Isaac Stern, Eugene Istomin
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In the standard English edition of Thayer's Life of Beethoven, Beethoven's instrumental works for small ensembles are divided into "chamber music with pianoforte" and "chamber music without pianoforte." The simple premise of this division is that the piano was, and remained, the center of his musical thought. And certainly in his earliest Bonn and Vienna compositions, Beethoven did take the piano as his point of departure His first major efforts in Vienna - the earliest works that he considered important enough to be published with opus numbers - were piano sonatas and piano trios. This is not very surprising, for Beethoven made his considerable initial impact on Hapsburg musical life as a pianist, his compositions serving as the vehicles of his virtuoso career. At the same time, both as performer and composer, Beethoven was quick to recognize the extraordinary potentialities of the new pianoforte models which were being built in the mapr European musical centers, for this was a period of radical innovation in piano design.
However, the violin played an equally crucial role in Beethoven's musical development, increasingly so as the onset and progress of deafness compelled him to abandon solo piano performances. As a child, he had studied violin and viola with his father and, later, with Franz Ries and Wenzel Krumpholz Between 1788 and 1792, even after he had achieved the post of Court Organist, he was required to double as violist in Elector Max Franz's ambitious chapel and opera orchestras. Despite his lessons and extensive orchestral experience, he remained, from all reports, a mediocre player, a situation that the impairment of his hearing did not mprove. It is told that he played "so dreadfully" on one occasion that a friend, Karl Amende, laughingly cried out, "Have mercy quit!" Similarly, he occasionally played the violin part of his "Senates pour le Pianoforte avec I'Accornoagnernent d'un Violon" (as they were then designated) witn his student, Ferdinand Ries, who recalled: "It really was awful music, for in his fervent enthusiasm his ear did not tell him when he had attacked a passase with the wrong fingering."
Nevertheless, it did not take a master instrumentalist to perceive that the violin, as well as the piano, was undergoing a momentous development at this very time. The closing decades of the eighteenth century witnessed the creation of the modern bow by Francois Tourte, the physical adjustment of the violin to make possible new as well as more powerful sonorities, and, most decisively Viotti's founding of the French school of violin-playing, a school whose most distinguished and influential exponents were Pterre Baillot, Pserre Rode, and Rodolphe Kreutzer, with all of whom Beethoven became personally acauamted. It was Beethoven's good fortune to be on hand at this propitious moment, one whose significance he instantaneously grasped, for he was ever alert, and receptive, to the latest developments in instrument design. He counselled Viennese piano makers to give their instruments "greater resonance and elasticity" so that the pianist could achieve more "sustained and expressive tones." It was Beethoven's nature constantly to grasp each fresh possibility latent in instrumental techniques and thereby to revolutionize musical forms and genres, for the technical transformations very often led the way to the stylistic innovations. In Beethoven's hands, the conjunction of French developments in the art of violin playing with the Viennese Classical style opened up an enormous range of new expressive qualities and formal procedures which were simultaneously the high point of eighteenth-century Classicism and the beginning of the modern age of violin music.
Viewed from this standpoint, Beethoven's Sonatas for Piano and Violin mark the simultaneous exploration and expansion of the potentialities of two major instruments at a decisive stage of their physical evolution. With great rapidity in several quick bursts of creative energy during the half-dozen years ending in 1803 - and then in the G-major Sonata of 1812, the "epilogue" of the set -Beethoven permanently annexed many of these potentialities. In the Sonatas, he gave free play to his imaginative powers, opening up new realms of musical expressivity and dynamism within the restraints of the Classical style, creating in them an exquisite tension between fantasy and order.
It is difficult for the modern listener, who comes to the string sonatas from the austere and ecstatic world of the later piano sonatas and string quartets and who has been brought up to regard the Piano and Violin Sonatas as models of classic decorum and elegance, to understand the hostile reception of these works by some of Beethoven's more traditionalist contemporaries. The list of those who regarded Beethoven as a breaker of the Haydn/Mozart "classic" mold is a long one, including such luminaries as Hegel, Goethe, Haydn, Weber, Grillpar-zer, and even, for a time, Beethoven's best disciple, Franz Schubert. So we should not be surprised by the reviews of the earliest Sonatas, Op. 12, in the pages of the leading music journal of the day the Allgemeine musikdlische Zeitung, published by Breitkopf & Hartel in Leipzig. Of what he called "these strange sonatas, overladen with difficulties," the reviewer wrote: "There is only a mass of learning here, without good method; ... a striving for strange modulations, an objection to customary harmonic progressions, a heaping up of difficulties on difficulties till one loses all patience and enjoyment..." The Sonatas Opp. 23 and 24 fared somewhat better, with the reviewer balancing remarks about "the original, fiery, and bold spirit of this composer" against what he saw as Beethoven's happily diminishing tendency to "rage in an unfriendly, wild, gloomy, and troubled manner." Later, Beethoven frankly wrote to Hartel, who was now eager to publish his works: "Your reviewer's outcry against me was at first very mortifying." It was obviously asking too much that Beethoven should have welcomed such critiques, which demonstrated that he had succeeded in his imaginative project - to disrupt aesthetic sensibilities and to reshape the musical tradition in accordance with his modernist perspective.
Beethoven continued to utilize the piano as his "pathbreaking" instrument, the instrument through which he could find his way to the next stage in his succession of compositional styles. Ultimately, however; he found the piano not quite capable fully of expressing his ideas: He called it an "unsatisfactory instrument" and, more picturesquely a "cle-vicembalo miserdbile." If the piano inau.gurated each of his style periods, it was a succession of string quartets - "chamber music without pianoforte," in which the violin and its close relatives took the leading role - that settled the outer limits of each of those periods.
The Sonatas for Piano and Violin occupy intermediate stages in Beethoven's creative odyssey. In shorthand, one might designate the Op. 12 Sonatas as his idiosyncratic attempts - so characteristic of his first Vienna opuses - simultaneously to carry forward and to transcend the Haydnesque fusion of drama, pathos and wit. The Opp, 23/24 set reflects, at least in part, Beethoven's move towards recasting Viennese Classicism in a pre-Romantic direction - towards an imaginative, highly ornamented, spacious manner that is to be found also in his Piano Sonatas "quasi und fantasia," Op. 27 and several of the Quartets of Op, 18, This pre-Romantic trend continues in the Op. 30 and Op. 47 Sonatas, but it is there infused, especially in the C-minor and "Kreutzer" Sonatas, with a more exhortatory rhetoric and virtuoso stance, indicating that Beethoven was seeking firmly to establish his "heroic" style before fully consolidating it in the symphony and the opera. Moving freely between a traditional Viennese Classicism, a brilliant declamatory exterior a la francaise, and a fanciful exoticism, these Sonatas became the unsurpassable models of the genre. Closing the set is the G-major Sonata, Op.96, a pastoral' herald of the late style, compounded of a wistful yearning fora small Utopian refuge from tragic reality and the ironic sense that such a space is not to be found on this earth.
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