1792 is a magical date in the history of Vienna. In that year, a young and talented artist, only 22 years old, arrived from Bonn: Ludwig van Beethoven. “Perhaps he will be able to fill the tremendous void left here by Mozart’s death last year,” some people must have thought.
But eyewitness accounts of Beethoven’s first performances tell us that he received only mixed reactions from the Viennese audiences. They admired his innovative sonorities and amazing improvisations, but were more shocked than pleased by the unrestrained, even hectoring quality of his compositions. No, most of the Viennese greeted this new music with incomprehension. Too blunt, too unconventional, too wild, too assertive. “It cannot be denied that this gentleman goes his own way. But what a strange and laborious way it is. Not a trace of melody, everything sounds like a struggle. There is a constant seeking after strange modulations, unpleasant combinations, and a heaping-up of difficulties so that one loses not only all one’s patience but any possibility of enjoyment.”
Beethoven’s dry response: “They understand nothing.” His time had not yet come. Beethoven, of course was eagerly breaking new ground. That was no less true with the sonatas for cello and piano. In the ten sonatas for violin and piano, Beethoven could look back on an established tradition, and the violin was completely familiar as a virtuoso instrument. The cello, too, had assumed the same role by the end of the 18th century, thanks to barnstorming cellists like Duport, Bréval, Boccherini, and Anton Kraft.
Beethoven was 26 years old when he dedicated his Sonatas op. 5 for cello and piano to King Friedrich Wilhelm II of Prussia. Seven years earlier, Mozart had visited the ruler in Potsdam. Beethoven allowed himself a large measure of freedom in the formal design of these works: for example, in the Sonata op. 5 nr. 2, an expansive Adagio gradually introduces a fast movement, which is followed by another fast movement that concludes the work.
From the very beginning it is clear that Beethoven has a dramatic plan in mind for this sonata. Mood and atmosphere are gloomy, searching, and full of foreboding. Cello and piano carry on a dialogue which suggests that they are planning a complete symphony together. And that ‘symphony’ concerns a world of shadows. Not until the last movement does a kind of dawn appear, and the nightly cares seem to be forgotten. A pleasing balance is established between the instruments. The piano, for Beethoven, remains the typical virtuoso instrument, but it does so without impeding the cello or reducing it to the status of a mere accompanist.