The Kennedy Center

Violin Sonata No. 7 in C minor, Op. 30, No. 2

About the Work

Portrait of Ludwig van Beethoven when composing the Missa Solemnis Composer: Ludwig van Beethoven
© Richard E. Rodda

In the summer of 1802, Beethoven's physician ordered him to leave Vienna and take rooms in Heiligenstadt, today a friendly suburb at the northern terminus of the city's subway system, but two centuries ago a quiet village with a view of the Danube across the river's rich flood plain. It was three years earlier, in 1799, that Beethoven first noticed a disturbing ringing and buzzing in his ears, and he sought medical attention for the problem soon thereafter. He tried numerous cures for his malady, as well as for his chronic colic, including oil of almonds, hot and cold baths, soaking in the Danube, pills and herbs. For a short time he even considered the modish treatment of electric shock. On the advice of his latest doctor, Beethoven left the noisy city for the quiet countryside with the assurance that the lack of stimulation would be beneficial to his hearing and his general health.

On October 6, 1802, following several months of wrestling with his misfortunes, Beethoven penned the most famous letter ever written by a musician - the "Heiligenstadt Testament." Intended as a will written to his brothers (it was never sent, though he kept it in his papers to be found after his death), it is a cry of despair over his fate, perhaps a necessary and self-induced soul-cleansing in those pre-Freudian days. "O Providence - grant me at last but one day of pure joy - it is so long since real joy echoed in my heart," he lamented. But - and this is the miracle - he not only poured his energy into self-pity, he also channeled it into music. "I shall grapple with fate; it shall never pull me down," he resolved. The next five years were the most productive he ever knew. "I live only in my music," Beethoven wrote, "and I have scarcely begun one thing when I start another." The Symphonies Nos. 2-5, a dozen piano sonatas, the Fourth Piano Concerto and the Triple Concerto, Fidelio , three violin and piano sonatas (Op. 30), many songs, chamber works and keyboard compositions were all composed between 1802 and 1806.

The Op. 30 Sonatas for Piano and Violin that Beethoven completed by the time he returned from Heiligenstadt to Vienna in the middle of October 1802 stand at the threshold of a new creative language, the dynamic and dramatic musical speech that characterizes the creations of his so-called "second period." The C minor Sonata, the second of the Op. 30 set, shares its impassioned key with several other epochal creations of those years, notably the Fifth Symphony, the Third Piano Concerto, the "Pathétique" Sonata, the Coriolan Overture and the Op. 18, No. 4 String Quartet. The work opens with a pregnant main theme, announced by the piano and echoed by the violin, which, according to Samuel Midgley, "is like a taut spring about to snap." This motive returns throughout the movement both as the pillar of its structural support and as the engine of its tempestuous expression. The second theme is a tiny military march in dotted rhythms. The development section, which commences with bold slashing chords separated by silences (the exposition is not repeated), encompasses powerful mutations of the two principal themes. A full recapitulation and a large coda round out the movement. The Adagio is based on a hymnal melody presented first by the piano and reiterated by the violin. A passage in long notes for the violin above harmonically unsettled arpeggios in the keyboard constitutes the movement's central section before the opening theme is recalled in an elaborated setting. The coda is dressed with ribbons of scales by the piano. The Scherzo , with its rhythmic surprises and nimble figurations, presents a playful contrast to the surrounding movements. The Finale, which mixes elements of rondo (the frequent returns of the halting motive heard at the beginning) and sonata (the extensive development of the themes), renews the troubled mood of the opening movement to close the expressive and formal cycle of this excellent Sonata.