JOHANNES BRAHMS – The Sonatas for Violin and Piano

by Steven Ledbetter

Violin Sonata No. 1 in G, Opus 78

As with the symphony and the string quartet, Brahms waited until a surprisingly late date to compose his first work in the most familiar instrumental duet medium, the sonata for violin and piano. This may be yet another indication of his reluctance to move into areas already explored by the great classical masters, since violin and piano was the combination most frequently chosen by Mozart and Beethoven for such works. Brahms composed the G-major sonata in the summer of 1879 immediately after completing the Violin Concerto. He spent this summer (as he had the preceding one, which had seen the composition of the Second Symphony) in Pörtschach on Lake Wörth in Carinthia, a land that always inspired him musically. He might have continued spending his vacations there if it had not become too much a tourist attraction to suit the reclusive composer. Certainly the works composed there all betray a mood of restrained sweetness, with an occasional tinge of melancholy.

The Opus 78 sonata is one of Brahms’s most lyrical works. The violin leads in ravishing song almost throughout, while the piano plays an accompanimental—though not subordinate—role. The violin’s first three notes—D thrice repeated in a characteristic rhythm—will become a unifying motive throughout the entire sonata. The opening theme is a gentle, melting melody that never departs from a singing quality in any attempt to be dramatic or forceful. After uttering the equally lyrical second theme (over a livelier, though still graceful, accompaniment), the violin climbs to the stratosphere. What follows is the opening theme, but with forces reversed, as the piano now has the melody, while violin pizzicatos provide accompaniment. This is a gesture toward the old tradition of the repeated exposition, but it turns out, in fact, to be the beginning of the development, which moves widely, though always songfully. Twice the violin gingerly attempts to begin the recapitulation with the threefold D, but the piano is not ready. Then unexpectedly we find ourselves in the second bar of the recapitulation, which continues normally thereafter.

The slow movement, in E-flat, alternates a hymnlike melody with contrasting material that is filled with the dotted rhythm of the opening movement’s basic idea. The finale makes explicit the rather pensive character of the music, at least for those listeners who recognize the song from which Brahms took his theme. This melody originally served him in his Regenlied (“Rain song”), Opus 59, No. 3, of 1873, the text of which may be summarized, “Come down, O rain, and awaken my childhood dream again; arouse my old songs again.” Again the melody begins with a threefold D in a dotted rhythm that increasingly pervades the movement. Here, though, the theme is in G minor, rather than the major of the first movement. After a contrasting section, the opening theme is repeated, suggesting that the movement is a rondo; but suddenly a quotation from the hymnlike melody of the second movement leads into an extensive development of that material, followed by another statement of the Regenlied theme. Now, for the first time since the opening movement, we arrive in G major, and the calm serenity of the second-movement theme, intertwined with the dotted rhythmic motive, draws the sonata to a quiet close.


Sonata No. 2 in A major for violin and piano, Opus 100

Some composers have maintained that the violin is the instrument that comes closest to reproducing the singing quality of the human voice. Whether or not Brahms ever espoused this view, his violin sonatas give tacit assent: they are among the most lyrical of all his chamber compositions, and the first two, at least, emphasize this fact by actually quoting from his own songs.

Brahms spent the summer of 1886 in the splendor of Switzerland, on the shores of Lake Thun, a place that proved to be so congenial to his mood that he returned there for the two following summers. His first stay saw the completion of three chamber works: the second cello sonata, Opus 99, the second violin sonata, Opus 100, and the third piano trio, Opus 101. The first and last of these were ardent and dramatic in character, but the violin sonata sings throughout, maintaining a relationship between violin and piano strikingly analogous to that between voice and piano in the songs.

Moreover what the violin sings in the sonata was familiar enough to Brahms: he had already used versions of these melodies in some songs—later to be published as Opus 105—that had been sung to him by the mezzo-soprano Hermine Spies on a visit to Thun that summer. The first of these, Wie Melodien zieht es mir, which compares love to a melody running through one’s mind, appears quite clearly as the second theme of the first movement. The second song, Immer leiser wird mein Schlummer, grows to a climax on the words “If you want to see me again, come, oh come soon.” This phrase grows from an idea that reappears at the opening of the sonata’s last movement. It doesn’t matter whether Brahms intended for us to recognize such similarities (or even if he was aware of them himself, though he almost certainly was), but their presence highlights the stylistic character of the sonata. The first movement is by no means devoid of drama, but it keeps breaking out in echoes of song. The second movement alternates, in a manner that Brahms often liked to do, both slow and fast sections and a play between major and minor. The finale offers a melody of idyllic serenity opposed by occasional clouds.

Sonata No. 3 in D minor for violin and piano, Opus 108

Although Brahms did not spend his winters conducting an orchestra (as did Mahler, for example), he nonetheless concentrated his composition into the summer months, which he spent as much as possible in beautiful locations in Austria or Switzerland, and concentrated on purely creative work. The winters he could then spend on polishing the results of the summer’s active leisure, editing and proofreading his music.

After completing the second sonata in the summer of 1886, he moved on to the Opus 101 pian trio, then began preliminary work on what was to become the last violin sonata, Opus 108. But this last sonata, in D minor, was not so quickly finished. It continued to occupy him on and off until 1888, when the first performance took place in Budapest.

He may have conceived his final violin sonata as a kind of opposite piece to the A-major violin sonata (Opus 100) that he had so recently composed. The earlier work is in the major mode, lyrical in its style and impact, in three movements, and employs references to some of Brahms’s own songs as part of its thematic material. Opus 108 is darkly minor in mode, taut and dramatic in its emotional progression it contains four movements, and builds its material on new and abstract motivic figures. This sonata, Brahms’s last work for piano and violin, is dedicated to the conductor Hans von Bülow. It has the feel of a large work, and not only because it has one movement more than the two earlier sonatas (even so the treatment is so economical that it has a shorter performance time than the Opus 100 sonata). Its unusual dramatic power may be motivated by the tonality of D minor, in which Brahms had also composed one of his earliest and most dramatic large-scale works, the First Piano Concerto.

Although the sonata begins sotto voce, the current of tension in the piano’s syncopations is evident under the violin’s sweetly melancholic song, and the restrained energy of that tension is not long in breaking out. The development has a quite extraordinary effect: the note A is repeated in the piano, like the soft but insistent tolling of a bell, on every single quarter note of its forty-six measures. Because both the exposition and development are kept within such tight bounds, Brahms is able to expand in the recapitulation, offering new treatments of material heard previously. The rocking figure from the development, now heard on the tonic note D, becomes the basis for the coda of the movement.

The slow movement is one of those lavish Brahms melodies that starts out in all simplicity and then, just as it is in danger of becoming foursquare and predictable, opens out into unexpected paths of seamless melody. The movement is essentially cast as a melody in D major and its restatement. highly decorated, without even a contrasting middle section. The violin offers “sighing” thirds near the end of the theme. These return as passionate outbursts in more decorated form, providing an emotional and expressive goal for the entire movement.

