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.
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