About this work
Cornerstones of the duo sonata repertory, Beethoven's sonatas for violin and piano are mostly the product of his early years. Eight of the ten sonatas were composed before 1803. Except for Opp. 24 and 30, No. 2, all of these are in the traditional three movements. Beethoven's first efforts in the genre, the Sonatas for Violin and Piano, Op. 12, are at once conventional and experimental.
Although Gustav Nottebohm, a pioneering scholar in the area of Beethoven sketch studies, suggested the second sonata of Op. 12 has its origins in 1795, recent scholarship suggests that all three sonatas date from 1797 - 1798. They were published as a set in 1799 by Artaria & Co. in Vienna. Beethoven dedicated the works to Antonio Salieri, composer and (from 1788) Kapellmeister at Court in Vienna, with whom Beethoven began studying dramatic and vocal composition possibly in late 1798.
Apparently, the sonatas of Op. 12 were not initially well received: contemporaries of Beethoven criticized the three pieces for their unusual modulations and "learned" style, with nothing "natural" to be found in them. The critic for the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung was especially unkind, and in a review of June 1799 remarked that "diligent and strenuous labor" was required to get through "these strange sonatas," which contain "what we might call perversities." As ridiculous as such an assessment seems to modern listeners, it is important to note that there are features of the sonatas that would have seemed very odd to 1799 ears. In general, Beethoven's sonatas differ from the models of Haydn and Mozart in the increased importance of the violin part.
It is possible that Beethoven's emphasis on distantly related keys was cause for confusion among his contemporaries. Such key relationships are a primary feature of the first of the Op. 12 sonatas. The Allegro con brio first movement of the D major sonata contains an incredible wealth of material. There are at least three "themes" in the first group, three in the second plus a strong closing theme. As the transition begins, we hear an excellent example of Beethoven's long-range tonal planning. In measure 20 Beethoven writes what is called and Italian sixth-chord for the piano, its upper note part of a trill. This chord, usually part of a cadence on the tonic, is "borrowed" from D minor, anticipating the F major/D minor emphasis in the rest of the exposition and the development section, beginning 83 measures later.
Beethoven replaced the usual ABA Andante or Adagio with a theme-and-variations movement set in the dominant key, A major. The two halves of the theme are constructed conventionally -- each is eight measures long and repeated -- and each variation follows the pattern of the theme except the third, which treats only the first half. The third of the four variations is the obligatory minor-key variation, but the unpredictable distribution of melodic material between piano and violin would have been perceived as unconventional.
The 6/8 finale is a rondo in A major. The main theme, built of leaps and arpeggios, moves to the tonic minor during its second appearance, recalling the F major/D minor passages of the first movement and anticipating the F major key of section C. Each appearance of the rondo theme is varied and the last acts like a coda based on fragmented rondo material. One critic has likened the atmosphere of the finale to that of a "Biergarten."