I’ll just come right out and say it - I have two left feet. However, dance is perhaps one of the most important allies of music. Throughout history, records show that music has been written for dancing in courts, social functions, and even for the common folk. As the arts became more entertaining, dances became interludes in operas and concerts. Ballet eventually evolved to an entity of its own in the 20th century. But there are plenty of pieces written which allude to dances, but are not intended to be danced. What, then, of them?
Acknowledging the importance of dances, pre-classical composers such as J.S. Bach wrote suites for instrumental solos. The movements within such suites were titled as dances, be they sarabandes, gavottes, courantes, minuets, or gigues, just to name a few. Rarely, though, were waltzes in existence at that time. In suites, composers would utilize the rhythms and characteristics of the dances, and set upon the performer a task to imitate such movements while being absolutely attached to an immoveable instrument. Dance movements, such as minuets and contredanses, continued to prevail in instrumental and non-programmatic music throughout the 18th and 19th century, but rarely as a standalone work. Any waltzes written were far and few in between.
Carl Maria von Weber’s Invitation to the Dance (1819) finally took that title as the first instrumental waltz to be written. The waltz, though not meant to be danced to, contained a little story, making it a mini tone poem, a genre much favored by later Romantic composers. Much of the story happens in the slow introduction, where a young gentleman meets a lady and invites her to the dance. The waltz follows, and before too long it is the end of the night and the couple bid farewell to one another.
Frédéric Chopin’s book of waltzes, among other collections, stands out as an important repertoire choice among pianists. They are all written in the standard ¾ time, and were deeply influenced by Weber’s work, also containing right-hand centric melodies and standard Viennese waltz rhythms, even though they are not for dancing. Between 1824 and 1847 Chopin wrote nearly 30 waltzes, but only eight were published in his lifetime. Some additional waltzes were published posthumously. The Op. 64 set of three waltzes were the last to be published in his lifetime.
The first of the set is familiar to many. The Minute Waltz (translated from French) nickname was intended to mean that the waltz was a miniature one; although pianists have generally taken the unintended 60-second timing to be the real reason. (A typical performance lasts twice as long.) The flashy right hand melody dazzles the listener in a quick flourish, before the second waltz, in the parallel minor, changes the mood completely. The more contemplative second waltz breaks the standard ternary form of most of Chopin’s waltzes. It contains an additional recapitulation of the second section, which transforms it into a lopsided rondo. The final waltz is less well known, and completes the set in an attempt to seek a balance between the prior two waltzes.
Chopin’s influence as a pianist and composer was widespread. In Spain, young pianist Isaac Albeniz was emerging as a composer who fused Spanish idioms into his music, much like Chopin had done in Poland. The Autumn Waltz, published in 1890 as Op. 170, is one such example. This was written at a time when Albeniz was still assimilating the styles of the composers who came before him, and thus the traditional waltz accompaniment carries throughout the work; however the harmonies are definitely that of a Spanish identity. Little, however, is known about the peculiar title, or the work in general, which is overshadowed by many of his later, mature, and celebrated works. The waltz itself contains a slow introduction, three waltzes of varying forms, and a lengthy coda that recapitulates all the waltzes once more. Singing melodies are passed from one voice to another, and a melancholic feel carries throughout.
Maurice Ravel, a French/Basque composer, drew his influences from elsewhere. Looking further back to Franz Schubert, Ravel titled his waltzes exactly like Schubert - Valses nobles et sentimentales (1911). While Schubert wrote a volume of each kind of waltz, Ravel published his set of eight as one continuous volume, with an interesting quotation: “... the delicious and forever-new pleasure of a useless occupation.” Aside from the title and the time signature, the waltzes pay no further homage to the earlier composer. Ravel’s waltzes are both impressionist and modernist, which did not sit well with his audiences of that time. (During the anonymous premiere of the work, few guessed that the work was that of Ravel’s, and many thought the work to be a parody, or that of a lesser composer.)
It was the expanded soundscape that proved to be unpopular. Ravel eventually orchestrated the waltzes, demonstrating the colors he attempted to achieve in the piano. (Ravel would later, more successfully, realize his imaginations in Gaspard de la nuit.) Ravel was working on his orchestral tone poem, La valse, at the same time, and the similarities between these pieces are apparent. Even though Ravel started work on La valse in 1906, the bulk of the writing was done in 1920. Its premiere right after World War I led most audiences think that Ravel was commenting on the destruction of the European society and the Viennese ideals; however Ravel outright rejected that notion. Ravel had intended the work to be choreographed, and set it in a Viennese court in 1855, a time when the waltz was highly regarded in the European society. Ravel wrote a series of waltz melodies in separate episodes, which he recapitulated in the middle of the piece, before descending into a frenzy with frequent modulations, harsh harmonies, and an increase in intensity. The orchestral version of La valse became the last concert and non-choreographed waltz to be written, a century after Weber’s Invitation to the Dance.
Beginning the Beethoven cycle right in the middle is tantamount to diving directly into a tumultuous river. The Op. 30 sonatas (1801-1803) were set in a time where the composer’s personal struggle with deafness and the region’s struggle with political stability came to the forefront, and these tensions are represented in the music. Both the genre and Beethoven’s compositional style saw a shift in those few years.
