French Elegance, German Passion program notes

Tuesday, July 28, 2020 , 6:30 PM

Leclair: Sonata in E Minor for Two Violins, Op. 3, No. 5

Beethoven: Sonata No. 23 in F Minor, Op. 57, “Appassionata”

Jean-Marie Leclair (1697-1764)

Sonata in E Minor for Two Violins, Op. 3, No. 5 (1730)

Jean-Marie Leclair was a French composer, violinist, and dancer who came from a large musical family. He was born during a time of increasing influence of the Italian style of violin playing (and composition) in France, fueled by the shockwaves caused by the popularity of Corelli’s trio sonatas. The stylized dignity of the French detached style of violin playing began to give way to the longer bowing techniques and multiple stops—not to mention the extensive use of harmonic sequences—that were so prevalent in the Italian sonatas. Leclair spent time in Italy while in his 20s and found a way to combine the French and Italian styles to excellent effect, making him one of the most sought-after composers and violinists of his time. His innovations were recognized and admired, with one contemporary commenting in the 1720s, “Leclair is the first, without imitating anything, to have created beauty [and] newness, which he can say is his own.”

He completed four books of violin sonatas (with the traditional basso continuo accompaniment), one book of trio sonatas for two violins (with basso continuo), and two books of sonatas for two violins (without basso continuo). The piece we hear tonight is the fifth from the first set of two-violin sonatas, the only work in the set cast in a minor key.

The opening movement nicely demonstrates Leclair’s creativity in giving both violins equal voice while varying their mode of combination steadily throughout. The movement is in binary form, with a tonal journey from E minor to G major by the end of the first section, and then G major back to E minor by way of B minor in the second section. There are moments of near exact canon (e.g., at the beginnings of each of the two sections), rapid-fire motivic dialogues, and extended exchanges in which the two violins swap roles (e.g., at the ends of both sections).

The second movement Gavotte takes a different approach. Here, the first violin takes the lead with its naturally graceful melody. The second violin provides a contrapuntal voice in the form of a walking bass, maintaining steady eighth notes nearly throughout.

The third movement mimics the first in tonal and formal structure, but this Presto is all about fireworks. Rapid passagework in often simultaneous 16th notes in the two instruments creates a brilliant virtuosic energy that builds to an emphatic arrival back in E minor by the end of the second section.


Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

Sonata No. 23 in F Minor for Piano, Op. 57, “Appassionata” (1804-6)

Begun the year after the completion of his Eroica Symphony, the “Apassionata” Sonata was designed by Beethoven to push expressive boundaries of the genre. The moniker for the sonata was not Beethoven’s but added by a publisher at a later date, looking to generate sales. In this case, the title is apt, but the publisher need not have worried. The piece became immediately popular, and one that Beethoven himself declared among his own personal favorites. Its popularity has never waned, and the sonata remains under the fingers of every concert pianist today.

It is difficult to express concisely in words the manner in which Beethoven confounds expressive and formal expectations of an opening movement sonata form while simultaneously adhering to the basic structural principles of the form rather religiously here. The opening theme hardly seems melodic at all: a quiet, unison arpeggio down and up an F minor chord followed by a little trill ornament around a C major chord. This is scant material to build a movement around, and yet, Beethoven does just that. Enigmatically, the material repeats immediately a half-step higher and now major (on what is called a Neapolitan harmony), and then back down. The second theme, in the expected A-flat major key, is a kind of inversion of the first theme: an arpeggio in the same rhythm, starting in an upward as opposed to downward motion.

The development section lasts about as long as the entire exposition, and it indeed follows the material of the exposition chronologically, with surprising and even shocking harmonic twists around every corner. The journey culminates in a return to the first theme in the right key (F minor) but with the “wrong” bass note (C), repeated incessantly under it in the left hand, to unnerving effect. The substantial coda here culminates with a jarring accented wrong note (G-flat) that echoes (but reharmonizing) the Neapolitan chord from the opening.

The inspired, slow movement is in a “theme and variation” structure. The theme is tranquil and indeed plain, consisting of two phrase pairs, each repeated. The themes are melodically static in the upper voice, with note and gesture repetitions. Our ear is drawn to movement in the lower voice and the harmonies, which include a poignant chromatic chord in the second phrase. The first variation does not stray far, adding interest by displacing (and, at times, crossing) the right and left hands. The melody begins to flow in the second variation, and this flow becomes a kind of babbling brook accompaniment in the third variation. The fourth and final variation returns to the texture from the original theme, now with registral displacements and ornaments to brighten the mood. Dispensing with the repeats here, Beethoven ends the variation with an enigmatic rolled chord, preparing us for the unsettled mood of the finale.

The fierce last movement connects to the previous movements literally and figuratively. Again, there is little here that could be considered “melodic” in the usual sense, but the gestural fragments are tied together by an uneasy, relentless accompaniment and a compelling harmonic backdrop that, again, prominently features the Neapolitan chord which was so important in the first movement. The form is devastating here: Beethoven adheres to sonata form, with the second theme moving from a ferocious F minor to an unsettled C minor—there is no emotional break. In a highly unusual move, Beethoven indicates a repetition of the development and recapitulation, but not the exposition. (I cannot think of any other movement in the literature that does this.) The effect of this weighty “backloading” is an enormous buildup of tension for the Presto coda, an explosion of energy that seems entirely justified, given what has come before. Rather than resolving the merciless stress of the movement, the coda detonates it into oblivion—a tragic ending if there ever was one.

—Program notes by Jon Kochavi