The third movement, in F-sharp minor, is emotionally more lightweight but with a sterner middle section. It is a cross between a scherzo and an intermezzo (Brahms generally avoided the driven or joke-filled scherzos of Beethoven and preferred this kind of movement as an emotional  respite—even adding the words “with sentiment” to the tempo designation so that we don’t take it too seriously as a true, deep emotion.

The extrovert finale gallops along in 6/8 time, beginning in an unexpectedly fierce manner and continuing at a great virtuoso pace. Here, perhaps, Brahms perhaps recalls the impetuous, dynamic youth that he no longer was at age fifty-five. But he also continues to play his tricks with the listener’s expectation. Following the energetic first theme, he moves to a chorale melody introduced by the piano alone. Then the exposition closes with a statement of the first theme in the dominant.  When this moves to the home key, we expect that Brahms is repeating the entire exposition. But we are wrong—he suddenly drops the apparent repetition and moves on to a mysterious development section marked by nearly constant syncopation. At its climax, this picks up the opening theme at precisely the point where he had dropped it for the recapitulation. The coda closes Brahms’s last violin sonata with passionate excitement.


By Steven Ledbetter

SAMUEL BARBER (1910-1981)
Sonata for Cello and Piano, Opus 6

Barber’s Cello Sonata is the last work that he composed under the direct tutelage of his composition teacher at the Curtis Institute, Rosario Scalero, to whom the piece is officially dedicated. But it also bears an informal dedication, written by the composer in one copy of the score, to the cellist Orlando Cole, “physician at the birth of this Sonata in appreciation of his help and interest.”  The “physician at the birth” gave the premiere of the sonata, both in a semi-private performance at the Art Alliance of Philadelphia within a month of work’s completion on December 9, 1932, and in the first public performance, at a League of Composers concert in New York on March 5, 1933.

Barber began active work on the composition in the summer of 1932, which he spent in Italy with his friend and fellow composer (and later librettist) Gian Carlo Menotti. The two composers had hiked from Innsbruck to the Italian frontier near Lake Como, took a boat to Lake Lugano and climbed the hills to the Menotti family villa. There Barber set to work on the sonata, completing the first movement within the first two weeks. But in a sense the background of the sonata goes back as far as June 1928, when, while crossing the Atlantic, Barber and the cellist David Freed had played the Brahms cello sonatas during their passage. During this early stage of his career, Barber was caught up in admiration of Brahms and much of his early music reflects this enthusiasm. In particularly the opening of Barber’s sonata seems to come from the same expressive world as the F-major cello sonata of the German master. At the same time, Barber uses his harmonic materials in a modern way. The first four notes in the cello part comprise an augmented-sixth chord, laid out as a melody; this appears in various guises as a thematic motive, but is never used with the harmonic function that the romantic era would have given it. After publication in 1936, the sonata was quickly taken up by American cellists, who were happy to find a strong work for their instrument by an American composer, the first such work to enter the repertory. The sonata is cast in the tradition fast-slow-fast of three-movement works, though the Adagio contains a central scherzo section as well.


KENJI BUNCH (b. 1973)
Broken Music, for cello and piano

Kenji Bunch was born in Portland, Oregon, and he both began his musical career there as a member of the Portland Youth Philharmonic for five years in his late teens and early twenties and continued to live and work in Portland after undertaking his professional musical training at the Juilliard School in New York, where he earned both bachelor’s and master’s degrees as a performer (viola) and as a composer (in which area his teacher was Robert Beaser). His music frequently links elements of American musical traditions (from older jazz and bluegrass to more recent hip-hop and funk) with classical European genres.

In 1998 he was chosen as a Young Concert Artsits Composer-in-Residence, which was an important stage in his receiving commissions and performances widely. He has now been performed by more than sixty orchestras and has produced a wide range of chamber music works for ensembles of many types. During roughly twenty years that he lived in New York, he founded the Flux Quartet and Ne(x)tworks, performing with them between 1993 and 2011. After returning to his Oregon roots, he became the artistic director of Fear No Music and a teacher at Portland State University and Reed College. His work is represented on roughly a dozen labels.

Broken Music, for cello and piano, was commissioned by the Walter W. Naumburg foundation. It was first performed by Clancy Newman with pianist Noreen Cassidy-Polera at Alice Tully Hall in February 2003.  The fifteen-minute work is without question a composition of the present day, but it suggests evokes the American past as well, especially in its dramatic, driving finale.


LUKAS FOSS (1922-2009)
Capriccio, for cello and piano (1948)

Lukas Foss was born in Berlin, Germany, in 1922. Already in his childhood, he was recognized as a musical prodigy. He began piano lessons at the age of six. Five years later, when Hitler became Chancellor of Germany, the family moved to Paris, where young Lukas continued his piano studies, but added composition, orchestration, and flute. When he was 15, the family moved to the United States and changed its name from the German Fuchs to Foss. They settled in Philadelphia, where Lukas studied at the Curtis Institute of Music, there beoming a close friend of his fellow classmate Leonard Bernstein. Both men made the important connection with Serge Koussevitzy, conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and founder of its summer training program for advanced students, Tanglewood. Foss at this time was determined to adopt the sound of music in his new country, which he demonstrated in a cantata setting Carl Sandburg’s poem The Prairie. Later Foss’s musical style progressed through a number of stages, including a serious encounter with improvising techniques in a musical language far from jazz, where most people assume improvisation takes place.

Composed not long after his Carl Sandburg setting, his cello Capriccio projects the same kind of Americanism in a delightfully playful short piece. The cello’s principal thematic idea—heard at the outset and presented many times over during the course of the work—hints at a brief quotation, whether conscious or not, from “Turkey in the Straw.” This is extended down the scale to the cello’s lowest note, then becomes a kind of vamp by the cello (marked “with humor”), picked up by the piano, to suggest (though only implicitly) the bouncy rhythms and simple chord progressions of a country dance. As the piece unfolds, these rhythmic elements continue, but with a more extended lyric line at times, and briefly turning into a country waltz. The “dance” gets wilder, more virtuosic, more chromatic, moving far beyond the likely skills of the country fiddler whose art is here evoked. Gradually the performers return to a lighter texture and to the vamp and a final hint of “Turkey in the Straw” as the cello descends to its bottom register again and a final short C-major chord ends the caprice with the composer’s frequent smile.


Newman — Pop-Unpopped: Inspired by the Billboard Charts

In our modern age, it is difficult to make many broad statements about the act of composing; but
generally speaking, it involves choosing material (a melody, motive, or set of pitches and intervals) and
then developing it. As we look at much of the music of the twentieth century, we find that the material
composers selected was not memorable, or “catchy”. This was not by chance; it had somehow been
determined that “catchiness” was a trait to be avoided at all costs. This virtually ensured that, from the
point of view of a layperson, any development of the material would be quite meaningless. If the
material wasn’t recognizable, how could listeners possibly appreciate even its most ingenious

Where could a composer find the most catchy, recognizable and current material? In the billboard
charts. I was thinking along these lines when I had the idea for my Pop-Unpopped project, which is
simply this: take whatever song is #1 on the US billboard charts on the first of every month and write a
solo cello caprice based on it.

In some ways, this is a very old idea — Mozart, Beethoven and Paganini all wrote many pieces based
on popular tunes — but in our current age, pop music has come to be looked down upon so much that it
is considered shameful even to mention it in a sentence with these very same composers. I would
caution people against this mentality, and remind them that all musical genres and styles are equal; all
music is not.

