The Fiery Kreutzer

By Ray Brown

Dec. 17

Today's 4:00 Request is from Joel for Beethoven's "Kreutzer" Sonata.  Recently, my colleague Laura Carlo posted a beautiful Host Note about the Heiligenstadt Testament, Beethoven's heart-wrenching letter to his brothers in which he articulates the reasons for his “fiery, active termperament.”  Much of this sonata was written at the same time that he wrote that powerful letter, and that temperament can be heard in full force in this sonata's first movement. 

It's a movement that the character Posdnicheff describes as "a terrible thing" in Leo Tolstoy's novella The Kreutzer Sonata, and that ignites the fires of a jealous rage, leading the character to murder his wife.  (That novella, in turn, inspired René François Xavier Prinet's painting of 1901, at left, as well as Janacek's first string quartet.)  While there's no documented evidence that this piece inspired a murder in real life, its famous title was the result of a jealousy-fueled dispute between Beethoven and its original dedicatee, the violinist George Bridgetower. Originally good friends, they fell in love with the same woman, leading Beethoven to change the dedication to the French violinist Rudolphe Kreutzer, who never performed the sonata that bears his name (otherwise best known for the 42 etudes that torture every young violinist).

This sonata can be considered the dividing line between Beethoven's "early" and "middle" periods.  One of the ways in which the differences between the two periods manifest themselves in Beethoven's chamber works is in their scale of expression, and by extension, their implied audience. The third movement of this sonata, which was actually written first and intended for a different piece altogether, sounds like an activity, something that was written primarily for the pleasure of the performers, as well as entertaining for the handful of people who could also fit into the living room.

The first movement, which was the last to be written, is very much a piece for a theater or a concert hall, in which two performers make a compelling public statement as powerful as that of an orchestra, in the way only professional could handle.  It could be said that the difference between the so-called early and middle periods is the difference between Beethoven the 18th-century composer and Beethoven the 19th-century composer. It's not unlike the trajectory taken by the Eroica symphony in that regard, from the revolutionary, seams-bursting first movement to the classical variations of the finale based on a theme he had already used in three early-period works.

The years 1801-1806 were transitional for Beethoven; the struggles he mentioned in the Heiligenstadt Testament manifested themselves not only in his forward-looking, fiery, temperamental music, but also in his difficulty in reconciling that temperament with the classical style he been working in his entire life up to that point. As it says in the Testament, he still wanted to be able to engage in relaxation and refined conversations with others, and not to appear misanthropic.  But he also wants his condition to be understood, to have us all know what his "hot terrors" feel like.  It will take him another few years to figure out how to do that completely successfully, which he finally did in the Fifth Symphony, but his journey toward that point is fascinating, illuminating and moving, and it could be said that journey begins with the Kreutzer Sonata.
(image:  Wikimedia Commons)

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