Beethoven Sonatas Opus 102

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Yellow Barn is pleased to announce the arrival of faculty member Natasha Brofsky's recording of Beethoven's Opus 102 sonatas for cello and piano, which she recorded with Seth Knopp as part of a long personal journey with these pieces. A glimpse of her musical exploration can be found in her liner notes below.

Beethoven Sonatas Opus 102 is available online and at Yellow Barn summer concerts.

The terrible fire that consumed Count Rasumovsky’s palace in 1814 caused the palace’s famed resident quartet, the Schuppanzigh, to disperse to find new work. As a result, the quartet’s cellist, Joseph Linke, spent the summer of 1815 with Beethoven’s great friend and supporter, the Countess Marie Erdödy, at the Erdödy summer residence at Jedlesee. The Countess, though an invalid, was a fine pianist. As for Linke, he was a superlative performer. According to his obituary, published in the Neue Zeitschrift für Musikin 1837, his musical interpretations could be variously ‘flattering, capricious, passionate and so on, his playing capturing the critical essence of Beethoven’s music’.1No wonder Beethoven was lighthearted and joyful in his letters to the Countess - letters in which he contemplated the prospect of visiting Jedlesee and bringing with him the new sonatas he had just composed.2

Years later, a reviewer for the Berliner Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung1 (1824) would praise these sonatas as a “a work of the newest inspiration of our great master. It is not necessary to say that, like all his works, its originality distinguishes itself not only from all products of other composers, but also, remarkably enough, from his own works. Everywhere the inexhaustible source of his glowing genius pours out, fresh and bright, a new outburst of his feelings, and with each new gift one must admit after repeated hearings not only its beauty, but novelty, as something previously unheard from him and, naturally, from others.”3  

In a gradual process that began with Beethoven’s earliest trios and sonatas, the emancipation of the cello from the left hand of the piano is fully realized in Opus 102, making the cello an independent voice in the musical conversation.

Sonata No.1 in C Major

In the autograph of the opening of the C Major sonata, the word teneramente(tenderly) is written in large letters in Beethoven’s hand.  In the printed score, it is none so prominent, although perhaps it should be; for throughout his life, Beethoven increasingly used descriptive words in his scores.  The reason is implicit, perhaps, in the commentary of Ferdinand Ries, who studied piano with Beethoven: “If I made a mistake in passages or missed notes and leaps which he frequently wanted emphasized he seldom said anything; but if I was faulty in expression, in crescendos, etc., or in the character of the music, he grew angry because, as he said, the former was accidental while the latter disclosed lack of knowledge, feeling, or attentiveness.”4

In the title of the C Major Sonata, Beethoven originally wrote “free sonata,” seemingly conceiving ofthe pieceas unbound by traditional forms.  The words are a reminder that Beethoven was celebrated in his time as a great improviser. As in his Sonata in A MajorOpus 69, he opens the C Major with the cello alone, improvising, as it were, on a C Major scale. The simplicity and inventiveness here are remarkable. The piano joins the cello on the last three notes of this opening phrase with a mini-scale of its own, as if playfully commenting on the cello’s scales while also harmonizing the descending motive. Famously, the motivic material for the entire sonata is derived from this opening phrase. In the Andante sections of the work, the instruments seem to be improvising together with a sense of freedom and timelessness. In contrast, the a minor Allegro vivace movement, which follows the opening Andante, is compact and driving. The Adagio, originally intended to follow without pause, begins with a whimsical cadenza as if the pianist is ruminating on the opening motives of the piece. The cello answers, taking us into a dark and mysterious mood. It is only after a succession of stormy and troubled crescendos that Beethoven gives us the most tender phrase of the piece. Then, like a memory that has been embroidered in its retelling, the opening Andante returns in a more ornamented form.  The final Allegro vivace is a playful, boisterous and virtuosic movement. It provides a vivid example of Beethoven's genius in portraying a huge range of emotion while achieving compositional unity.

Sonata No.2 in D Major

The D Major Sonata has the more standard three-movement form. Like the a minor Allegro vivace of the C Major Sonata, the first movement is not only terse, but also full of dramatic contrasts as well as beautiful lyrical moments. The second movement begins with a soft and sad hymn in minor with a touch of major harmony that brings a glimmer of hope. The music of the middle section of the movement is tender and lovely, made all the more fragile because it is preceded by music that is so unsure and searching. Beethoven returns to an improvisatory quality with the harmonic wanderings at the end of this glorious slow movement.  The famous fugue that is the third movement of this work begins with the playful trading off of a one octave scale. This coy dialogue was added by Beethoven after he completed the whole movement. From this simple scale he creates a fugue subject, and as each voice enters, the fugue becomes a riotous cacophony.The dissonance of this third movement was challenging for Beethoven’s audiences; it still sounds modern, even in the 21stcentury.

This recording represents only a snapshot of our lifelong effort to capture the spirit and essence of Beethoven’s music.  While playing together in the Peabody Trio for nearly two decades, we performed all of the Beethoven Trios. In addition, we played the Cello Sonatas and coached our students on these pieces.  In grappling with these works over many years, we have become increasingly familiar with the medium and ever more obsessive about the ways in which our instruments speak to each other in Beethoven’s music. The instruments sing together, argue, reminisce, shout, and weep. These Sonatas have challenged us to use our utmost imagination in color and expression.  It is this challenge that has inspired us to come back to these pieces over and over, to explore them again and again.

1 Neue Zeitschrift für Musik6 (1837), 130 (21 April) as quoted in Moskovitz, Marc D.; Todd, R. Larry. Beethoven's Cello: Five Revolutionary Sonatas and Their World (Boydell & Brewer Group Ltd. Kindle Edition), Kindle Locations 4521-4522.
2 This sequence of events is detailed in Moskovitz, Marc D.; Todd, R. Larry. Beethoven's Cello: Five Revolutionary Sonatas and Their World
3 Berliner Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung1 (1824), 409– 10 (1 December) as quoted in Moskovitz; Todd. Beethoven's Cello: Five Revolutionary Sonatas and Their World, Kindle Locations 6233-6238.
4 Ries, Ferdinand; Wegeler Franz. Biographische Notizen über Ludwig van Beethoven(Coblenz 1838), p. 94 as quoted in Thayer’s Life of Beethoven, ed. Elliot Forbes, editor(Princeton University Press, 1967), p. 295.