– Clancy Newman


By Steven Ledbetter

Piano Trio in E-flat, Opus 1, No. 1

The piano trio, consisting of piano, violin, and cello, grew out of a popular mode of domestic music-making in the classical era, the “accompanied sonata.” We tend to think of the piano as the “accompaniment,” but in the eighteenth-century, it was the other way around. The sonata was conceived for keyboard but could, if desired, be accompanied by violin or cello or both. In such a case, the violin would play along with the top melody line, while the cello doubled the bass line. The main function of this arrangement was the personal enjoyment of the performers in their private music-making, and the flexibility to change instrumentation depending on what instruments the members of the family played.  Most piano trios of  the period (including those of Haydn and Mozart) consisted of three movements. It was Beethoven who, in his Opus 1, elevated the piano trio to full equality of significance with the more “important” forms like the string quartet by adding the extra movement (here a minuet) and by completely freeing the stringed instruments from their earlier dependence on the keyboard.

Beethoven published a number of pieces early in his career before issuing something that he deemed worthy of an opus number. There has long been the suspicion that Beethoven brought one or more of the three trios eventually published as Opus 1, already finished, with him from Bonn to Vienna in 1792. Although there may be something in this idea, there are also a number of sketches in the so-called “Kafka” sketchbook, dating from Beethoven’s earliest Vienna period, which suggest that much work on them was done in his new home.

These trios were first performed at one of the soirées of Beethoven’s patron Prince Lichnowsky (to whom the published set would be dedicated) in the presence of Haydn late in 1793 or 1794, shortly before Haydn left for England. Haydn spoke warmly of the works, but advised Beethoven not to publish one of them, the trio in C minor, which he felt was too advanced to be accepted by the general public. Beethoven was somewhat angered by Haydn’s remarks and ascribed them to jealousy on the part of the older composer. But perhaps, once the heat of passion had cooled, he looked at the compositions again and decided that they needed further revision. In any case, he did not rush into print. It was another year and a half before their publication, when Beethoven chose to identify them as “Opus 1,” an explicit sign that he was now ready to be taken seriously as a composer.

In many respects the first trio recalls the textures and gestures of the decades just past, starting with a rising arpeggio theme familiar from the time of the Mannheim symphonists in the middle of the century. But Beethoven considerably expands the formal shape of the sonata-allegro first movement, by making his secondary theme a quiet contrast to the brilliance of the first, and a closing theme that alternates staccato rising scales with lyric snippets. This opening movement reveals a personality of striking energy. Most striking, perhaps (and most, strongly pointing to the future), is the extension of the coda into a dramatic new development, raising the dramatic power of the movement’s conclusion.

The Adagio cantabile is cast in a lyric sonata-form movement in A-flat’ building to a passionate climax in the development. The recapitulation is richly ornamented. The Scherzo (Allegro assai) is obsessively monothematic (a trick learned, perhaps, from Haydn, though one that Beethoven took to his heart), yet spirited. The Trio is gentler in character, with sustained lines in the strings against fleet piano figures.

The finale (Presto) begins with a jaunty leap of a tenth in the piano to set off in an ebullient mood. This upward-reaching gesture is balanced by the more measured descent of the secondary theme. The movement combines elements of sonata and rondo, maintaining throughout a mood of high good humor and boundless energy.


ANTONÍN DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
Quintet in G major for two violins, viola, cello, and bass, Opus 77

To judge from its opus number alone, the G-major string quintet must have been composed after the Scherzo capriccioso, Opus 66, the Seventh Symphony, Opus 70, and the second set of Slavonic Dances, Opus 72; in short, a work of the mature Dvořák. That is exactly what the composer’s publisher Simrock wanted prospective purchasers to think. Actually the quintet had been written more than ten years earlier than its opus number would suggest. The composer himself called it Opus 18 and objected strenuously, if fruitlessly, to Simrock’s deceit.

He turned to this unusual medium—a string quintet with double bass—after finishing his one-act opera The Stubborn Lovers early in 1875. He completed the quintet by March and submitted it (anonymously, as the rules required) to a musical competition; the manuscript bore only the inscription “To his country.” Selected unanimously by the judges, the work received its first performance the following March. At that time it had five movements, an Intermezzo in B standing in second place. But Dvořák decided that two slow movements overbalanced the work, so he removed the Intermezzo and later published it separately as the Nocturne for strings, Opus 40.

The judges who first saw the manuscript of the quintet awarded it the prize on account of its “noble theme, the technical mastery of polyphonic composition, the mastery of form and…knowledge of the instruments.” Certainly Dvořák demonstrated a technical mastery in this work, but just as certainly the piece, for all its charm, does not yet come up to the best works of his maturity, which explains the composer’s upset a decade later to have it marketed as if it were brand new.

The player benefiting most from the presence of the double bass is the cellist, who, freed from customary duties of harmonic support, has a much greater opportunity to range widely in the thematic interplay of the lines; Dvořák frequently took advantage of this opportunity. As if to define the unusual ensemble from the very outset, cello and double bass open the proceedings with the bass line descending in octaves, a sonority not possible for a string quartet, or even a quintet (like Schubert’s C-major) for two cellos. Once this unique feature has been established in the ear of the listener, the cello parts company from the double bass and projects its own personality.

Dvořák’s first and last movements are lively, but rather square in the working out of musical ideas, which do not yet feature his characteristic personal profile. He still has some tendency to overwork rhythmic motives, especially when building up to a climax. The bouncy scherzo dances jovially into a gentler trio with some charming irregularities of phrasing. The slow movement that Dvořák kept in the piece stands in third place, where it was left after he removed the Intermezzo. It fits well after the scherzo, since its unfettered lyricism makes it in many ways the high point of the work.

Dvořák was a late-blooming composer, already in his thirties when he wrote this quintet, though his great talent was readily apparent. He always worked diligently to develop and increase his control of the medium and was by this time only a few years from some of his greatest achievements; we can catch clear anticipations of that mastery here.


By Steven Ledbetter

Trio in G for violin, viola, and cello, Opus 9, No. 1

Beethoven was not unfamiliar with the stringed instruments (as a teenager he made his living playing viola in the opera orchestra of his native Bonn), but his real instrument was the piano, and his earliest large-scale works, at the age of fifteen, were a piano quartet and a concerto. Later on, his first published compositions to be graced with an opus number were a set of piano trios, which highlighted the keyboard, while his second publication was a set of piano sonatas. By the time he produced these works, he was living in Vienna, where Haydn was the great figure (and, for a short time, Beethoven’s teacher); but Beethoven seems to have avoided a direct comparison with Haydn for a time. He did not compose either a symphony or a string quartet—the two forms in which Haydn was notably preeminent—until after he had made his mark in other ways. And the string quartet, in particular, he approached by way of the string trio.

