The Kennedy Center

Violin Sonata No. 6 in A major, Op. 30 No. 1

About the Work

Portrait of Ludwig van Beethoven when composing the Missa Solemnis Composer: Ludwig van Beethoven
© Dr. 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 diminishing hearing (as well as a constant digestive distress and the wreck of a recent affair of the heart - the thought of Beethoven as a husband threatens the moorings of one's presence of mind!), 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. The Symphonies Nos. 2-5, a dozen piano sonatas, the Fourth Piano Concerto and 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." One of the keys that Beethoven used to unlock this revolutionary stylistic advance was the complete interpenetration of melody and accompaniment, the hewing of all the lines of a musical passage and even an entire movement from a small set of thematic atoms. Such a working method generates the main theme of the opening movement of the A major Sonata, in which most of the violin line and both hands of the piano are derived from either the quick turn figure or the flowing quarter-note motive introduced at the outset. The second subject, an arching melody with a trill, provides thematic and tonal contrast while continuing the genial, lyrical nature of the movement. The second theme and the turn figure provide most of the material for the development section. A full recapitulation of the exposition, properly adjusted as to key, rounds out the movement.

Of the Sonata's second movement, Jelly d'Aranyi, the brilliant Hungarian violinist who inspired works from Ravel, Bartók and Vaughan Williams, wrote, "The Adagio is a great favorite of mine. The blend of the two instruments is so perfect a thing.... The whole movement has such a feeling of tenderness and sorrow it reminds me, if I am allowed the comparison, of Michelangelo's Pietà, and his unfinished marvel, the Descent of the Cross. I do not want to suggest that this Adagio could be called religious music, I am only thinking in both cases of the expression of infinite tenderness and sorrow, whether put into sound or carved in stone."

Beethoven's original finale for the A major Sonata was a large, brilliant and difficult rondo - indeed, too brilliant, according to his student Ferdinand Ries, and it was ultimately used to cap the "Kreutzer" Sonata. Beethoven next devised a new, gentler theme for a more modest rondo, but this melody finally ended up as the subject for the set of variations that closes the A major Sonata.