Artemis Quartet will play Beethoven’s demanding and difficult sonata that is challenging for listeners in a diverse recital programme in Hong Kong
Works of Beethoven, Tolstoy, Janáček and Schumann feature on June 7
The Kreutzer Sonata is Ludwig van Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No. 9, which he wrote in 1803. Russian writer Leo Tolstoy used Beethoven’s demanding, difficult sonata as the dramatic centrepoint of his eponymous 1889 novella on love, sexual jealousy and violence. In 1923, Czech composer Leoš Janáček wrote his String Quartet No. 1 as a response to Tolstoy’s short story, also called The Kreutzer Sonata. Each of these works is intense, challenging and controversial in its own way.
The controversy started after the first time the original sonata was played. Beethoven had originally dedicated his piece to violinist George Bridgetower (1778–1860). Beethoven and Bridgetower premiered the sonata on May 24, 1803 in a concert at the Augarten Theatre in Vienna, Austria, at the unusual hour of 8am. There had been no time to rehearse, so Bridgetower sight-read the sonata. The concert was a huge success.
But after the concert, the two musicians argued. Bridgetower had apparently insulted the morals of a woman Beethoven admired. Beethoven was incensed, removed the dedication, and devoted the piece instead to Rodolphe Kreutzer, considered to be the greatest violinist at the time.
Kreutzer never ended up playing the sonata, and, according to French composer Hector Berlioz, called Beethoven “outrageously unintelligible”. Nevertheless, history has forever linked the violinist’s name to Beethoven’s work.
The sonata is known as difficult to play, and challenging for listeners.
“It’s one of Beethoven’s most virtuosic works for violin, but at the same time was the first violin sonata to treat the two players as equals, and both need to be highly advanced players,” says Dr Nathan Seinen, assistant professor in the department of music at Chinese University.
“There is brilliant passage of work in both parts, for which it’s necessary to have strong and agile fingers – there are a lot of notes! The outer movements are both marked Presto [rapid tempo], and one of the main difficulties is being able to play at this quick tempo. As well as speed and stamina, both players need to control the dynamic shifts and sforzandi [played with prominent stress] accents, which must be coordinated precisely between the two players – both have to master their own parts as well as manage to stay together.”
While the players have, of course, to work in harmony, what creates tension in the piece is that their interaction is almost argumentative.
“There is an intense dialogue, at times an argument, between them, notably in the first movement,” Seinen says.
The famous note on the sonata’s title page, “scritta in uno stile molto concertante, quasi come d’un concerto” (“written almost in the manner of a concerto”), suggests the piece is designed to be a collaboration that involves competitive struggle or conflict, as in the genre of the concerto.
This conflict is, perhaps, what captivated Tolstoy. In his story, the main character, Pozdnyshev, feels a terrible jealousy towards his wife, who plays Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata with a male violinist at a soiree. For Pozdnyshev, the music has a dreadful power.
“It is indeed a terrible weapon in the hands of those who know how to employ it,” he says in the novella. “Is it right to play that first presto in a drawing room to ladies in low dresses? To play that presto, then to applaud it, and immediately afterward to eat ice creams and discuss the latest scandal? … Upon me, at least, this piece produced a terrible effect; it seemed as if new feelings were revealed to me, new possibilities unfolded to my gaze, of which I had never dreamed before.”
Pozdnyshev becomes consumed with jealousy later, and, finding his wife and the violinist sitting together late at night in the drawing room, kills her in a fit of rage.
“Tolstoy loved music, but also, as a religious thinker influenced by Schopenhauer’s idea of the Will, was fearful of its power to stimulate irrational and immoral responses,” Seinen says.
“Tolstoy heard Beethoven’s sonata, in particular the intense dialogue between instruments in the first movement, as an expression of sexual energy. The minor key, the delay of tonal confirmation, the relentless momentum, and the intense interaction between the two players may be some of the reasons for this.”
Some musicologists have interpreted the ‘Kreutzer’, and other works of Beethoven, in a similar way, making reference to a masculine sexuality that is represented in the form and gestures of the work.
“Certainly, middle-period Beethoven is the archetypical expression in music of Schopenhauer’s Will, the resolve to overcome obstacles and fulfil intentions, even through violence,” Seinen says.
While Tolstoy’s novella takes the point of view of Pozdnyshev, Janáček shifts the gaze to his wife, the victim, and his quartet is a psychological drama depicting her oppression and tragic fate.
“Many of the melodic gestures, harmonies, instrumental effects and textures, wouldn’t be out of place in a thriller film score,” Seinen says. “After the first movement there is a sense of continuous development, even inexorable build-up, to the conclusion. This is Beethovenian, in a sense, but the tone is much darker throughout.”
The Kreutzer Sonata is not the only literary work that Janáček took inspiration from. The composer was a Russophile, and a number of his works are based on Russian literature, including his first, unfinished operas, including one on Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, as well as his later operas Kát’a Kabanová and From the House of the Dead. In 1897 he founded the Russian Club in Brno, which promoted Russian language, literature, and music. Tolstoy was the author best represented in Janáček’s collection of literature, and one of his earliest purchases was the 1900 St Petersburg edition of The Kreutzer Sonata.
Hongkongers will be able to experience the intense energy of Janáček’s Kreutzer Sonata – and reflect on the piece’s interesting provenance – on June 7 when Berlin-based Artemis Quartet will perform the work at the Hong Kong City Hall.
The Artemis Quartet has earned numerous accolades with its exceptional musical finesse. The ensemble has performed at great music festivals and venues, including the Berlin Philharmonie, Wiener Konzerthaus and Munich’s Prince Regent Theatre.
The Artemis Quartet was founded in 1989 at the University of Music Lübeck. Mentors have included violinist Walter Levin, pianist Alfred Brendel, the Alban Berg Quartet, Juilliard Quartet, and Emerson Quartet. In 2013, the Beethoven-Haus Bonn made the quartet honorary members of the Beethoven-Haus Association for the ensemble’s interpretation of Beethoven’s works.
Along with The Kreutzer Sonata, the Quartet will be playing Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 3 in D, Op. 18, No. 3, and Robert Schumann’s String Quartet No. 3 in A, Op. 41, No. 3.
Gregor Sigl, violist of the Artemis Quartet, says that the contrast between Schumann and Janáček in the programme is remarkable.
“We recently spent an entire season performing the three quartets of Schumann,” he says. “He composed these masterpieces within the astonishingly short period of only one summer.”
“While Schumann’s quartets are overflowing with love for his wife Clara, showing how much he missed her while she toured the country as a celebrated pianist, and how much he needed her when struggling with his severe mental disorder, Janáček’s Kreutzer Sonata shows the very dark side of love, an unbearable jealousy that can turn into obsession, violence and self destruction. The way Janáček managed to express this in music is unique and in some places, the music becomes so disturbing, that one feels the urge to run away.”
To balance the Janáček and Schumann pieces, the Artemis Quartet will play a lighter work by Beethoven. The string quartets of Beethoven have always been the core of the Artemis Quartet’s repertoire, so it is only natural that they will be playing one of these masterpieces on their tour through Asia.
Inspired by the works of his teacher Joseph Haydn, the father of string quartet music, as well as by the sublime quartets of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, 28-year-old Beethoven created his first cycle of six string quartets, op.18.
“The very optimistic and fresh, but also incredibly heartfelt and tender atmosphere of, op.18 no. 3 makes a wonderful contrast to the works of Janáček and Schumann,” Sigl says.