The string quartet already had a tradition that might well have been overwhelming to a diligent newcomer of the highest artistic standards, but such was not the case with the string trio. Only one undeniable masterpiece of the genre came from the earlier Classical period, and that was by Mozart, who, having died five years before Beethoven published his work, was clearly no longer a rival. Mozart’s Divertimento in E-flat, K. 563, was written in 1788 and published in 1792, the year Beethoven arrived in Vienna. It served as the obvious model for Beethoven’s Opus 3 trio in the same key for the same selection of instruments. About 1795-96 Beethoven began sketching his Opus 9 string trios and the Serenade for string trio published as Opus 8. It was through these works that he worked out the problems of chamber music writing, learning valuable lessons for the future. Still, these compositions are not merely the output of a talented amateur. Already they show the composer’s concern with ideas and issues that remained central to his work to the very end.

The first trio of Opus 9 contains material elaborated with great breadth and imagination in the outer movements and more lyrical and simple ideas in the two inner movements. The slow introduction begins with a flourish followed by a figure in the violin that could be nothing more than a cliché. But Beethoven extends and reworks it, wittily turning its last four notes into the beginning of the principal theme of the Allegro. Sonorous writing for the three instruments contrasts well with the pianissimo of the secondary theme, which hovers around the dominant minor before closing in the major. The powerful development closes on an echo of the slow introduction, leading, in a new key, to the recapitulation. The coda ranges through wide harmonic vistas in a short space.

Beethoven qualifies the Adagio with the adjective “cantabile” (“singing”), and the violin indeed sings an aria of the most elaborate fioritura supported by the two lower movements. Such instrumental “arias” occasionally appear in the works of all the Viennese Classical composers, but Beethoven was especially fond of them. As if to compensate for the length of the Adagio, Beethoven wrote only a brief scherzo (and made it all the briefer by choosing to eliminate a second Trio that he had originally composed). The finale begins with a staccato rushing phrase that seems at first to have no idea in its head but to get from here to there as quickly as possible. But an answering phrase is a little broader, and the second subject is particularly striking: it begins suddenly in B-flat, but in the course of its spacious, soaring eight bars, it works its way inventively back to the normal D major for the dominant. The development is grandly spacious, and the last part works almost entirely through its harmonic sequences as its dynamics get softer and softer and the phrase seems on the verge of dying away altogether. But the violin, suddenly realizing that it has returned to the tonic, rushes off on its staccato theme again. The close is laid out in string writing so sonorous that it is hard to believe only three instruments are playing.


Quartet in E-flat for piano and strings, Opus 47

Up until 1840, Schumann had composed entirely for the piano, and almost entirely in miniature. But in 1840, out of overwhelming enthusiasm for finally gaining legal permission to marry his beloved Clara Wieck (over the strenuous objection of her father), he burst forth into new genres: 1840 was almost entirely devoted to songs, 1841 to symphonies, and 1842 to chamber music.

He had always found it something of a strain to think in the large-scale terms necessary for a symphony or a major work of chamber music, but with Clara’s encouragement that he prove himself as a composer in a wider realm, he demonstrated his genius repeatedly in this period. His Piano Quintet, Opus 44, is a dramatic large piece, analogous in its chamber music terms to his symphonic writing of the previous year.  He followed it with the Opus 47 Piano Quartet in the same key as a smaller, lyrical pendant and a gem in its own right, full of felicitous Schumannesque touches.

The slow introduction to the first movement prefigures the main motive of the Allegro that follows. At the end of the exposition, Schumann brings back the slow introduction, as if he is going to repeat it along with the entire exposition, but at the next-to-last note it suddenly veers off into the development, which builds steadily to a furious fortissimo return to the tonic and the opening of the recapitulation.

The scherzo is a headlong rush of eighth-notes twice interrupted for more lyrical Trios; the second of these features is one of Schumann’s favorite rhythmic tricks—a passage so syncopated that upbeats sound like downbeats.

The richly lyrical slow movement features a long-breathed melody offered to each of the strings in turn while the piano decorates and supports. As the viola takes up the song, following a dark middle section, the cellist must tune his bottom C-string down to B-flat to produce a wonderfully deep pedal point in two octaves against the closing phrases of the rest of the ensemble.

The energetic finale begins with a fugato based on a familiar-sounding theme; was Schumann thinking of the Jupiter Symphony? His interest in contrapuntal work is clearly evident in both of the E-flat chamber works with piano composed at this time, and actual fugues or fugatos are a central part of the finale in each case.


By Steven Ledbetter

Sonata in F for violin and piano, Opus 24, Spring

Beethoven wrote his F-major violin sonata during the second half of 1800, during which time he also composed the B-flat piano sonata, Opus 22, and the A-minor violin sonata, Opus 23. In the spring of that year he had given his first concert for his own benefit, at which he had introduced the Septet, Opus 20, and the First Symphony, works which contributed substantially to the establishment of his reputation.

He was nearing the end of what scholars have often referred to as the first period, a time of growth and development based on the models of his great forebears. The coming years were marked by his pursuit of the symphonic ideal, by the creation of music filled with an energetic dynamism which, in the minds of most people, comprises their notion of Beethoven.

But even during that time Beethoven also composed works of striking lyricism–the Violin Concerto, for example, or the Fourth Piano Concerto and the Fourth and Sixth symphonies. And that strain of relaxed lyricism appears already in the first theme of the F major violin sonata, a melody that Beethoven may have adapted from the theme of a Clementi piano sonata (Opus 25, No. 4); its open sunny mood is no doubt responsible for the sonata’s nickname “Spring” (which does not come from Beethoven himself). Only the secondary theme—unexpectedly veering to the minor—is in the “energetic” mold.

The slow movement, in B-flat, actually anticipates the singing lyricism of Schubert, especially in its change to G-flat, an unusual key relation for Beethoven at this period.

This is the first of Beethoven’s violin sonatas to have four movements. The “extra” movement is a very short and incisive scherzo. The sonata’s finale is a rondo built on another theme of relaxed lyricism that rounds out the sonata’s winning invitation to pleasure.


FRANZ SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Quintet in A major, D. 667, for piano, violin, viola, cello, bass (Trout)

During the summer of 1819, Schubert took a vacation trip with his friend Johann Michael Vogl to Linz and Steyr, in Upper Austria. Schubert was delighted to discover that his host in Steyr had eight daughters, “almost all pretty,” as he wrote his brother. “You can see that there is plenty to do.” In addition to being decorative, the girls were also musical, and many evenings were spent performing Schubert’s songs and piano pieces. One particularly favored song, Die Forelle (“The Trout”), composed two years earlier, was so popular at these parlor concerts that when a local amateur cellist of some means, Sylvester Paumgartner, commissioned a quintet from Schubert for the same performing ensemble as Hummel’s Opus 87—piano, violin, viola, cello, and double bass—he specifically requested a set of variations on Die Forelle as one of the movements.

The work that resulted has long been Schubert’s most popular chamber composition—neither his most dramatic nor his most far‑reaching, but certainly one of his most lovable (and that is saying a lot!). In a letter to his brother during this vacation, Schubert wrote, “The country round Steyr is unimaginably lovely.” The companionship was pleasant, too, and Schubert always delighted in casual music‑making. All of these pleasures, natural and social, seem to have been captured in this frank and open‑hearted score. So much satisfaction did he find in his circumstances and his composing that he produced not the usual four movements, but five.

