Program Notes on Beethoven & Rihm, Part IV

NOVA concerts on this weekend's Gallery Series represent the final installment in a cycle featuring all ten of Beethoven’s Sonatas for Violin and Piano, programmed alongside Wolfgang Rihm’s six solo Klavierstücke. The works performed at this event represent a culmination of each composer’s efforts in a given medium. Beethoven’s opus 96 violin sonata is the final work of his middle period; during the following three years, he sank into a depression and composed no music of consequence. Rihm’s Klavierstück No. 7 addresses the subject of finality as found in Beethoven’s opus 111 piano sonata and signifies the end of a process and a leave taking (Rihm has composed no further Klavierstücke in the intervening 35 years).

Each Beethoven sonata performed today was shaped largely by the artists they were written for. His famous opus 47 sonata, the “Kreutzer,” was composed for a performance by the flamboyant, young virtuoso violinist George Bridgetower with the composer at the piano. One of the few celebrated European virtuosi of the 19th century of mixed race (his mother was from Poland, his father from Barbados), Bridgetower arrived in Vienna in 1803 and quickly befriended Beethoven. The two hit it off and spent many a drunken evening together. The violinist asked for a sonata, and Beethoven obliged as fast as he could. He had discarded the original finale to an earlier sonata in A Major because its virtuosic and driving tone did not mesh with the other movements. Beethoven built the new sonata for Bridgetower around this pre-existing finale, preceding it with a stormy first movement and an Andante theme and variations. Beethoven spent much of his life pushing musicians beyond their perceived limits, but in this case he clearly met his match. The violin and piano take part in an exciting dialogue of poetic discourse and dazzling one-upmanship. (The original subtitle of the work included the phrase “in the style of a concerto.”) Shortly after the premiere in May of 1803, Bridgewater insulted the honor of a female friend of Beethoven, and the composer changed the dedication of the work to Rodolphe Kreutzer, a French violinist who disliked Beethoven’s music and found this sonata “ outrageously unintelligible.”

Beethoven tailored his opus 96 sonata to the taste of a violinist with a very different musical temperament, the French musician Pierre Rode. Beethoven had great admiration for the French school of violin playing, but he felt a bit hampered by the fact that Rode did not care for “fairly noisy passages” of virtuoso showmanship. Beethoven responded to this by writing a work pastoral and gentle in nature, almost approaching the transparent sound Schubert was to master in another ten years.

Rihm’s Klavierstücke Nos. 6 & 7, composed in 1978 and 1980 repsectively, offer a study in contrasts. No. 6 was written for the painter Kurt Kocherscheidt after his work “Klavierküste III,” a chalk image where the figure of a keyboard dissolves into a fluid chaos of sinuous lines. No. 6 is the longest and quietest of Rihm’s Klavierstücke, with the music delicately tracing out single melodic lines in a dynamic frequently notated “pppp.” No. 7, on the other hand, is manically obsessed with several figures from Mvt. 1 of Beethoven’s final piano sonata, opus 111. The recurring rhythmic motive of Rihm’s piece is a perversion of the very opening of Beethoven’s work; the anacrusis is heavily accented with the instruction “the second note always like a shadow of the first one.” A few direct quotes from the Beethoven are furtively heard, and the music culminates in an absurd pounding of “fff” E-flat major chords. An empty 5 bars is marked “Come una Aria,” and following a coda of terrifying descending bass trills, the music ends with a flippant send-off.

Nova Chamber Music Series
Nova Chamber Music Series


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