Op. 30, No. 3 in G major still reminds us of the “accompanied sonatas” of the previous century. The opening figure is presented in its entirety in the piano, with the violin seemingly only doubling an octave above. (Is this an introductory figure or a theme? Beethoven only made its purpose clear with the figure’s insistent appearance in the development.) The sforzando interruptions of the violin are an early reminder that the violin is more than an ‘obbligato’ part, and it takes a more active part in the exchange of parts following the first presentation of the first theme. After a longer than usual transition, the second, stormy, theme begins unexpectedly in D minor, before a quick exchange of material between the two instruments resolve in the major. Interestingly, the second subject never appears in the development. The ternary-form menuetto and rondo finale continue in the same fashion of discourse between the two instruments, until the coda of the rondo takes a Haydnesque turn and appears in the flattened submediant after a dramatic pause.
Op. 30 No. 1 appears the most unassuming of the set, until one recalls that its original finale became that of the Kreutzer Sonata. However, hints of the expansive original finale are present. Both themes are uncharacteristically lyrical and introduced only by the piano. The use of the opening meandering motif in the development is disjointed and destroys the serene and pastoral mood suggested in the opening. The rondo-form slow middle movement is organized similarly. An unrelenting dotted rhythm pulsation accompanies the otherwise overtly lyrical theme. The variations that Beethoven added as a final movement to this sonata explore a variety of rhythms and techniques in both instruments. A sense of timelessness and mystery is achieved in the final two variations, one which has a long bridge with an extended use of a single dotted rhythm motif, and the other, a faster variation that uses repeated diminished harmonies to lead into the coda.
The most dramatic of the set, Op. 30 No. 2, was written on the eve of the Napoleonic wars. With the political revolution fresh in his mind, Beethoven penned this sonata in the C minor tonality that he saved for the most heroic and significant pieces. The entire sonata is littered with a march-like dotted rhythm, which first presents itself in the second theme of the first movement, and is used again in the scherzo - the only appearance of such a movement in this set of sonatas (the other sonatas each contain three movements only.) Dramatic silences abound in the outer movements. The piano introduces the themes in all the movements, but the violin is hardly lackadaisical in performance. Beethoven pushed both instruments to extreme registral, tempo, and dynamic ranges. Even the lyrical slow movement contains loud interjections near the end to remind us that the tranquility is a fleeting one.
With the composition of this opus, the classical tradition of accompanied sonatas is all but over. The Op. 30 set gives a concise and balanced view of the sonatas before and after - a summary of those passed and a preview of what is to come. In addition, these sonatas offer a bridge between Beethoven’s earlier sonata, and his next giant, the Kreutzer sonata.
The Op.30s will be performed Nov 8 - 10 in the greater Cleveland area and December 18 in Mt. Pleasant, SC.
As mentioned in the previous article, Beethoven’s Op. 30 set of three sonatas for piano and violin was written at a tumultuous time in Europe and the composer’s life, and this is reflected clearly in the middle sonata. While some sketches do exist, it is hard to discern whether the sonatas were written consecutively or concurrently; other than the fact that the finale of the first sonata was the last to be written. Beethoven’s original finale to Op. 30 No. 1 was deemed too impressive and removed before publication. (It was later recycled in Op. 47, the “Kreutzer”, where its large scale was balanced by the expansive opening two movements.) Beethoven replaced the finale with a delightful set of variations, which was not a common choice of finale genres in the 18th century.
Beethoven kept to a close classical structure with the variations, sharing the lyrical melody and its changes between the duo, and also including a minor variation as traditions dictated. The Allegretto tempo marking even seemed more Mozart than Beethoven. What sets him aside from his classical predecessors, though, was the exploration of violin techniques, abundance of articulations, and a particularly peculiar section of extended exploration of diminished seventh sonorities in the coda that seemed to go nowhere.
The opening movements of each sonata are all in sonata form, beginning by establishing the tonic keys of A, c, and G unambiguously. Such has been the practice of classical composers up to then, a practice that Beethoven begins to challenge in his next opus, the three piano sonatas of Op. 31. It is possible to trace a narrative between these two sets of works, with the earlier works set as a precursor to a newer style of writing in the Op. 31.
If the original finale to Op. 30 No. 1 was any indication, Beethoven was certainly itching to expand the sonata structure. While the sonatas do not get any longer (certainly not like the Kreutzer), they were certainly caught in a quandary of both backward and forward looking trends converge. In the first sonata, the opening theme consists of a meandering motif and a peaceful feel that resembles the Spring sonata; its variations, however, consist periods of contemplation that seem only to confuse. The second sonata begins with a sonata form that ends with a expansive coda; the extreme dynamics and maniacal presto in the coda of the finale reach far beyond any classical notions. In the last sonata of the set, Beethoven provided glimpses into his soundscape with the sudden shrieks of sforzandos in the violin; but the final movement is almost Haydenesque, with a surprising modulation at the end.
Perhaps this was the “end” of the classical era as we know it. The unexpected key at the finale of Op. 30 No. 3 (using the flattened submediant in the coda) paves the way to a tonal destabilization in Op. 31. (No. 2 of the set begins with a lengthened dominant chord that doesn’t confirm the tonal center; similarly no. 3 begins with a supertonic seventh and transverses through several diminished seventh chords before briefly cadencing in the tonic.) The fast tempos of the finales and surprising dynamics certainly surprise those whose ears are used to gradual changes of the previous century.
To begin a Beethoven cycle in the Op. 30 is a testament to the dramatic musical changes that mirror Beethoven’s life so closely. The Beethoven in 1801 was standing at a precipice (perhaps, literally.) And so is the Op. 30. The next (and final) article will offer a narrative traced by the first recital.
Join the Beethoven cycle - details at nina-sandberg.weebly.com/beethoven