The triplet figure stated by the piano at the very beginning of the opening Allegro dominates the entire movement, bubbling along as a foil to the lyrical theme presented immediately after in the strings. The Andante exploits a typically Schubertian indolence—laying out its slow‑movement sonata‑form plan (i.e., one without a development section), in such a way that the second half is simply a repetition of the first half at a different level, calculated to end in the home key. Thus, a tranquil first theme in F major moves, with increasing decoration, to the second in the relatively bright key of D; an immediate restatement in the unexpected key of A‑flat major proceeds in as nearly literal a repetition as possible to bring the second material back in the home key of F. The Scherzo is vigorous and propulsive, becoming only slightly more relaxed in the Trio.

The fourth movement, based on Die Forelle, is by far the best‑known section of the quintet. Schubert’s original song might conceivably have been a folksong imitation (if one considers only the opening stanzas), but when the poet described the trickery by which the fisherman finally catches the wily trout, the composer wrote a more elaborate, expressively modulatory stanza. For the variation set, however, Schubert chose to use only the version of the tune that might be considered most like folksong. The theme—a simple harmonization of the tune in D major—is presented in strings alone; then the first three variations place it progressively in the treble (piano), a middle voice (viola) and bass (cello), while the other parts add increasingly lavish ornamentation. The fourth variation turns to a stormy D minor, which in turn leads to the most far‑reaching of the variations, beginning in B‑flat and hinting at far harmonic vistas before returning irresistibly to D major for the final Allegretto, which is also the only variation in the entire set to use the familiar piano figure that was so much a part of the original song.

The closing movement is lively and exceedingly simple, once more creating its second half by copying the first half at a pitch level designed to return to the home key of A major at the end. A slightly martial character in the main theme yields finally to the bubbling triplets that had played so important a role in the first two movements as well.


 By Steven Ledbetter

Seven Variations on “Bei Männern, welche Liebe fühlen” from Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte, Op. 66

Beethoven greatly admired the music of Mozart, though he had reservations about the Italian operas with librettos by Lorenzo da Ponte on the grounds of what he considered their immorality. But The Magic Flute, with its high ethical tone, was a special favorite of his, and it is not surprising that he should choose to write variations on a duet describing an idealized view of the marital relationship—something that he himself hoped for at the time, but never obtained.

During Act I, the soprano Pamina encounters the bird-catcher Papageno, a baritone, who has come to inform her that Prince Tamino has fallen in love with her from her portrait and is on his way to rescue her from captivity. When Papageno laments that he has no one to love him, Pamina assures him that he will find a sweetheart sooner than he imagines.

This prompts the lovely duet that Beethoven selected for his variations. Pamina sings the first phrase; it is immediately echoed by Papageno, who engineers a modulation to the dominant. Beethoven retains the alternation between soprano and baritone voice in the original duet by having one of the two instruments state the first phrase and the other the second. The fourth variation is in the minor key, and the seventh and last moves quickly to an elaborate coda. Composed in 1801, the variations were published by Mollo the following year without opus number. (The words, though not sung in the variation set, are included here to give a sense of the emotional context.)



Bei Männern, welche Liebe fühlen,
Fehlt auch ein gutes Herze nicht.


Die süssen Trieben mitzufühlen
Ist dann der Weiber erste Pflicht.


Wir wollen durch die Liebe freun;
Wir leben durch die Lieb’ allein.


Die Lieb versüsset jede Plage,
Ihr opfert jede Kreatur.


Sie würzet uns’re Lebenstage,
Sie wirkt im Kreise der Natur.


Ihr hoher Zweck zeigt deutlich an,
Nichts Edlers sei als Weib und Mann.
Mann und Weib, und Weib und Mann
Reichen an die Gottheit an.


With men who feel love,
a good heart is not lacking.


To share that sweet instinct
is therefore woman’s first duty.


Then let us enjoy love;
we are sustained by love alone.


Love sweetens every trouble,
every creature pays it homage.


It seasons all the days of our lives,
it works in the whole realm of nature.


Its high purpose is clearly revealed:
there is nothing more noble than human love;
Husband and wife, wife and husband
approach the divine.


Quartet in G minor for piano and strings, K.478

With this piece Mozart virtually created the genre of the piano quartet, completing it on October 16, 1785, for the publisher Hoffmeister. Earlier chamber works combining the keyboard with stringed instruments had tended to treat the piano as a continuo instrument, discreetly backing the others with harmonic support. But Mozart, one of the finest pianists of his day and a passionate devoté of chamber music, naturally gave the piano an equal role, making the work a true quartet. Unfortunately, it proved too difficult for the average amateur player, so the publication did not sell, and Hoffmeister cancelled the commission to Mozart, which had been for three such works.

According to  the early biography of Mozart by Georg Nikolaus von Nissen (who married Constanze Mozart after her husband’s death and presumably learned of the incident from her), Hoffmeister told Mozart, “Write more popularly, or else I can neither print nor pay for anything of yours,” to which Mozart is said to have replied, “Then I will write nothing more, and go hungry, or may the devil take me!” (The composer did, in the end, write another piano quartet about nine months later, but it was published by Artaria.)

The key of G minor had a particular resonance for Mozart, and he chose it for music of impassioned character, in such works as the string quintet, K.516, the great symphony No. 40, K.550, or Pamina’s aria, “Ach, ich fühl’s,” from The Magic Flute. And, of course, for this piano quartet, K.478. The impetuous Allegro in G minor opens with a powerful figure in octaves that plays a strong motivic role throughout the movement (the great Mozart scholar Alfred Einstein considered this a “fate” motif, analogous to the openings of Beethoven’s Fifth and Tchaikovsky’s Fourth symphonies). Adroitly placed sforzandos stretch the phrases of the second theme in a charmingly unexpected way, giving the impression to the ear that its opening bars are in 5/4 time instead of 4/4. This is followed by a figure somewhat lighter in character, but for the most part the development and coda are dominated by the “fate” motif.

The Andante, in B-flat, has a wonderful harmonic richness decorated by elaborate runs for each of the four instruments in turn.

It comes as a bit of a surprise that the finale turns to the conventional “happy ending” of the major key after the expressive weight of the first two movements. But though it is lighter in mood than what preceded it, the frequent passing chromaticisms, entering already in the first measure, show that the finale, too, is cut from the same expressive cloth and is not merely a bow to custom. With this quartet Mozart at one stroke set a standard for the new medium that has been aimed at but never surpassed.


By Steven Ledbetter

Sonata in F for horn and piano, Opus 17

The horn offered special difficulties to any composer of Beethoven’s day who wanted to write a substantial solo work for it. The valves that make the modern horn capable of playing any of the twelve pitches in the chromatic scale had not yet been developed, so horn players and composers who wrote for them were more or less limited to the pitches of the overtone series. They could, to be sure, obtain some chromatic pitches by inserting a hand inside the bell of the instrument to adjust the length of the vibrating air column, but this had such a drastic effect on the tone color that it was generally avoided. Obviously, when writing for an instrument limited to relatively few pitches, the composer had to be very careful about modulations—the farther he got from the home key of the horn, the fewer notes it could play. For this reason, classical works for solo horn tend to be on the brief side and to avoid elaborate harmonic entanglements. In Beethoven’s case, the composer almost even avoids a slow movement (which is normally in a different key) by linking the brief Adagio directly to the final rondo as if it were simply a short introduction.

