Hope Amid Tears - Beethoven: Cello Sonatas
Beethoven composed his Sonata No. 3 for cello and piano in 1808 against a backdrop of national and personal turmoil. The Napoleonic Wars had for years been raging across Europe, and he was in an almost constant state of despair over his worsening deafness that was threatening to put an end to his already astonishing career. His Third Sonata serves as a light in the darkness. “The piece is such an amazing illustration of Beethoven writing music which was full of positivity, glory, peace, and generosity in the middle of terrible stuff going on,” pianist Emanuel “Manny” Ax tells Apple Music. “What was astonishing to Manny and me was that, despite everything, Beethoven composed the most optimistic piece in the world,” adds Yo-Yo Ma. Hope Amid Tears - Beethoven: Cello Sonatas takes its name from Beethoven’s dedication to German aristocrat and cellist Freiherr Ignaz von Gleichenstein: “Inter lacrimas et luctum” or “amid tears and grief.” And just as this music brought Beethoven comfort more than 200 years ago, Hope Amid Tears—released in 2021—holds the same astonishing power to uplift in challenging times. To all five sonatas, Beethoven brings an endless invention and inspiration, each characterized by moments of deep beauty, sparkling mischief, and emotional depth. There’s solace in the music, but harsh realities too.
Unlike most works for the cello and piano, where the pianist plays a supporting role to the cellist, Beethoven’s extraordinary sonatas place equal weight on each instrument. (“Especially in the third sonata, it seems like I’m Manny’s third hand,” notes Ma.) That is, perhaps, fitting for a musical duo who have recorded together for almost 50 years and are, in the words of Ax, like “an old couple.… We don’t talk anymore. We just play.” This album marks the second time Ax and Ma have approached Beethoven’s sonatas, following Beethoven: Complete Cello Sonatas, released in 1987. Were they tempted to listen to that vintage album before going into the studio this time? No, insists Ax. “We thought, ‘If it sounds really good, we’ll be nervous and we won’t do anything as good. And if it sounds really bad, we’ll be really depressed about it!’” Read on as Yo-Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax talk us through each work on their thrilling second attempt.
Sonata No. 1 in F Major, Op. 5 No. 1 Yo-Yo Ma: “In the first two sonatas, Beethoven is putting his cards on the table and showing off his compositional chops. I think, with the First Sonata, he wants to describe the universe. There’s a sense of mystery throughout, which we could interpret as the mystery of space.” Emanuel Ax: “There’s a lot of deliberate attempts at surprise in this sonata, right from the beginning. So, you have no idea where you are or where you’re going. Everything is interrupted, and it makes you ask, ‘Wow, what’s next? Why does it stop?’ Part of that surprise is this really huge introduction and first movement, followed by a throwaway second movement.”
Sonata No. 2 in G Minor, Op. 5 No. 2 Ma: “At the start of the Second Sonata, Beethoven is describing aristocratic society with slow, dotted rhythms that portray a kind of courtly procession.” Ax: “The other thing we get here is a characteristic of Beethoven throughout his life: this incredible motoric feeling. When you get to the Allegro, there’s this constant, sheer speed like at the end of the Seventh Symphony, where the incredible rhythms push to the point of almost being maniacal.”
Sonata No. 3 in A Major, Op. 69 Ax: “The Third Sonata is really about hope and optimism. It could, in some ways, be Beethoven’s credo. This is the composer at his most positive, stating his belief in humanity. It’s as if he’s saying, ‘In spite of everything, this is what it could be. This is what I choose to believe.’ This optimism is carried through the first and second movements to the celebratory, optimistic last movement.”
Ma: “If ever there were a piece that is in perfect equilibrium, Beethoven seems to have found it here.”
Sonata No. 4 in C Major, Op. 102 No. 1 Ma: “At the beginning, you’re almost floating in the universe, because for the whole of the introduction you’re on a dominant chord, and you don’t even realize it until it finally resolves. It’s the musical equivalent of suddenly seeing the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. It’s an arrival of ecstasy. I also think this is Beethoven’s most efficient work in some ways. It’s almost as if he’s saying to himself, ‘I wonder what I could do with just four notes?’ The way he invents using the smallest number of notes is like a compositional puzzle.”
Sonata No. 5 in D Major, Op. 102 No. 2 Ax: “The first movement here is all about muscle. Of course, it has a beautiful second theme, but really, you have this very open, emphatic kind of march in this movement. The second movement goes into the depths of despair—it’s like a funeral march, in a way. The end of the movement has this astounding, absolute stillness, where nothing moves. Every change is an event, almost without time, without reference to any kind of rhythmic propulsion. The only way to end that is with the final-movement fugue, because a fugue is the most democratic and most unbounded way to make music. It can be two lines, or it can be 55 minutes. There’s no limit on time or number of voices.” Ma: “And this fugue feels like a cosmic dance—a dance of the gods!”
Variations Ax: “Variations are generally a composer’s way of being virtuosos. So, every time Beethoven wrote a set of variations, you see the brilliance. And I think that’s true of these three sets.” Ma: “These variations are like a fusion between formally written-down music and improvised jazz. Beethoven was an incredible improviser. And, in fact, the best of classical tradition comes from both a performing and improvising ability. When we combine both those abilities in our training of musicians, we get to the creativity and the ambition of someone like Beethoven.”