Beethoven wrote this Sonata, his ninth for piano and violin, in the spring of 1803. It was first performed on May 24 of that year, though Beethoven barely got it done in time: he called his copyist at 4:30 that morning to begin copying a part for him, and at the concert he and the violinist had to perform some of the music from Beethoven's manuscript. The violinist on that occasion was George Polgreen Bridgetower (1778-1860), a mulatto virtuoso who had performed throughout Europe. Beethoven was so taken with Bridgetower's playing that he intended to dedicate the Sonata to him, and we might know this music today as the "Bridgetower" Sonata but for the fact that the composer and the violinist quarreled and Beethoven dedicated it instead to the French violinist Rudolph Kreutzer, whom he had met in Vienna a few years earlier. But Kreutzer found this music beyond his understanding and - ironically - never performed the Sonata that bears his name.
As soon as he completed this Sonata, Beethoven set to work on the "Eroica" Symphony, which would occupy him for the next six months. While the "Kreutzer" Sonata does not engage the heroic issues of the first movement of that symphony, it has something of the Eroica's slashing power and vast scope. Beethoven was well aware of this and warned performers that the Sonata was "written in a very concertante style, quasi-concerto-like." From the first instant, one senses that this is music conceived on a grand scale. The Sonata opens with a slow introduction (the only one in Beethoven's ten violin sonatas), a cadenza-like entrance for the violin alone. The piano makes a similarly dramatic entrance, and gradually the two instruments outline the interval of a rising half-step that will figure prominently in the first movement. At the Presto, the music explodes forward, and while Beethoven provides calmer episodes along the way, including a chorale-like second subject marked dolce, the burning energy of this Presto opening is never far off: the music whips along on an almost machine-gun-like patter of eighth-notes, and these eventually drive the movement to its abrupt cadence.
Relief comes in the Andante con variazioni. The piano introduces the central theme, amiable but itself already fairly complex, and there follow four lengthy variations. The final movement - Presto - returns to the mood of the first. A simple A-major chord is the only introduction, and off the music goes. Beethoven had written this movement, a tarantella, in 1802, intending that it should be the finale of his Violin Sonata in A major, Op. 30, No. 1. But he pulled it out and wrote a new finale for the earlier sonata, and that was a wise decision: this fiery finale would have overpowered that gentle sonata. Here, though, it becomes the perfect conclusion to one of the most powerful pieces of chamber music ever written.
- A frequent speaker on the Los Angeles Philharmonic's Upbeat Live series, Eric Bromberger writes program notes for the Minnesota Orchestra, Washington Performing Arts Society, San Francisco Performances, and a number of other musical organizations.