Beethoven is reported to have composed the sonata in less than a day for a famous horn virtuoso of the time, Giovanni Punto, with whom he gave the first performance in the Vienna Court Theater on 18 April 1800. The audience was so enthusiastic that, despite house rules forbidding encores, the soloists played the entire sonata over again at once. A horn sonata is something of a biological sport for Beethoven, and it is fascinating to observe how he handles the recalcitrant combination, giving the brass player themes of a harmonically simple outline so that the piano will have greater flexibility in harmonizing with them. Thus his artistry can hope to conceal the technical limitations inherent in the solo instrument and still produce an attractive piece. Beethoven clearly considered it a challenge, one that he overcame with notable success.



Verklärte Nacht, Opus 4, for string sextet

Arnold Schoenberg, a giant among twentieth-century composers, wrote his most popular score, Verklärte Nacht, at the very end of the nineteenth century. Its popularity certainly has something to do with the work’s palpable links to the era that was ending, but it is at the same time remarkably forward-looking, anticipating the composer that Schoenberg became.

Throughout the 1890s Schoenberg had composed string quartets, the medium he knew best as a performer (he played the cello). Most of these he destroyed, but one score, an enormously assured quartet in D, dating from 1897, shows how much he had learned in his self-directed study and his few formal lessons with his friend Alexander von Zemlinsky. Yet even this could scarcely prepare us for the artistic maturity of the string sextet he was to create two years later.

Like so many Schoenberg scores, Verklärte Nacht (“Transfigured Night”) was composed at a furious pace. He completed the bulk of the work in just three weeks in September 1899, though he was not ready to sign and date his score until December 1. The overt inspiration was a poem by the German writer Richard Dehmel (1863-1920), whose Weib und Welt (“Woman and World”) had made something of a stir at its publication in 1896 when government censors found some of the poems offensive for their explicit treatment of sexual situations. Schoenberg had set texts from Dehmel’s book almost at once in some of his earliest songs (Opus 2 and 3).

Verklärte Nacht was a natural choice as an inspiration for a musical setting, since Dehmel’s poem is laid out in a surprisingly musical way. The last line, for example, is a transformed echo of the opening line, a device that Schoenberg brilliantly mirrors in the music.

The poem is laid out in five short sections, of which the first, third, and fifth are impersonal narration describing an unnamed man and woman walking along on a moonlit night. At first the natural surroundings seem cold and bare. The second section is a speech by the woman, who confesses that she carries another man’s child. Before she met her companion, she explains, she had felt that motherhood would provide her with purpose. Now she has fallen in love with him and must confess her fault. A brief narrative interlude describes her faltering step and the moonlight flooding down upon them. The man’s response comprises the fourth section of the poem. He is understanding and magnanimous. The radiance of the natural world convinces him that the love they feel will draw them together and make the child his as well. The poem closes with another description of the moonlit night—now bright with hope.


Verklärte Nacht

[1] Zwei Menschen gehn durch kahlen, kalten Hain;
der Mond läuft mit, sie schaun hinein.
Der Mond läuft über hohen Eichen,
kein Wölkchen trübt das Himmelslicht,
in das die schwarzen Zacken reichen.
Die Stimme eines Weibes spricht:

[2] Ich trag ein Kind, und nit von Dir,
Ich geh in Sünde neben Dir.
Ich habe mich schwer an mir vergangen.
Ich glaubte nicht mehr an ein Glück
und hatte doch ein schwer Verlangen nach Lebensinhalt, nach Mutterglück

und Pflicht; da hab ich mich erfrecht,
da liess ich schaudernd mein Geschlecht
von einem fremden Mann umfangen,

und hab mich noch dafür gesegnet.
Nun hat das Leben sich gerächt:
nun bin ich Dir, o Dir begegnet.

[3] Sie geht mit ungelen
Ihr dunkler Blick ertrinkt in Licht.
Die Stimme eines Mannes spricht:
[4] Das Kind, das Du empfangen hast,
sei Deiner Seele keine Last,
o sieh, wie klar das Weltall schimmert!
Es ist ein Glanz um Alles her,
Du treibst mit mir auf kaltem Meer,
doch eine eigne Wä
Die wird das fremde Kind verklären,
Du wirst es mir, von mir gebären.
Du hast den Glanz in mich gebracht,
Du hast mich selbst zum Kind gemacht.
[5] Er fasst sie um die starken Hüften.
Ihr Atem küsst sich in den Lüften.
Zwei Menschen gehn durch hohe, helle Nacht.

–Richard Dehmel

Transfigured Night

[1] Two people move through the bare, cold
The moon glides over high oaks,
no bit of cloud darkens the sky’s light,
toward which the black branches reach.
The voice of a woman speaks:

[2] “I bear a child that is not yours,
I walk in sin beside you.
I have grievously offended.
I believed no more in good fortune
and yet had a deep longing
for a meaning to my life, for maternal joy
and responsibility; so I grew shameless,
I allowed myself to yield, shuddering,
to the embrace of an unknown man,
and have been blessed in this way.
Now life has taken revenge:
for now I have met you—ah, you.”

[3] She walks with faltering step.
She looks up; the moon runs alongside.
Her dark gaze is flooded with light.
The voice of a man speaks:

[4] “May the child that you have conceived
be no burden to your soul.
Look how the universe glimmers!
There is a splendor all around,
you are sailing with me on a cold sea,
yet a special warmth flickers
from you to me, from me to you,
which will transfigure that child of another;
you will bear it to me, by me.
You have kindled the splendor within me,
you have turned even me into a child.”

[5] He catches her round her strong hips.
Their breaths kiss in the air.
Two people move through the high, bright night.

–translation by S.L.


Perhaps the biggest surprise in the score is Schoenberg’s decision to write a piece of program music on this scale for a chamber ensemble, especially as the medium chosen—two each of violins, violas, and cellos—was one new to him. It had been used twice by Brahms, of whom Schoenberg was a great admirer. Yet the style reflects Schoenberg’s new absorption of Wagnerian chromaticism. (Indeed, one of the most notorious comments ever made about the piece came from one of the program reviewers of the Vienna Tonkünstlerverein charged with deciding whether to recommend new works for performance: it looked, he said, as if the score of Tristan had been smeared while the ink was still wet.)

For all its reflection of the original poem, though, Verklärte Nacht thoroughly transcends the usual point-to-point descriptiveness of run-of-the-mill romantic program compositions and provides a thoroughly satisfying musical shape on its own terms. It is the first of several works—including the later Chamber Symphony and Pelleas und Melisande—that Schoenberg lays out as a large single-movement sonata. This one is, in fact, a double sonata, strictly following the five sections of Dehmel’s poem. The “narrative” parts are quite brief, but the second and fourth, representing the words of the woman and the man respectively, are full-scale sonata forms.

