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

Lynn Harrell main picture

Photo: Chad Batka

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 hewas 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.

Lynn Harrell masterclass first picture

Sforzandos and subitos

Sforzandos and subito pianos and fortes are characteristic of Beethoven. Haydn, his teacher, objected to this vehemently – he thought it was absurd! Often at the start of the Allegro vivace we hear such a strong fortissimo that the sforzando attacks blend into the sound.

If we play the quavers (e) firmly and tightly at a lower dynamic – more like mezzo pianoor piano – the sforzandos can come out. We know from the way that harmony unfolds in Beethoven’s music that when he wrote a number of fortepianos or sforzandos in a line he wanted a crescendo – maybe not one that leads into a new dynamic realm, but one that intensifies the music.This makes sense, for example, in bars 84–88, as the tessitura grows stronger before we diminish to pianissimo in bar 90.

Dynamic markings

By this period of his life Beethoven had not been able to hear for years, except in his imagination. It was said that from the Second Symphony (1802) on, when he played the piano, many pianissimo notes didn’t speak; and in the fortissimos strings would break.

He wanted a great difference between soft and delicate, and firm and muscular – if not in decibels then in energy. Sometimes Beethoven would not add dynamic and character indications to a piece for a long time after he had written it; often he would delay sending scores to his copyist until he had done so.

Several of the sonatas start with no dynamic marking – only an indication like dolce – but here he marks piano, so we know that he has thought about this very carefully. This delicate, tender opening contrasts with the aggressive, angry Allegro vivace of bar 28. Bar 34 is an energetic piano with a crescendo to mezzo forte to end, but this does not mean the theme should be less strong when it returns in bar 36.

It is a reiteration of the opening, to be played fortissimo with accents (some editions even mark the sforzandos in parenthesis). The fact that Beethoven did mark a sforzando on the E of bar 37 suggests he wanted the highest, longest note to be most powerful. In bar 89 there is a fortepiano followed by a pianissimo, before the piano plays minims (h) that go higher and higher.

In bar 93 I cringe when cellists crescendo early, from the B flat! What Beethoven has marked is more difficult, but it is much more eloquent and imaginative.

Dynamics are so often misunderstood. We are taught that forte means loud and piano means soft, but forte has nothing to do with volume – only a character of muscularity and strength. We can play strongly and give the impression of being loud; or we can play a soft, floaty dynamic loudly, if we bow quickly and close to the fingerboard.

A piano or pianissimo can actually be as loud as a fortissimo: for instance, the piano in bar 40 should be about the same volume as the fortissimo in bar 39, just with a very different character.

Beethoven Urtext

To see the marked-up sheet music, in association with Henle Verlag, download The Strad’s January 2019 issue on desktop computer or via the The Strad App, or buy the print edition

Character and tempo

This movement begins with the unusual marking of teneramente and dolce cantabile. It’s tender and sweet, so don’t play robotically – hold the first and fourth notes a little and stay flexible, as though you’ve just woken up in the morning, you’ve had a lovely sleep and you’re a bit groggy.

Nowadays we have races that are won by 100ths of a second, but in Beethoven’s era a letter might take three weeks to arrive, and a watch could lose or gain 30 minutes a day. The idea of counting a strict ‘1, 2, 3, 4!’ comes from a modern concept of tempo, which is against human nature and has no place in this music.

From bar 25 the dolce quality has to be highlighted. So often I hear performances with a full, projected sound that reduces the contrast with the combative Allegro vivace of bar 28.

Some editions have a metronomic indication of q=116 here which, although not Beethoven’s, is about right. We want a tempo fast enough to feel mostly in two, but slow enough for us to feel sections such as from bar 44 in four.

For the rhythm of:


from bar 142, any difference between the crotchets and the quavers is only in energy.

All five notes should be the same length, with more energy on the quavers, in a risoluto forte – otherwise it will sound nebbish, or even worse, mezzo-nebbish! For the little coda from bar 145, one has to be very careful: in bars 151–152 the pianist’s hand really has to move. To facilitate this, we either have to distort these bars and play them a little slower, or play the whole section slower from bar 145.

I like to play in a way that means my pianist can be more empathetic, to allow him to move his hand for that terrible passage without having to distort the rhythm. This does mean playing out of tempo, but we cannot play the risoluto any other way, outside Beethoven’s mind.

One of the greatest performances I have ever heard of this work is by Miklós Perényi and András Schiff. Some of Perényi’s bowings and fingerings are very strange – he really approaches it completely differently! – but it’s quite wonderful. One also has to listen to Heifetz playing the Beethoven Violin Concerto with Toscanini, which I think is better than the Charles Munch Boston recording.

Alfred Brendel’s approach to Beethoven has been for me both eye-opening and life-changing – he has so deep an understanding of the particular type of energy and power that comes in this music. His recording of the op.101 Piano Sonata is intriguing because it has a lot of the dotted rhythms used in the Fourth Cello Sonata.

It’s fascinating to see the development from early to middle to late Beethoven: a late Beethoven quartet is just nothing like the early piano sonatas or the opp.2 and 3 string sonatas. The difference is just incredible. Making connections between these pieces can help us strengthen our understanding of a composer, to stimulate us to come to answers about interpretative questions.

To see the marked-up sheet music, in association with Henle Verlag, download The Strad’s January 2019 issue on desktop computer or via the The Strad App, or buy the print edition