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With his 1803 “Kreutzer” Sonata for Violin and Piano, Ludwig van Beethoven began rewriting the essential rules of musical art. The “Kreutzer” was both a personal watershed and a cosmic cultural shift. Not only did it mark Beethoven’s leap from a gifted, often innovative composer to a revolutionary musical activist, but it was the first work that swelled the modest bounds of the sonata with weighty emotion and moved chamber music out of the salons of royalty into the public arena. Suitably, such a momentous work had an unusual genesis and a curious aftermath. Two hundred years ago, violinist George Bridgetower was one of the very few men of color to have broken into European music circles, albeit not solely on the basis of his considerable talent. Although his mother was Polish and his father was West Indian, Bridgetower was billed as an African prince. Beethoven met the violinist and was immediately drawn to him. Bridgetower, in turn, commissioned a new sonata from Beethoven — his ninth for violin — for Bridgetower’s Vienna debut in May 1803. The composer would also play the piano part. It’s tempting to speculate that Beethoven was inspired by his partner’s outsider status to craft a suitably genre-stretching piece. Yet sketches for the first movement are found in earlier notebooks, and the finale had actually been written a year before, for another sonata. The rest was barely done in time — a clean copy of the violin part in the first movement was completed just before the concert, Bridgetower had to read the second movement from Beethoven’s own messy manuscript, and Beethoven largely extemporized on the piano for all but the finale. At first, Beethoven dedicated his work to Bridgetower, but sometime after that first concert they apparently had a falling out over a woman. Prior to the sonata’s publication in 1805, Beethoven switched the dedication to Rodolphe Kreutzer, a Parisian violin virtuoso and teacher. Although the work would become the sole basis for his modern fame, Kreutzer himself never deigned to perform it. VOLATILE STATE OF MIND The quick pace of composition for the “Kreutzer” Sonata is significant: It suggests not a polished work of art in which fleeting impulse has been refined into acceptable style, but rather an unusually candid snapshot of Beethoven’s volatile state of mind. Indeed, his personal life was in crisis in the early years of the 19th century. He recorded his despair in an extraordinary document, found among his private papers after his death in 1827. Now known as the Heiligenstadt Testament, it’s a rambling but remarkably blunt plea, confession, and suicide note dated Oct. 2 and 6, 1802, and addressed to his two brothers but apparently never sent. Beethoven begs forgiveness for his ill temper and reveals the “secret cause” of his rude behavior — deafness, the cruelest fate for a rising master musician only 32 years old. He had managed to hide it for a while, but after six years of futile medical treatment had given up all hope for a cure. In the Heiligenstadt Testament, he yearns for freedom from his suffering, provides for the disposition of his meager assets, and asks his doctor to explain his condition after his death. Despite the raw power of the Heiligenstadt Testament, Beethoven was not an artist of the written word. It was in the musical passages of the “Kreutzer” that the turbulence of his suppressed feelings would erupt with full artistic force. This astounding work was not only a musical means to express his pain and confusion but also the vehicle by which Beethoven signaled to the world, and to himself, how he planned to surmount his distress. FURIOUS AND GENTLE Beethoven’s eight prior violin sonatas all begin with the piano plainly stating the melody, key, and tempo, but here in the “Kreutzer” the violinist wanders out naked and lost. This presents an immediate challenge: How will the violinist, able to sound only two strings at a time, manage to sustain the lingering three- and four-note chords without disrupting the tense continuity of the opening? Conventional wisdom says that Beethoven, a concert pianist, wrote the dominant role for his own instrument, but that’s not really true — he was also an accomplished violinist and had to provide display opportunities for guest artists like Bridgetower. Indeed, the key to composing duo sonatas is to find themes that sound expressive on both instruments while affording intriguing accompaniment possibilities. In the “Kreutzer”, the relationship is complex. Violin and piano chafe and blend as the work erupts into a stormy movement, which Beethoven aptly described on his score as “ quasi come d’un concerto” (“ almost like a concerto”), that heaves between gentle, soothing respite and furious, slashing attack. Needing to fashion a worthy successor to the frenzy of this opening movement, Beethoven again startles, this time with a genial andante, a throwback that would fit in any of his prior works, comprising a placid theme with four variations of escalating complexity. Having vented his rebellious angst, Beethoven seemingly reassures us that he remains steeped in common values and knows how to fulfill social expectations. The finale, too, is conventional — a bounding rondo in which the techniques of the first movement emerge in a brighter light. The suspensions now are playful, the accents joyous, the galloping theme invigorating, the interplay of major and minor modes vitalizing. Thus, having bared his soul, the deeply conflicted composer vows to endure and resolves to redirect his torment toward a more constructive end. Indeed, over the next quarter-century he would sublimate distress over his deafness to produce the greatest body of music in all of Western culture. Did the audience at that May afternoon premiere grasp any of this? Not a bit. Concerts of the time were hardly conducive to profound aesthetic reflection and often lacked the sobriety of purpose we now attribute to them. The soloist at the 1806 premiere of Beethoven’s only violin concerto reportedly entertained the crowd between movements by playing his fiddle upside down. In a note left in his original “Kreutzer” score, Bridgetower recalled that he departed from the score to mimic one of Beethoven’s piano runs, prompting the composer to leap from his seat and embrace the violinist before resuming. Bridgetower further reported that audience enthusiasm was limited to the most conservative of the three movements, the andante, of which they demanded an encore. BRISTLING WITH PERSONALITY Later musicians have been more appreciative, and today there are many “Kreutzer” recordings. A surprising number are technically accurate but emotionally vapid and intellectually shallow — perhaps a deliberate sacrifice to create a more uniform, if deficient, whole by avoiding the inevitable letdown after the opening movement’s torrid unrest. Some achieve a superficial excitement through sheer speed, bringing the work home in well under a half-hour, while other stolid versions pick up the pace by omitting the many repeats that Beethoven wrote into the score. There are, however, two historical readings that bristle with personality. They truly invoke the power of Beethoven’s startling conception, even for modern listeners, whose notion of musical thrills is light-years beyond that of the composer’s era. In their 1930 recording, violinist Bronislaw Huberman and pianist Ignaz Friedman urge each other on with hugely assertive phrasing, dynamic outbursts, roiling swells of volume, sudden extreme tempo shifts from suspenseful hesitation to firm decisiveness, and daring changes in texture from cloyingly sweet to harshly abrasive. In a highly expressive and individual touch, the entire first movement bristles with edgy tension as violin and piano deliberately fall in and out of synch. Most extraordinary of all “Kreutzer” recordings is an April 13, 1940, concert by violinist Joseph Szigeti and pianist B�la Bart�k that quivers with musical and cultural significance. It is, quite simply, one of the greatest concerts ever recorded. The performing style of the two men sprang from the musical tradition of their beloved Hungary, in which intonation, rhythm, dynamics, and texture all yield to unbridled emotion. Both vehement anti-fascists who had recently fled to America, Szigeti and Bart�k were burdened with dread that the world they cherished was on the brink of extinction. This was their first concert in the New World, held at the Library of Congress, the symbolic shrine of artistic freedom. That extraordinary confluence of factors channeled Beethoven’s own hope, despair, and resolve in a way that no other performance can ever hope to approach.
Peter Gutmann is a partner in the Washington, D.C., office of Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice. More information about the “Kreutzer” Sonata and its recordings is available online.

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