The first is in D minor, the second in D major (though it must be remembered that these keys are already stretched considerably in their tonal function). Moreover the second of them is built out of musical ideas that are expressive versions of themes heard more tentatively in the first. From the literary point of view, this can be seen as a reflection of the woman’s anguish on the one hand and the man’s generous confidence on the other. But it functions equally well from a purely musical point of view, with the second sonata section truly completing and “transfiguring” the first. Schoenberg is so prodigal in inventing gradual transformations of his themes that the listener can discover new relationships even after many hearings of the score.

The nocturnal scene with its two walking figures is represented by a soft marchlike descending line, heard in bare, cold octaves at the outset, but transformed at the end of the score into a passage shimmering with light.

The first sonata-form section, in the minor mode, includes a split-level theme, divided between the cello and upper parts. Later on this very Tristanesque material serves as a “second theme.” The second sonata-form section opens with a characteristic figure in the cellos (the man’s voice?), but it immediately develops thematic ideas heard earlier, but now mostly in the major. New sonorities and the major mode reinforce the melodic development to provide a rich, satisfying conclusion in which the “transfiguration” of the night is musically suggested by Schoenberg’s eloquent and shimmering transformation of the opening music. 


By Steven Ledbetter

String Quartet No. 16 in F major, Opus 135

We must not pay overly mystical attention to this quartet as Beethoven’s last completed work (except for the “new” ending to Opus 130, replacing the Grosse Fuge, which he wrote later). Although he composed the quartet at a very difficult time—during the late summer and early fall of 1826, immediately after his nephew Karl, for whom he had taken responsibility, had attempted suicide—Beethoven himself had no sense that his span of years was nearing its end. He was just fifty-five and full of plans for the future, including a tenth symphony (Carl Holz claimed to have heard him play a movement of it on the piano) and a Requiem, as well as an opera on a libretto by the Austrian poet Grillparzer. Thus, for all the composer knew or intended, the F-major quartet was to be followed by many future compositions.

Perhaps then, it was natural that he should adopt the course of stepping back a bit from his encounters with far-reaching experimentation, such as had characterized the preceding quartets (especially Opus 131, composed only a few months earlier) and indulge himself in a little conscious classicizing, employing Haydnesque devices throughout the first movement, but in a manner all his own.

The Allegretto begins with a series of apparently disjointed little gestures out of the home key, a trick Haydn had used with masterful wit in some of his quartets. The development includes that hoary old joke, the false recapitulation in the wrong key; but Beethoven screws the joke up by one further level of tension: he continues the intimations of a recapitulation in the home key before exploding once more to a foreign key and returning home at last for the true recapitulation.

The wild Vivace employs many of the technical and stylistic devices of the late quartets. The contrapuntal treatment of the almost tuneless opening (which line is the theme? which the accompaniment?) breaks off with a shock on an apparently unmotivated E-flat. A coda-like extension of the scherzo material brings the further surprise of two successive modulations up a whole step, from F to G, then to A major, in which key the Trio presents a folkish tune high up in the first violin with the other instruments worrying an ostinato motive that grew, almost unnoticed, out of the scherzo’s coda.

The third movement, as quiet as the second was noisy, sings throughout in tranquil voice (as, indeed, Beethoven instructs in his tempo marking), basically a series of variations that emphasize the expressive legato, almost an operatic bel canto approach (he even writes a recitative for the minore variation) ending in a hushed but ecstatic rhapsodizing.

The finale is notorious for the inscription Beethoven wrote at its head, quoting the principal themes of the slow introduction and the Allegro main theme, under which he set the words: Muss es sein? Es muss sein! (“Must it be? It must be!”). There is an anecdote attached to the creation of the theme. A musical amateur who held quartet parties in his home, requested the use of the parts for Opus 130. Since he had not subscribed for the premiere of the work, Beethoven insisted that he pay the subscription fee in order to get the use of the music. The gentleman apparently groaned, “Wenn es sein muss” (“If it must be”). Beethoven, tickled by the comment and his position of strength, produced a little canon with the words “It must be! Yes, yes, out with your purse!” The theme of that canon (considerably refined and improved) became the theme of the quartet’s finale. There has been a tendency to elaborate the words to the level of metaphysical debate (probably because the quartet did, in fact, turn out to be Beethoven’s last completed full work), but it is unlikely that he meant anything more by it than a rather awkward joke. The music of the Allegro proper is spontaneous and humorous, against which the opening Grave is simply a dramatic foil, not a philosophical proposition. We are more likely to catch Beethoven’s spirit if we recall the grumbling cheapskate musical amateur and his discomfiture than if we look for deeper significance.


Quartet in C minor for piano, violin, viola, and cello, Opus 60

Although the C-minor piano quartet was not published until 1875, Johannes Brahms had composed – two decades earlier – a movement in C-sharp minor that contains the essential musical ideas of the later work’s opening movement. The first version was tried out privately in November 1856 with an ensemble including Joseph Joachim, who suggested several changes in a letter that he sent to Brahms the following week, but nothing more seems to have come of the work at that time. In any case, Brahms was not yet prepared to publish it, and when he did return to the quartet nearly two decades later, the finished product took a quite different form. The changes are hard to document precisely, since the composer, following his usual custom, destroyed the score of the early version; it is, at least, clear that the last two movements were composed in the winter of 1873-74 (Brahms indicated as much in a manuscript catalog of his works), while the first two movements are listed as having been composed “earlier.” From the available evidence, it seems that Brahms retained the original exposition of his first movement in all essential details (though transposing it down a semitone) but then completely rewrote the remainder of the movement, much as he was later to do in reworking his early trio, Opus 8.

The dark turmoil of the opening movement hints at the emotional pressure under which Brahms composed the early version during the terrible last days of his friend Robert Schumann or immediately after Schumann’s death. The intensely personal character of the music is also indicated by the composer’s comment in a letter transmitting the early version to Theodor Billroth: “this Quartet is only communicated as a curiosity, say as an illustration to the last chapter of the Man with the Blue Jacket and Yellow Vest.” The reference is to the despairing young man in Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, in the last chapter of which Werther commits suicide. Whether or not Brahms himself ever seriously contemplated taking his own life, he seems to have found his music too personal for immediate publication, too openly revealing of his hopeless love for Clara Schumann. But distance in time gave him enough objectivity to rework it into the final form.

In the final version of 1875, the fiercely energetic opening features a downward-trending motive in the strings, evoking a tragic power. The only moments of relative calm come in the treatment of the second theme; its major-key melody generates some immediate variations within the context of the sonata structure, but it cannot overcome the dark mood of the main theme.

The scherzo is a kind of pendant to the Allegro, continuing in the same key with the same kind of ferocity. Although we know that it was composed “earlier” than the last two movements, it would be sheer conjecture to say whether it formed part of the original C-sharp minor draft, or came from a different incomplete composition, or was written independently.

The Andante, in the surprisingly bright key of E major, was once believed to have been part of the original version of the score and thus probably to represent an avowal of the composer’s love for Clara. But Brahms’s catalog and Clara’s own response to the music after she first heard it in 1875 make it clear that this movement was new. It has long been regarded as one of the highest peaks of Brahmsian melodic writing.

