Beethoven and Bates program notes

Thursday, August 6, 2020 , 6:30 PM

Beethoven: Sonata No. 5 in F Major for Violin and Piano, Op. 24, “Spring”

Bates: Mothership

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

Sonata No. 5 in F Major for Violin and Piano, Op. 24, “Spring”

In his youth, Beethoven considered it his business to master not only the larger issues of craft—such as harmony, counterpoint, and form—but to master each medium and genre as a distinct kind of piece. All these endeavors were founded on intensive study of the past. In general, what Beethoven did when he was gearing up as an artist was to decide what composer was the best model for a given kind of piece or medium and use that as his primary model. For string quartets, the inescapable model was Haydn, who had virtually invented the modern idea of a quartet. For symphonies, Haydn and Mozart. For contrapuntal writing, Bach. For piano music, believing that the piano works of Haydn and Mozart were still harpsichord-oriented, he studied the work of Muzio Clementi. (Beethoven, remember, was among the first generation of musicians to grow up as pure pianists.)

This situation had deep implications for his evolution as a composer. Overall, Beethoven was determined to create what he felt was the first body of keyboard work that truly explored the piano, which in his day was in a period of rapid evolution from the small, light-sounding instruments of his youth to the more robust ones of his later years. The evolution of the instrument during his career had steady implications not only for his solo piano music, but for his music for piano and other instruments, such as the violin sonatas.

There were other issues involved as well. As he studied the models of the past, Beethoven was also studying the repertoire that his music was going to be up against. He was not afraid of rivals, but he was intensely aware of them. That is why, in comparing his first-period string quartets with his piano sonatas of the same years, one finds that the piano music is distinctly bolder and more “Beethovenian” than his quartets. In the latter, he knew he was on Haydn’s turf, so he was cautious; with piano, he felt he was dealing with a medium he owned. The same situation applies when we compare his first cello and violin sonatas: he virtually created the medium of the cello sonata, so the two of Op. 5 are remarkably fresh and strong. With violin sonatas, he was in Mozart’s territory, so his early ones are relatively cautious and detectably Mozartian. It was with his ninth violin sonata, the mighty “Kreutzer,” Op. 47, that the mature Beethoven voice emerged in the medium. With the earlier Op. 24, later dubbed “Spring,” we see him on the way to finding his own voice. But where Op. 47 is one of the most passionate and aggressive of all violin sonatas, Op. 24 is individual in the most gentle and engaging way.

Most of the time in a given piece, Beethoven will tell us at the very beginning the essential nature of the work. The beginning of the Spring Sonata is a fresh, lyrical violin melody as fresh as a spring breeze. The whole work will stay on that plane of forthright and limpid winsomeness. Moving beyond the influence of Mozart and putting his stamp on the violin sonata had much to do with the evolution of the piano: the richer the keyboards at Beethoven’s disposal, the richer the colors in the music, and the more the two instruments became equals in the dialogue. In the beginning of Op. 24, the violin is in charge with its dewy theme, the piano providing a simple accompaniment. Eventually the piano takes over the tune, and there are stretches of dialogue in the movement, getting into some blustery passages here and there, but the lyricism of the violin defines the atmosphere of this piece.

That is confirmed by the main theme of the second movement, a wistfully engaging melody introduced by the piano then taken over by the violin. The accompaniment is the babbling classical-era keyboard figure so common it has a name: Alberti bass, familiar in Mozart’s piano music. In his piano writing, Beethoven usually made a point of avoiding Alberti figures, but here he uses it as a sort of touchstone of the past in a movement whose serene beauty rivals that of the first movement, now with some exquisitely poignant moments. It is as if the unassuming piano accompaniment makes it submissive to the prevailing lyricism of the violin.

Unusually, this is a violin sonata with four rather than the usual three movements, but the jovial and ironic scherzo, with its hopping rhythms, is here and gone in just over a minute. Its tininess is part of the joke. The finale begins with a genial and plain-spoken theme passed back and forth between the partners, ending the sonata with another angle on the general mood of delight.

Describing the “Sonata” in words can make it seem sentimental and lacking in variety, but its enduring popularity shows that it is anything but. As Beethoven knew as well as anybody, being simple and attractive and yet absorbing is not easy to achieve, and as this piece shows, nobody was better at that than he was. And he never wrote another piece more endearing than the “Spring” Sonata.

—Program notes by Jan Swafford


Mason Bates (b. 1977)

Mothership (2011)

Mason Bates is well known to regular Sun Valley Music Festival attendees. In addition to composing his 2014 orchestral piece Devil’s Radio in honor of Maestro Neale’s 30th season in Sun Valley, Bates served as composer-in-residence during last year’s summer season. Those who attended the performance of Liquid Interface last year were also treated to a fabulously joyous dance party on the Pavilion lawn that followed, with Bates’ alter ego, DJ Masonic, spinning and mixing dance tunes in front of a giant video screen.  Bates embraces the liberation afforded by transgressing the boundaries between “classical” and “popular” genres of music making. While working towards his Ph.D. at Berkeley, concentrating on symphonic composition, Bates would spend his nights mixing techno beats at Oakland clubs. Elements of electronica, so prominent in the dance scene, have found their way into many of Bates’ symphonic scores, including Mothership.

Under the direction of Michael Tilson Thomas, the YouTube Symphony Orchestra commissioned Bates’ Mothership as both an audition piece for putting the musicians together from around the globe and as an inspiration for soloists to submit improvisations. Four improvisers were chosen to premiere the piece in March 2011, with Mr. Tilson Thomas and the YTSO in Sydney, a performance that had over 11 million livestream viewers.

Bates likens the piece to a “techno-scherzo,” where the “mothership”—represented by the orchestra—sets up a driving rhythmic theme, eventually sending out a signal to the soloist to begin a cadenza over a more subdued texture. There are two such solo sections, the “trios,” with the first projecting a jazz swing feel and the second a more melodic, lyrical feel. Bates calls these improvisatory solos “docking episodes.” In marrying synthetically produced sounds with acoustic, Bates creates a unique sonic palette here, remarking that “technological innovations have often given birth to musical innovations, and it is with a nod to history that Mothership will lift off.”

—Program notes by Jon Kochavi