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.