with the basis for an engaging set of 12 variations. The eleventh variation, an extended adagio, is the longest "slow movement" Beethoven would write for cello and piano until his final work for the pairing, the Sonata, Op. 102, No. 2.
-- John Mangum is the Philharmonic's Program Designer/Annotator.