Program Notes: Beethoven’s “Kreutzer” Sonata and Its Mozartean Models

From April 1764 to July 1765, as part of a grand European tour, the Mozart family was in England. On May 19 they were able to perform before an attentive but limited circle that included members of the royal family. Among the attendees, King George III was a violinist and flutist, and his wife Queen Charlotte sang and played harpsichord (according to Haydn). Johann Christian Bach was also present. During this concert Wolfgang accompanied Queen Charlotte in an aria. He also sight-read a multitude of pieces by various composers placed before him by J.C. Bach. Everyone was duly impressed, and Wolfgang’s father (and teacher) Leopold was pleased with the reception.

The royal household continued to be attentive to the Mozart family during their stay in Britain. Before leaving the “blessed plot” (England), Leopold, out of gratitude, published a set of six violin sonatas written by Wolfgang and dedicated it to Queen Charlotte. The dedication read: “Deign, Madam, to receive my poor gifts. You were from the first destined to reign over a free people; the children of Genius are so no less than the British People, free above all with their offerings, they take pleasure in surrounding your throne.” Mozart referred to his works as his children in other dedications, mostly notably that of the quartets dedicated to Haydn.

When the sonatas appeared in print, identified as Opus 3, they listed flute as an alternative solo instrument, and included a cello part, which doubles the left hand of the keyboard. The writing lightly explores brief melodic ideas, within regular phrases structures and harmonically conservative contexts. And yet, it easily matches the achievements of his more mature contemporaries. Leopold was not off the mark when he boasted that his eight-year-old son understood what you might expect a 40-year-old might know. The piece is in three movements, which was a common feature of sonatas of the era, ending with a pair of minuets. While the first movement has some classical elements, the drama of sonata form is not in full play. But the thematic ideas are delightful.

While brilliant in its own right, the sonata in G major, K.379 is remarkable for the circumstances of its composition. Mozart had been unexpectedly called, along with musicians mentioned in the letter, to Vienna on 16 March by his Salzburg employer, Archbishop Colloredo. The composer had not been able to assemble works for the trip, and had to write some as needed. In a letter to his father from 8 April 1781, Wolfgang recounts: “Today (for I am writing at eleven at night) we had a concert, where three of my pieces were performed—new ones, of course. The Rondo of a concerto [K.373] for Salzburg concertmaster [Antonio] Brunetti, a sonata with violin accompaniment [K.379] for myself, which I composed last night between eleven and twelve o’clock, but in order to have it ready in time, I only wrote out the accompaniment for Brunetti, and retained my own part in my head. The third was a rondo for [the castrato Francesco] Ceccarelli [K.374], which was encored.” The manuscript of K.379 suggests that it was indeed composed as Mozart says.


The opening Adagio begins with three rich chords, and proceeds to lay out an exposition, with two contrasting themes, closing on the dominant. A development ensues, but there is no return to G major. Instead, a short probing transition bends the piece from major towards minor, cadencing in G minor for a stormy Allegro. The development of the Allegro is surprisingly brief, perhaps because of the circumstances of composition. In chamber music, developments often involve much engagement between instruments, but this element is missing, perhaps because of the conditions under which it was written. The recapitulation is expanded somewhat with extensions. The Andantino cantabile is a theme with five variations. All the distress from the Allegro is completely dispersed save, perhaps, for the minor variation. The first variation is for piano alone, the second and third allow for vibrant violin rifts; the fourth is in minor, but does not hint at stress; the fifth is an Adagio, and very lyrical, but also momentarily displays a Beethovenian seriousness. The final variation is followed by a return of the theme, not a common procedure, and a coda with drop-dead charm.


In comparison to K.13, K.379 is broader in scope, aided by a matured use of form. The violin’s role has also bloomed, presenting essential material, both melodic and contrapuntal, though there are still passages where its absence would make little difference.


A few years after the publication of Mozart’s six violin sonatas in 1781, a very young composer in Bonn took three of them as models for three piano quartets he was writing. Material from the third of these quartets, which the composer never published, was used in three piano sonatas he published a decade later, after having moved to Vienna. The composer was Ludwig van Beethoven and the op. 2 piano sonatas were among his first publications. Beethoven began his work on this sonata as early as 1790, and performed it in front of its dedicatee, and Beethoven’s teacher, Joseph Haydn, in the fall of 1795.


