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Four Seasons Chamber Music

The Final Four: Two Days of Beethoven Sonatas No. 7 Through 10

Kip Tabb

Taken in bits and pieces, the genius of Beethoven is apparent. But immersed in the experience, witnessing the mastery, creativity and fearlessness of his music, what becomes apparent is that he was transformative, that he pushed music to horizons that were unheard of in his time.

The ECU Four Seasons Chamber Series featuring violinist Ara Gregorian and pianist Thomas Sauer performed four of Beethoven’s sonatas for piano and violin on Saturday and Sunday. The sonatas No. 7 through No. 10 were performed.

Taken in total, the four sonatas almost create a musical biography of Beethoven’s compositional history from 1798 to 1812 when his Sonata no. 10 was written. 

Yet as brilliant and innovative as music is, what really brings the notes to life is the passion and love of the music that Gregorian and Sauer demonstrate to their performances. To see how consuming this music is, how much effort goes into performing any one of these masterpieces, is to truly appreciate what great music is and how world-class musicians can make the journey the sonatas represent become so much more than notes on a page.

The program began on Saturday evening with the Sonata no. 8 in G major, Op. 30, no. 3. 

Beethoven’s music is often filled with chordal sounds, full and rich. And the Sonata no. 8 has that, but the violin almost seems to soar above the full, rich chords from the piano.

From the first quick notes by the piano creating a theme to the answering notes of the violin, the first movement has the piano and violin in constant and tight communication—the piano creates a theme. The violin answers. They go back and forth and then they come together. 

The first movement sets the stage for everything that follows—the minuet-like tempo of the second movement, a movement that is beautiful and lyrical. That leads to the final moment, Allegro vivace—fast, with snippets of theme and melody coming and going.

The following day, on Sunday afternoon, the performance continued, beginning with the Sonata no. 7 in C minor, Op. 30, no. 2.

The music has a wonderfully different feel than the Sonata no. 8. Where the previous night’s performance introduced a light and airy feel to the music, on Sunday the Sonata no. 7 begins with a powerful C minor chord on the piano, and the piano and violin trade themes and melody lines in what is almost a battle. 

The Sonata no. 7 is unusual in the Bethoven piano and violin sonatas with four movements instead of three, and Beethoven takes full advantage of that, creating in the second movement, Adagio cantabile, an exquisite and moving melody that perfectly blends the violin and piano.

After the emotion that seems to be so much a part of the second movement, the light airy feel of the third movement, Scherzo: Allegro, gives new vitality to the piece. The fourth movement, Finale: Allegro; Presto, brings everything together—the music is back to the original C minor but the pace is quick and the melody and themes are perfectly intwined. 

It is a wonderfully balanced composition with a breathtaking understanding of how to moods are created through music.

The Sonata no. 7 was followed by Sonata no. 10 in G major, Op. 96. Composed in 1812, the Sonata no. 10 was written considerably after his Sonata no. 9, the Kreutzer Sonata—which we will discuss to in a moment.

Beethoven does something here that he rarely does in his piano and violin sonatas—the violin introduces the melody and theme.

Like his Sonata no. 7, the final piano and violin opus of this period, this sonata is in four movements. The first two are very melodic, and almost sad at times. Yet as the second movement progresses it seems to pick up energy, leading to a Scherzo: Allegro second movement and the final movement. Poco allegretto, that ties everything together in a series of quick theme and variations.

As extraordinary as the Sonatas No. 7, No. 8 and No. 10 were, it is his Sonata no. 9 in A major, Op. 47 (Kreutzer) that was performed Saturday evening that is transcendent—that epitomizes the genus of Beethoven. Certainly it is unlike anything that had been composed before it, and even today, there are elements of the Kreutzer Sonata that are remarkably modern. 

The name Kreutzer comes from its dedication to Rodolphe Kreutzer, considered to be one of the finest violinists of his day. Kreutzer, however, never performed the piece, claiming it was “outrageously unintelligible.”

The work, however, was not composed for him originally, rather it was written for George Bridgetower, a mixed race violin prodigy from the West Indies. Evidently Beethoven and his violinist had a falling out over a woman and, Beethoven, incensed by Bridgetower’s attitude, changed the dedication.

Musically, there is nothing quite like it in the piano and violin sonatas. Beethoven begins with a slow, melodic violin introduction and builds on the theme with the piano and violin intertwining melody and counterpoint. 

Increasing in complexity, the composition establishes themes and then moves off them. The violin is very much in the forefront of this piece, the notes moving through and above the piano. 

Beethoven also creates a different way to think about the violin as almost a percussive instrument. In the second movement, Andante con variazioni, the violin plays pizzicato, but unlike the usual gentle plucking of the strings, each individual note is played forcefully and becomes a unique counterpoint to the piano.

It is a marvelous, wonderful piece of music to experience, and in this instance, it is made even more special by the virtuoso performances of Gregorian and Sauer. If we were there in person, it would surely require a standing ovation.