Two cello sonatas written to please the king

Dealing with kings – a thorny issue. © Charles Thibo

I don’t trust politicians or so-called statesmen. They are – by profession – in the manipulating business. I keep a safe distance from politics and my creative mind does not have to bow to anyone’s wishes, however mighty he might be. Ludwig van Beethoven was less fortunate. At the beginning of his career, he was vying for the favour of King Frederic William II of Prussia. In May and June 1796 he stayed in Berlin and met the cellist Jean-Louis Deport, who had been asked by the king to join the court orchestra. The king himself was an excellent cellist and he asked Beethoven to write a couple of pieces for cello.

Beethoven did not waste time and sat down to work. Deport’s brilliant bowing technique and his expressive sound had both inspired and impressed the composer and the ideas flowed freely. The “Two Grande Sonatas for Harpsichord or Pianoforte and  Cello” (Op. 5), dedicated to Frederic William II, gradually took shape. The composer did not have to worry about writing pieces inferior to works written by his predecessors. Neither Joseph Haydn nor Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart had written any sonata for cello and keyboard. Beethoven wrote Sonata No. 1 in F major and Sonata No. 2 in G minor. Both have been recorded by the cellist Steven Isserlis and the pianist Robert Levin.

Prussian-Austrian rivalry

According to Jan Caeyers, author of an excellent bography of Beethoven, the Prussian king was enthusiastic about Beethoven’s pieces and his performance at court. Seven years ago he would have loved to make Mozart his protégé, but the relationship between the Prussian court and the Habsburg monarchy had been at a low point. Now Frederic William II saw a chance to confer favours upon a composer who actually was under the protection  of the Vienna nobility. And one is tempted to ask who was vying for more attention: the king or the composer. Anyway, if Frederic William II had any plans to engage Beethoven as a composer for the Prussian court, it all came to nothing since the king died unexpectedly in autumn 1797.

Both pieces mark the beginning of an evolution of the role of the cello. If the cello had initially assumed the function of the Baroque basso continuo* and intervened merely as an accompaniment of the keyboard, Beethoven assigns a more independent role to the cello, it becomes and equal partner of the keyboard.

A wealth of sonic possibilities

Sonata No. 1 in F major starts with a slow first, sustained movement. The next movement is excited and exciting at the same time with a vigorous cello and a brilliant piano, forceful, joyous, sweeping. The finale, written in the form of a rondo*, is impetuous just as if Beethoven got carried away by his own creativity and enthusiasm. The fact that Levin plays his part on a fortepiano opens up “a wealth of sonic possibilities” as the label Hyperion puts it.

The second sonata in G minor starts on a slow and earnest mood, with a lyrical theme for the cello, and a dialogue among equals between the cello and the fortepiano. The second movement is characterized by an ardent first theme and a contrasting mellifluous second theme. The finale again is a rondo, but the switch from G minor to G major gives it a spirited character and may explain the king’s exaltation. It certainly explains the rapture I experience when I listen to the piece.

© Charles Thibo

 

 

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