23 March 2022
Beethoven and the cellists behind his cello sonatas
Next week we are proud to host cellist Adrian Brendel and pianist Simon Callaghan as they perform Beethoven’s Cello Sonatas at the Knowledge Centre (Thu 31 Mar 2022, 19:30 - 21:00). To mark the occasion, this blog explores through our collections Beethoven’s collaborations with eminent cellists during his life who inspired and helped to shape aspects of these works.
Beethoven composed five sonatas for cello and piano, between 1796 (op. 5 nos. 1–2) and 1815 (op. 102 nos. 1–2). One of the collection items in our current Beethoven: Idealist, Innovator, Icon exhibition are sketches for his third cello sonata, the op. 69 in A major, considered a masterpiece in the genre (Zweig MS 6).
The sonata, entitled Grande Sonate pour Pianoforte et Violoncelle, was composed in 1808, in the year when Beethoven was also working on his Fifth and Sixth symphonies. The sketches in Zweig MS 6 are for the third and fourth movements, and are mostly written on single staves with piano or ‘cello indicated above at relevant points.
Beethoven dedicated the sonata to his close friend and supporter Baron Ignaz von Gleichenstein (1778–1828) who was also an amateur cellist. The sonata was first performed by the cellist Nikolaus Kraft and pianist Dorothea von Ertmann (1781-1849), who was a pupil of Beethoven, in March 1809.
Nikolaus Kraft (1778-1853) was the eldest son of the cellist Anton Kraft (1749-1820). In 1801 he travelled to Berlin together with his father where he received cello lessons for one year from the virtuoso cellist Jean-Louis Duport (1749-1819), who was employed there at the Prussian court of King Friedrich Wilhelm II. Nikolaus, as well as his father, was also for a time a member of the Schuppanzigh string quartet – named after its founder the violinist Ignaz Schuppanzigh (1776-1830) – which gave a number of first performances of Beethoven’s string quartets.
The Krafts were not the only cellists with whom Beethoven worked during his life. In spring of 1796 Beethoven visited the Prussian court in Berlin, where he also met Jean-Louis Duport, and it was there that his op. 5 cello sonatas originated. These sonatas are regarded today as the first ‘true’ sonatas for cello and piano, as the two instruments are given equal importance.
Jean-Louis Duport was one of the most influential cellists of his time. In the early 19th century he published a violoncello treatise entitled: Essai sur le doigté du violoncelle et sur la conduite de l’archet (Essay on fingering the violoncello and on the conduct of the bow) (Paris, 1806). This became one of the most influential cello treatises in the history of the cello; the exercises (Études) that are included in it are still practised by cello pupils today. An English translation by John Bishop (1817-1890) was published in London in 1853:
At the time of Beethoven’s visit, Jean-Louis Duport was principal cellist in the opera orchestra and, together with his brother the virtuoso cellist Jean-Pierre Duport (1741-1818), also instructed the king on the cello. Several cello parts in the king’s music collection – now at the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin – include fingerings and other performance annotations marked in red crayon, which are probably in the hand of Jean-Louis Duport or his brother, such as in the first violoncello part of Luigi Boccherini’s string quintet op. 31 no. 5.
Beethoven and Jean-Louis Duport performed his op. 5 cello sonatas for the king, and apparently, Beethoven also intended to dedicate the two sonatas to him. This is evident from a letter, now lost, which Duport sent to him where he wrote: ‘Duport, acknowledges the dedication to him of Beethoven’s two sonatas for piano and violoncello and expresses the wish to play them with the composer’.[i]
In the end the op. 5 cello sonatas were dedicated to the King of Prussia, Friedrich Wilhelm II. This was not the only occasion where Beethoven would change his mind about the dedication of a particular work. He had also originally dedicated his Violin Sonata op. 47, the ‘Kreutzer’, to the British violinist George Bridgetower (1778-1860) before changing the dedication to the French violinist Rodolphe Kreutzer (1766-1831). These initial gestures, however, show an appreciation of the musicians Beethoven worked with, and an intent to acknowledge them.