The first movement of the sonata, perhaps the most famous of his early published works, displays remarkable intensity and control over thematic material and form. Beethoven had a tendency, in these years, to let expansiveness get out of hand. The Adagio is such an example; here the opening 16-measure statement is almost doubled upon its return. In contrast to the “force-of-nature” Beethoven that begins and ends the last movement, the development, marked “sempre piano e dolce,” is most unexpected (which may have pleased Haydn). But the rapidly contrasting dynamics, hammering chords and racing passages signal the hand of a young Beethoven.


In August of 1803, Beethoven’s student, Ferdinand Ries, informed the publisher Simrock that Beethoven would be leaving Vienna for Paris after a year or so. The composer had not adjusted to his free-lance status in the Austrian city: “Please remember,” Beethoven wrote to a friend, “that all my acquaintances hold appointments and know exactly what they have to live on. But heaven help us! What appointment at the Imperial Court could be given to such a parvum talentum com ego (poor talent like myself)?”

The histories of two works by Beethoven play a role in his interest in Paris. It is well known that Beethoven originally entitled his third symphony “Bonaparte.” Maynard Solomon suggests that one motivation for this title was the composer’s intention of moving to the French capital. The dedication of op. 47 was similarly affected, though the story is more complicated.


The sonata was originally written for an accomplished Polish mulatto violinist, George Polgreen Bridgetower. Beethoven had started the sonata when he was introduced to Bridgetower in the spring of 1803. He made great haste to complete the work for a recital on May 24, even using a finale originally intended for op. 30, no. 1. The concert was scheduled for 8 a.m. in the Augarten. Beethoven summoned the copyist at 4:30 a.m., however much of the piano part was improvised in performance by the composer and Bridgetower played the variation movement reading over Beethoven’s shoulder. The two musicians became friends, but reportedly later had a falling out over a woman, which is also why op. 47 is not called the “Bridgetower” sonata.


By late summer, Beethoven’s attention was drawn toward Paris. In August, he received a piano from Érard, a Parisian firm, possibly at the instigation of French pianist Jean-Louis Adam. The dissatisfaction quoted above was written in September. In October, Ries wrote again to Simrock that the dedication of the sonata would be to Adam and to French violinist Rodolphe Kreutzer. Beethoven had met Kreutzer in 1798 and later wrote favorably of him: “This Kreutzer is a good amiable man, who during his stay here, gave me much pleasure. His unaffectedness and natural manner are more to my taste than all the exterieur or interieur of most virtuosi. As the Sonata is for a first-rate player, the dedication to him is all the more fitting” (Letter to Simrock, 1804).


Beethoven’s subtitle for op. 47 is quite informative: “Sonata per il Pianoforte ed un violino obligato in un stile molto concertante quasi come d’un Concerto.” Indeed, the work is of massive proportions and calls for virtuosic playing from both performers. The extroverted style of the A minor Presto, in sonata form, is more typical of a nineteenth-century concerto than any chamber music. Still, the constant give and take of the two instruments anchors it in this more intimate medium. The Andante con variazioni is based on a placid theme and exhibits the violinist’s dexterity while the sonata-form finale, though composed earlier, complements the effect of the whole.


A couple of final notes: Returning to those early Beethoven piano quartets: one of them also contains a formal strategy that connects K.379 to Beethoven’s op.47: that of opening the work with a slow section in major, but moving into the parallel minor for the main body of the movement. Secondly, according to Hector Berlioz, Kreutzer never played the sonata because he thought it an outrageously unintelligible composition. The violinist also knew it was originally intended for Bridgetower.

~ Joseph Orchard, ©2017


David Hyun-Su Kim, fortepiano

Daniel Stepner, violin


Sonata in F Major, K. 13                                                                      Wolfgang Amadée Mozart(1756-1791)



Menuetto I and II


Sonata in G Major, K. 379                                                                     Mozart

Adagio / Allegro

Thema con variazioni


Sonata in f minor, Op. 2, No. 1                                                             Ludwig van Beethoven   (1770-1827)









Violin Sonata in A Major, Op. 47 (‘Kreutzer’)                                       Beethoven

Adagio sostenuto/Presto

Andante con variazioni