Beethoven’s Violin Sonatas: Setting the New Performance Standard

Ludwig van Beethoven

Ludwig van Beethoven’s ten violin sonatas are among the most famous works of chamber music history and represent, together with Mozart’s works for this instrument duo, the core of violin repertoire from the Viennese Classicist period.

Though composed in a short span in Beethoven’s creative life (nine of the ten were written between 1798 and 1803, with the final one appearing in 1812), these sonatas bear all the marks of Beethoven’s compositional innovation: the breaking of formal tradition, a vast emotional scope, skillful musical manipulation, and, of course, the trademark urgency and power.

The new Bärenreiter edition of the violin sonatas — or, as more appropriately titled by Beethoven himself, sonatas for the pianoforte and violin — offers a revolutionary editorial approach to the music that does more than simply hand down the text.

These new volumes, edited by historical performing practice expert Dr. Clive Brown, present an approach to performance that is quite different from what most of today’s musicians are accustomed to. This approach not only falls much more in line with what Beethoven would have expected, but also imbues the music with a renewed vigor and offers musicians an incredible array of opportunities for creativity.

“This is the highest quality of academic scholarship, but it is not only that: this edition has enabled me to bring these sonatas to life in a way that has not been possible before – this is historical research in the service of living and breathing music!”

Viktoria Mullova, Violinist

Here violinist Viktoria Mullova and pianist Alasdair Beatson demonstrate some of their most illuminating discoveries from the “Spring” Sonata (Op. 24) and show us why they’re excited to work with these new editions:

The Editorial Approach

Dr. Brown’s new editions of the Beethoven violin sonatas combine a traditional scholarly Urtext approach with a wealth of information on historical performing practice informed by the thorough study of recordings and editions made by 19th-century musicians, many of whom had direct contact with Beethoven himself or with others that did.

These historical sources reveal a striking discrepancy between performance and notation. Composers in Beethoven’s era, including Beethoven himself, simply did not write down a large swath of the expressive gestures that they would have expected musicians to make, including rhythmic and tempo flexibility, piano arpeggiation and asynchrony, portamento, cadenzas, and ornamental, rather than continuous, vibrato effects.

By not including these details in the text, composers created a space bursting with potential for the creative performer to exploit in what could and, most importantly, would be wildly distinctive and thrillingly emotional performances. In many respects, it was a creative freedom much more akin to jazz than to today’s renditions of classical music.

“I’m alerting people to the fact that we’re actually missing the point if we play the music exactly as it stands on the page. It’s not expressive in the way that they would have expected it to be.”

Dr. Clive Brown, Editor

In the 20th century, all that changed. Between the spread of recording, which captured and then propagated singular interpretive viewpoints, and the Modernist revolution, which sought literal adherence to the text, classical music performance lost its improvisational spirit in favor of technical correctness, leaving performance after performance of any individual piece to be, for all intents and purposes, much the same and even redundant.

In this edition, Dr. Brown provides a traditional Urtext violin part, plus a second edited violin part featuring suggestions for fingerings and bowings that might help the musician explore the text as a 19th-century musician would have. The edition also clarifies some notational conventions employed by Beethoven that went out of use since his time and were ignored or misunderstood in later editions, including the most recent Urtexts.

Dr. Brown’s edits and annotations are, it must be pointed out, intended only as suggestions to invite serious engagement with the soundscape of Beethoven’s musical era. They are not meant to be performed as written time and time again, but rather to serve as guides as we experiment with the music on our own.

“That’s what I would love to see classical musicians getting back to: not being so frightened of making mistakes. In order to be really bold in performance, you have to be prepared to make a mistake.”

Dr. Clive Brown, Editor

Here Dr. Brown himself introduces this performance approach to us and explains how it helps us connect with the emotional essence of Beethoven’s music. He also discusses the importance of tempo in Beethoven’s music, gives us some stylistic examples of the expressive potential that we can begin to experiment with as we revisit Beethoven, and shares some anecdotes that bring Beethoven and his contemporaries to life:

For further information about Dr. Brown’s approach to Beethoven and a more detailed analysis of historical sources, please refer to the introductory text, “Reading between the Lines of Beethoven’s Notation,” included in the edition and the detailed Performing Practice Commentary available in full here:

About the Editor: Dr. Clive Brown

Clive Brown was a member of the Faculty of Music at Oxford University from 1980 to 1991 and is now Emeritus Professor of Applied Musicology at the University of Leeds and Guest Professor at the Universität für Musik und darstellende Kunst (University of the Arts), Vienna. He has published numerous articles on historical performing practice and, as a violinist, pursues practice-led research.