The Violin Sonata No. 9 of Ludwig van Beethoven, commonly known as the Kreutzer Sonata, was published as Beethoven’s Opus 47. It is known for its demanding violin part, unusual length (a typical performance lasts slightly less than 40 minutes), and emotional scope — while the first movement is predominantly furious, the second is meditative and the third joyous and exuberant.
The sonata was originally dedicated to the violinist George Bridgetower (1778–1860), who performed it with Beethoven at the premiere on 24 May 1803 at the Augarten Theatre at a concert that started at the unusually early hour of 8:00 am. Bridgetower sight-read the sonata; he had never seen the work before, and there had been no time for any rehearsal. However, research indicates that after the performance, while the two were drinking, Bridgetower insulted the morals of a woman whom Beethoven cherished. Enraged, Beethoven removed the dedication of the piece, dedicating it instead to Rodolphe Kreutzer, who was considered the finest violinist of the day.
However, Kreutzer never performed it, considering it “outrageously unintelligible”. He did not particularly care for any of Beethoven’s music, and they only ever met once, briefly.
Sources suggest the work was originally titled “Sonata mulattica composta per il mulatto Brischdauer [Bridgetower], gran pazzo e compositore mulattico” (Mulatto Sonata composed for the mulatto Brischdauer, big wild mulatto composer), and in the composer’s 1803 sketchbook, as a “Sonata per il Pianoforte ed uno violino obligato in uno stile molto concertante come d’un concerto”.
Beethoven gave no key designation. Although the work is usually titled as being in A-major, the Austrian composer and music theoretician Gerhard Präsent has published articles indicating that the main key is in fact A-minor. Präsent has revealed interesting connections to the 6th violin sonata op.30/1, for which the third movement was originally composed, and he believes that the unusual opening bars for solo violin form a kind of transition from the earlier sonata (or from its structural material), supporting the belief that the acquisition of the finale of op.30/1 for the “Kreutzer” was a compositional intention — and not a result of lack of time, as long suspected.
The piece is in three movements, and takes approximately 43 minutes to perform:
- Adagio sostenuto – Presto – Adagio (about 15 minutes in length)
- Andante con variazioni (about 18 minutes)
- Presto (about 10 minutes)
The sonata opens with a slow 18-bar introduction, of which only the first four bars of the solo violin are in the A-Major-key. The piano enters, and the harmony begins to turn darker towards the minor key, until the main body of the movement — an angry A-minor Presto— begins. Here, the piano part matches the violin’s in terms of difficulty. Near the end, Beethoven brings back part of the opening Adagio, before closing the movement in an anguished coda.
There could hardly be a greater contrast with the second movement, a placid tune in F major followed by five distinctive variations. The first variation transliterates the theme into a lively triple meter while embellishing it with trills, while in the second the violin steals the melody and enlivens it even further. The third variation, in the minor, returns to a darker and more meditative state. The fourth recalls the first and second variations with its light, ornamental, and airy feel. The fifth and final variation, the longest, caps the movement with a slower and more dramatic feel, nevertheless returning to the carefree F major.
The calm is broken by a crashing A major chord in the piano, ushering in the virtuosic and exuberant third movement, a 6/8 tarantella in rondo form. After moving through a series of slightly contrasting episodes, the theme returns for the last time, and the work ends jubilantly in a rush of A major.
This finale was originally composed for another, earlier, sonata for violin and piano by Beethoven, the Op. 30, no. 1, in A major.
Kreutzer Sonata, painting by René François Xavier Prinet (1901), based on Tolstoy‘s novella, The Kreutzer Sonata
Front page of an original edition of the Kreutzer Sonata