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Beethoven: Cello Sonata No. 5 in D Major

More than any other composer of chamber music with piano, it was Beethoven who gave the cello the prominence it has today. The 18th-century duo sonata was considered primarily to be a keyboard sonata with “accompanying” melody instrument; consequently Beethoven designated his five cello sonatas as “Sonata(s) for Pianoforte and Violoncello.” Yet even in the first two sonatas of Opus 5, this titular ordering was more a matter of convention than a meaningful description of the instruments’ relative importance.

The piano, of course, provides the greater harmonic and textural density, but the cello is displayed prominently and soloistically throughout. Beethoven composed his first two sonatas for piano and cello in Berlin in 1796, the third sonata, Opus 69, was completed at the beginning of 1808 and, finally, the last two sonatas, Opus 102, Nos. 1 and 2, were composed in 1815. Like the two trios, opus 70, these last two sonatas were dedicated to Countess Marie Erdody, one of the women who played an important part in Beethoven’s life.

The D Major Sonata is the only one of the five to have a fully conceived slow movement. Equally notable is its frugal finale (the first fugue “inserted” by Beethoven into a work in sonata form), an incipient instance of Beethoven’s late period rejuvenation of traditional contrapuntal forms, exemplified by the Grosse Fuge, op. 133.

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