Beethoven, Ludwig van: Op. 23, Sonata for Piano and Violin in A minor

It wasn’t an innovation for Ludwig van Beethoven to have built pieces by repeating small bits of music in harmonically and rhythmically varied sequences; to do so was more or less idiomatic to Beethoven?s time and place, and especially characteristic of the music of Joseph Haydn (who was one of Beethoven?s teachers). However, building pieces in such a profoundly piecewise manner as Beethoven did — setting them up almost as though they were to be taken apart, or as though they might fly apart on their own — can even now sound odd and experimental. The sense of a piece being reduced to its most essential bits is strong in the Op. 23 Sonata for Piano and Violin.

Perhaps the clearest example of this profound reductionism is in a short interjection in the first movement, which sounds (no exaggeration) like this: ‘da-dum, da-dum, da-dum’. In the first movement, this bit of music is just an aside, but from its humble origins it goes on to become the sticky germ of the entire second movement, and even sticks around a bit in the third. The third movement is another odd mix of construction and destruction: it is, quite conventionally, in rondo form, but rather than expanding upon the rondo theme between its statements, Beethoven seems to pull apart the music, lose the forest for the trees, or even dodge momentarily into previous movements. Each reappearance to the theme comes to seem more like a rising-from-the-ashes than like a return-of-the-familiar.

There is something peculiar and upside-down about the whole piece, with its mirrored and argumentative risings and fallings; in some ways, it seems almost to move backward, beginning furiously presto and disappearing at its end like a genie into a bottle. The work is from fairly early in his career (just after the First Symphony and the first set of string quartets), and contains all of the singular orneriness of method and mood that would establish a new role for composers, composition, music, and artists in the European tradition.

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