No autographs of the op. 5 cello sonatas survive but the ‘Kafka’ sketch miscellany (Add MS 29801) – selected leaves from which are also on display in the exhibition – includes a number of sketches for the two op. 5 cello sonatas, revealing Beethoven’s compositional processes and initial ideas for these.
In Beethoven’s ‘Kafka’ sketch miscellany scholars have also noted a leaf where Beethoven wrote ‘Billet an duport Morgen frühe’ (note to Duport tomorrow morning) (f. 57v) and on another leaf, in a different hand, what appears to be scales and double stops with fingerings for the violoncello (f. 109r).[ii] These resemble fingering patterns in Duport’s Essai, which has lead scholars to assume that these could be in the hand of Jean-Louis Duport himself, or possibly his brother.[iii] No autographs of Jean-Louis Duport’s compositions are known to survive which would allow a comparison of his musical handwriting with the exercises in the ‘Kafka’ sketchbook, apart from some letters in his hand at the Bibliothèque nationale de France, which however don’t include any music notation.
Beethoven was not the only composer to have been influenced by the techniques of the Duport brothers. Several years before Beethoven’s visit, in spring of 1789, Mozart had visited the Prussian court of King Friedrich Wilhelm II for whom he began composing a set of string quartets, which later became known as the ‘Prussian’ quartets (K 575, K 589, K 590). In the autograph of the first of the ‘Prussian’ string quartets we find solo passages for the cello in the high register of the instrument. These are furthermore written in the treble clef as was the customary, French notation style that the Duport brothers adopted at the Prussian court for writing for the cello in that register, as opposed to the Italian notation style of using movable ‘C’ clefs.[iv]
That fact that Beethoven worked closely with cellists throughout his life is further documented in a note that he sent to the cellist Joseph Linke (1783-1837), who, like the Krafts, was for a period a cellist in the Schuppanzigh string quartet and for whom Beethoven composed his op. 102 cello sonatas. In 1814 Beethoven wrote to him: ‘Dear Linke, Do me the favour of breakfasting with me tomorrow morning, as early as you like, but not later than half past seven. Bring a cello bow, for I have something to discuss with you.’[v]
The sketches of Beethoven’s cello sonatas and related archival documents reveal his openness in learning new instrumental techniques and his engagement and collaboration with eminent performers of his time, who influenced and helped to shape aspects of these works.
The concert on Thursday 31 March with Adrian Brendel, cello, and Simon Callaghan, piano will include a performance of Beethoven’s cello sonatas op. 5 no. 2 and op. 69.
References and further reading
[i] Theodore Albrecht, Letters to Beethoven and other Correspondence (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1996), vol.1, pp. 52-53.
[ii] Lewis Lockwood, ‘Beethoven’s early works for violoncello and contemporary violoncello technique’, Beiträge ’76-78: Beethoven Kolloquium 1977. Dokumentation und Auffürungspraxis (Kassel, 1978), pp. 174-182.
[iii] Lewis Lockwood, ‘Beethoven’s early works for violoncello and contemporary violoncello technique’, Beiträge ’76-78: Beethoven Kolloquium 1977. Dokumentation und Auffürungspraxis (Kassel, 1978), pp. 176, 181.
[iv] Valerie Walden, One Hundred Years of Violoncello: a history of technique and performance practice, 1740-1840 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), pp. 74-78.
[v] Emily Anderson, The Letters of Beethoven (London: Macmillan Press, 1961), vol.1 no.515, pp. 482.
Loukia Drosopoulou, ‘Music copyists at the court of Friedrich Wilhelm II of Prussia’ Jahrbuch des Staatlichen Instituts für Musikforschung Preußischer Kulturbesitz (2013), pp. 277-311.
Joseph Kerman (ed.), Autograph miscellany from circa 1786 to 1799: British Museum Additional Manuscript 29801, ff. 39-162 (The Kafka sketchbook) (London: British Museum, 1970).
Alan Tyson, ‘New light on Mozart’s ‘Prussian’ Quartets’, The Musical Times, 116 no. 1584 (1975), pp. 126-130.
Dr Loukia Drosopoulou, Curator, Music