The Beethoven Violin Sonatas: History, Criticism, Performance

Article excerpt

COMPOSERS The Beethoven Violin Sonatas: History, Criticism, Performance. Edited by Lewis Lockwood and Mark Kroll. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2004. [164 p. ISBN0-252-02932-1. $45.] Music examples, index, bibliography.

Previous scholarly inquiries into Beethoven's ten sonatas for piano and violin have been dwarfed by the breadth and depth of literature about the composer's symphonies, string quartets, and piano sonatas. For the most part, they have been neglected for what they are not. The violin sonatas generated relatively little press in their day. As chamber music, they were not grand works of the public concert. There are no "late" Beethoven violin sonatas that "need to be explained" in light of compositions from the "early" and "middle" periods. In short, they have been largely overlooked because they are seemingly unrelated to the central priorities of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Beethoven research.

The Beethoven Violin Sonatas: History, Criticism, Performance initiates a long-overdue critical appraisal of these works, providing an impressive argument for their significance within Beethoven scholarship. The essays comprising the collection originated in a conference at Boston University in 2000, directed by the collection's editors, Lewis Lockwood and Mark Kroll, and present a variety of approaches to the sonatas. Its contributors draw on perspectives from source studies, reception history, literary theory, and performance practice as they examine the sonatas in their historical contexts.

The volume suggests an overarching concern with the coherence marking Beethoven's violin sonatas as a group by presenting essays on the works in chronological order. Guided by a new reading of a negative review of the sonatas published in the Leipzig Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung in 1799, Sieghard Brandenburg argues for a more sympathetic understanding of the op, 12 sonatas as located "on the path" (pp. 6, 20) to Beethoven's personal style. Acknowledging the indebtedness of the op. 12 sonatas to Mozart's late violin sonatas and to Beethoven's own earlier attempts at the genre, Brandenburg focuses on expressions of originality and maturity in these early works. The expansive expositions, individualized middle movements and sonata rondo final movements corroborate a dating of the works to 1797 and 1798. Extant sketches support this compositional window and help refute speculation that the sonatas were simply reworked at this time for publication.

In his account of opus 24, Lewis Lockwood argues that in the early nineteenth century Beethoven "set about composing a small group of works in which he aimed to minimize those elements within his style that listeners could readily construe as 'bizarre,' 'ungracious,' 'dismal,' and 'opaque' " (p. 41). The Violin Sonata in F Major, op. 24, exemplifies a lyricism found in several of Beethoven's compositions of the time, including the Piano Sonata in B-flat, op. 22 and the Second Symphony. Lockwood adds the identification of an allusion to the melodic design of Pamina and Tamino's reconciliation duet in The Magic Flute to previous commentators' notes on the violin sonata's lyricisim. In focusing on lyricism in op. 24, Lockwood sees himself and earlier scholars acknowledging the intense interest in the beautiful that surfaced in philosophical and critical writings around 1800.

Richard Kramer situates the three violin sonatas from op. 30 in relation to three of their companions in the Kessler sketchbook, the op. 31 piano sonatas. Drawing on Harold Bloom's theories of poetic influence, Kramer sees Beethoven misreading himself and "clearing . . . imaginative space" (p. 49) in opus 30 and opus 31. The almost one hundred pages of sketches for opus 30 show virtually every stage of Beethoven's close interaction with the generic conventions of the accompanied sonata. The opus 31 sonatas, in contrast, explore anxieties of crafting the opening bars of a solo sonata. …