The finale is virtually a perpetuo moto, the ending of which, despite the major key and tranquillo marking, does not entirely banish the memory of things past. Perhaps the finest tribute to the composer’s constructive powers in this quartet comes from Clara Schumann in 1875: “He had already written the first two movements earlier… And now the last two are also entirely works of genius: an intensification right up to the end that fairly takes your breath away. It is strange how the mood remains unified, despite the quite different dates of the various movements.”


By Steven Ledbetter

Many great composers have left a long-lasting influence and renown in the musical world. Mozart’s early-rising genius strikes wonder at his prodigious talents, an amazement that lasts today. J.S. Bach’s encyclopedic understanding of harmony and counterpoint leaves one in awe at his vast body of extraordinary works for church, court, entertainment, personal cogitation, and education, first for his own musical children, and then for countless generations of later musicians. Wagner’s operas drew from mythology to create powerful musical dramas hinging on actual issues of economics and morality clad in tales of giants, dwarfs, nymphs, and human beings—while influencing the character of musical drama for nearly a century. Stravinsky turned Russian legend and folk traditions into a dynamic new musical style that revolutionized harmony and especially rhythm forever.

And then there is Beethoven.

Though trained in the musical style that had been perfected by Mozart and Haydn, enriched by the older traditions of Bach and Handel, he sought and found a path that made him unique in the eyes of his contemporaries as well of those who came in the 250 years that followed his birth.

From the very beginning Beethoven was pushed by his alcoholic father to develop his musical skills in the hopes of making him another prodigy like Mozart, who might travel the length and breadth of Europe to display his skill at the keyboard and at composition. He even falsified the year of the boy’s birth, so that until well into adulthood, Ludwig thought that he had been born in 1772, not 1770. But it was not as a prodigy, however talented, that Beethoven made his mark, but his strong-willed drive that allowed him to set his own course and stick to it, however untraditional it might be.

Beethoven intended to study with Mozart, a plan stymied by Mozart’s early death. But when he moved to Vienna in 1792—for life, as it turned out—he undertook some study with Haydn, the study of writing vocal music with Salieri, and further counterpoint lessons. But though he was naturally focused primarily on his musical studies and creation, he was also absorbing ideas of humane, moral concern, largely through the dramas of the two greatest German writers of the day, Goethe and Schiller. Both of them wrote plays in the new romantic style, emphasizing an intense, expressive feeling of fate, responsibility, the power of freedom—feelings that many found in Beethoven’s music, both the abstract instrumental music and explicitly in works with texts that pinpointed these features.

Goethe’s Egmont, about a freedom-prizing leader in the Low Countries during the time of dictatorial Spanish control, served as the basis for a score of incidental music that ends with the execution of the hero by his villainous captors; nonetheless, he dies with a heroic summons to his followers: “Fall joyously, as I give you an example”; words that led immediately to Beethoven’s “victory symphony” to bring down the curtain.

Schiller followed Goethe with dramas featuring individual heroes aiming to change the world, celebrating freedom, opposed by dictatorial forces—plays like Intrigue and Love, Don Carlos, and his last play, William Tell. Sometime in his early 20s, Beethoven ran across a poem of Schiller’s in celebration of joy, Freude, which was a natural human reaction to freedom, Freiheit. The poem struck Beethoven forcefully. He sketched a musical version almost at once, a simple song that he laid aside unfinished, and continued to think about its musical possibilities for almost three decades.

In the ensuing years, Beethoven’s music sometimes astonished his first listeners for the increasing power and drama of his work, whether symphony, piano sonata, or string quartet. His interest in the theater drew him to opera, and especially to a type that was popular during the aftermath of the French Revolution: a “rescue opera,” in which a character, upright and noble, is unjustly imprisoned by his enemy, only to be rescued in some way by the forces of good. Beethoven’s only opera, first entitled Leonore, finally called Fidelio, follows this plan, with the added wrinkle that the hero’s wife is the one who rescues him by seeking employment there disguised as a young man, locating her husband in the deepest dungeon, and preventing his murder by his political enemy, the evil prison governor. The closing scene is a paean to freedom, justice, and marital fidelity.

The Third Symphony, Eroica, also paid homage to the French Revolution in its references to Napoleon, whom Beethoven honored at first as a model leader of the new order (introducing a whole new set of laws, the “Napoleonic Code”) before crowing himself Emperor, at which Beethoven lost his respect for the tyrant and dramatically crossed out the dictator’s name on the front of the manuscript.

The Fifth Symphony became almost instantly famous from the dramatic intensity of its opening, the fact that the opening motive reappears in one form or another throughout, the theatrical attempt of the piece to end successfully in the major key after have begun in the minor and failed repeatedly, despite much effort, to escape. The first review of the symphony was written by the multi-talented E. T. A. Hoffmann, who was himself a composer, but also writer of tales and a distinguished jurist. Regarding the Fifth, he wrote that Beethoven “opens the realm of the colossal and the immeasurable before us….[his] music evokes terror, fright, horror, and pain, and awakens that endless longing that is the essence of romanticism.”  Of course, much later the opening music came to be associated with the Allies hoped-for triumph in World War II, by linking Churchill’s frequent “V for Victory” gesture and the fact that the first four notes of the symphony happen to suggest the Morse code for the letter “v”.

There were other ways in which Beethoven’s music has entered the world at large, but it has also put Beethoven on a pedestal higher than that of almost any other artist. Musicians and cities and concert halls order the creation of statues of Beethoven to celebrate his power and individuality. One of the most striking of these, from the Secession (art nouveau) movement in Vienna in the early 20th century, offers a giant nude figure of the composer, seated, his lap covered by a robe, and his body carved in polychrome marble.

But surely the most powerful example of Beethoven’s glory in the world outside the concert hall came as a much later response to one of the most gloriously successful concerts of his life, the one in which, in his last years, returned to Schiller’s Ode to Joy and found an excellent way to treat it in music. He was composing his vast Ninth Symphony, which bore an important similarity to the Fifth:  It traces a long and complex progression from a minor key (D minor, in this case, to its corresponding major key, which utterly changes the emotional tenor of the music. And it does this most explicitly by turning away from purely instrumental music to a splendid finale with soloists and chorus.

It was Schiller’s Ode that made this finale so striking. An Ode to Joy, yes—but possibly also, as has been suggested, an Ode to Freedom, a subject increasingly discussed in the late 18th century, and most assuredly not finished in circles of human philosophical and political consideration even today.

Even more fundamental is the passage that Beethoven made one of the highlights, almost a prayer, in his setting, an address to the entire population of the earth:

Ihr stürzt nieder, Millionen?

Ahnest du den Schöpfer, Welt?

Such’ ihn! Über’m Sternenzelt

Muss ein lieber Vater wohnen!

Do you fall the the ground, you millions?

Do you sense your Creator, world?

Seek him! Above the starry canopy

A loving Father must dwell!


These words had a powerful meaning for Beethoven, who, though his deafness often made him irascible and hard to deal with, felt warmly the bond of compassion between all people. This, more than anything else about his life and work, perhaps, has made Beethoven the center of our musical life, on the one hand, and, on the other, in his native Europe, the musical spokesman for humanity. That, surely, is why the melody he finally found to begin the Ode to Joy has become the “international anthem” for all of Europe, and even worldwide.