I haven’t posted any Beethoven in a while, which is strange since it’s supposed to be a focus, given that 2020 is Beethoven’s 250th birth year. But here’s an interesting tidbit: even though it’s Beethoven, we’re not completely taking a break from my recent delving into the history of Black figures in classical music history.
This is not a tone poem by any definition, so I shouldn’t even be using it here, but my house, my rules. It’s a sonata for solo violin and piano. Beethoven wrote ten violin sonatas, which are among the greatest works ever written for the instrument. Beethoven’s compositional mastery of the violin is astounding (as I’ll discuss more when I finally get around to writing about his Concerto for violin and orchestra), and it shines forth here, in the Violin Sonata No. 9 in A Major. This piece is often called the “Kreutzer Sonata”, after violinist Rodolphe Kreutzer, to whom Beethoven dedicated the work.
But that’s where things get a little interesting, because Kreutzer took one look at the score, decided the piece was unplayable, and rejected it. But the dedication stood, which seems weird, doesn’t it? If I dedicated a piece to a specific musician who then insulted it, I’m not sure I’d let the dedication stand. And Beethoven was no stranger to removing dedications from his works, as we know from the Eroica symphony and…this very violin sonata.
For Rodolphe Kreutzer was not Beethoven’s first choice of dedication. That honor went to violinist George Bridgetower, a Black violin virtuoso who had already disproved Kreutzer’s notion that the sonata was “unplayable” by not only playing it, but by sightreading it. Bridgetower was one of the greatest violinists of his day, and he lived a long life mostly in England. He also did some composing of his own, but it’s as the original honoree of Beethoven’s Ninth Violin Sonata that he caught my attention.
Bridgetower’s falling out with Beethoven is also a rather odd story. Apparently Bridgetower was out on the town with the great composer, when he made some insulting comments toward a woman, without knowing that the woman was a personal friend of Beethoven’s. This was the impetus for Beethoven to rip off his original dedication and instead gift the work to a musician who didn’t even like it and refused to play it. Isn’t it weird how often the world of great art is as subject to human pettiness as everything else?
The sonata itself is a spellbinding listen as the mood shifts from moody darkness to the kind of joyful light that so often turns up in Beethoven’s music. Is it a tone poem? Of course not…but it was first played by a Black man, and had that same man not made some inopportune comments one night, this piece would be carrying that Black man’s name into history instead of some other guy who didn’t even play it.