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Classical: How Kreutzer became famous from a sonata he never performed


Composer: Rodolphe Kreutzer

Composer: Rodolphe Kreutzer

Composer: Rodolphe Kreutzer

Rodolphe Kreutzer is not a name that'll leap out from a compendium of the great composers. Yet the 'Kreutzer Sonata' is one of the most significant creations in the classical canon.

It's Beethoven's 'Violin Sonata No 9', a piece that, typically, pushed back the boundaries. To say that it's a quintessential two-hander – violin with piano – is to underplay the significance of the emotional duel between the two instruments that's at its heart.

So strong is this element that it was taken as a key component, the central symbolism, in the unfolding of a tragic tale of love gone wrong, as told by the great Russian writer, Leo Tolstoy. He even named his short story The Kreutzer Sonata.

Rodolphe Kreutzer – a contemporary of Beethoven's – was a composer himself, but he was better known as a player and a teacher. It seems he never actually performed the masterwork that carries his name, which is rather odd, for Beethoven rated him highly.

It may have been to do with the fact his performing career was cut short by a broken arm he suffered in a mishap involving a horse-drawn carriage. A more likely explanation – since the sonata had been around for seven years before Kreutzer came to grief – might be that he didn't rate it.

Its complexities made it impossible to play, he reckoned. It had been written by somebody who didn't understand the violin.

How Kreutzer came to be associated with it at all is a curious tale. The sonata was first performed in Vienna in 1803 by a violinist called George Bridgetower, with Beethoven himself at the piano.

Bridgetower was a phenomenon at the time. While he was thought of as English because he'd made his mark as a prodigy in London, he was of mixed race, born in Poland, the son of an eastern European mother and a father who worked as a servant there but whose roots were in Africa.

The premiere of the sonata went so well – at one point, apparently, Beethoven jumped up from the piano to embrace the violinist after a spectacular piece of improvisation – that the composer autographed the sheet music and dedicated it to Bridgetower: Sonata per uno mulaticco lunattico – sonata for a mad mulatto.

But then they had a rather spectacular falling out. It seems Bridgetower said something about a lady friend of Beethoven's that mightily offended him.

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The composer took back his score, removed Bridgetower's name, and sent it off to Paris with a dedication to Rodolphe Kreutzer. Kreutzer's dismissal was quite a kick in the teeth, and a huge historical misjudgment. The sonata's very difficulty is its strength. It's more of a concerto than anything else, showcasing the violinist's virtuosity. These days, 'The Kreutzer Sonata' is rated as the pinnacle of what you can do with a violin.

George Bridgetower has largely been forgotten. Rodolphe Kreutzer's name lives on, in music, and in literature, thanks to a piece he never even played. He was born on this day in 1766.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm from 10am each Saturday.


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