Masterclass: Beethoven’s Cello Sonata no.4

Lynn Harrell main picture

Cellist Lynn Harrell considers challenges and contemporary concepts in the first movement of a sonata conceived entirely in the imagination of a deaf composer

Beethoven’s Fourth and Fifth sonatas – op.102 nos.1 and 2 – ushered in a new musical language: at their time of writing in 1815, they showed the musical direction of the future.

There is the most wonderful moment in the first movement of Sonata no.4, at the beginning of bar 94, where Beethoven writes in A major in the piano part and D minor for the cello. This lasts only for a moment, but for a Classical composer to have the concept that the two main poles of traditional harmony – the dominant and the tonic – could be played at the same time shows that he was starting to think in a way that might have led, if he had lived another 15–20 years, to a Schoenbergian breaking up of traditional harmony altogether. It’s just extraordinary.

Schoenberg marked principal and secondary voices Hauptstimme (H) and Nebenstimme (N) respectively. At the opening of Beethoven’s Sonata no.4, we could do the same: to begin, the cello has the principal voice; then the piano takes over, and the role goes back and forth between the two.

In bars 6–9 the cello is secondary, playing the bass-line to the piano part a 3rd apart. We accompany from bar 12 and, given that we no longer have material of secondary or principal importance, we should play this with less focus or interest than before, only following the piano’s expression for the swell in bars 13–14.

In bar 17, suddenly we go from tertiary to principal importance, within the same dynamic. It takes real artistry to be able to move from one voice to the next without changing sonority, and that is part of what I love about this music. Beethoven’s musical concept was outgrowing and outdistancing all the instrumentalists of his time. 

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