In April 1800, there was a performance of Haydn’s creation at the private residence of Baron Moritz von Fritz (1772-1826). The Baron lived in the Palais Fries, which his father Johann Josef, had built opposite the Hofburg. Fries had been presenting concerts in his salon since the previous season, when Haydn’s ‘Schöpfung’ was presented there in its septet version. These were evenings of serious minded chamber music. Other musicians who appeared at them in the following years included George Augustus Polgreen Bridgetower, who would later premiere Beethoven’s Op 47 Sonata, and the virtuoso pianist-showman, Daniel Steibelt. His well–documented encounter with Beethoven at two of Fries’ evenings provides a valuable insight into the very different approach to chamber music performance taken at the beginning of the 19th Century.
The Baron was the head of the banking firm of ‘Fries and Co’. His father, Johann Josef, von Fries, a Swiss protestant, had been one of the richest men in Austria. He was not only a banker, but a manufacturer of brassware and cotton goods. Two years after the Palais was completed in 1783, he committed suicide. His wife Anna controlled his estate until Moritz came of age. Unfortunately, the son had none of his father’s business acumen. He had frittered away much of his father’s accumulated fortune by the time he commissioned these works from Beethoven. However, for all his failings as a businessman, Moritz von Fries, was a connoisseur of impeccable taste, and a bibliophile to boot. The library in the Palais Fries contained nearly 2000 rare volumes. In addition, the Palace contained a remarkable collection of both historic and modern art. Pride of place went to Antonia Canova’s sculpture of ‘Theseus and the Minotaur’, which stood in a specially designed cupola. Fries was a member of the ‘Gesellschaft der Associierten Cavaliere’ (GAC), whose director was the redoubtable Baron von Swieten. The Gesellschaft believed that great art should not be accessible to all but rather reserved for those well-schooled enough to appreciated and understand it. The ‘GAC’ ran its own ‘Liebhaber’ concerts, and access to these was restricted to a list of seventy carefully screened invitees. In May 1801, the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung remarked: “For some years there has been in the Imperial city a society of friends of music, consisting of a small group of members who put on several concerts [Akadamien] each year. The names…lead one to great expectations. The results have outdistanced these expectations by far.” In 1800 Fries married, above his rank, to the Princess Maria Theresia von Hohenlohe Waldenburg. This was seem as a fortuitous match, although the old Viennese aristocracy never let Fries forget that he was not one of them, but second rank, and an arriviste. The princess seems to have taken an active part in organizes his concerts. In 1811, Georg August Griesinger wrote:” Countess Fries had prepared an entertainment for her husband on the day of St Maurice…” (his name day). It was a very happy marriage, and when the Princess died in 1819, she was greatly mourned. Count Griesinger, who was a regular at Fries’ salon, wrote: “The solemn burial of Countess Fries took place in Vöslau. The procession first moved to the neighboring church in Gainfarhn…where every step reminded me of the happiest hours…Seclusion, occupation and smiling surroundings are the most effective cure after such a shock”. A sketch by J Fischer depicts on of Fries’ soirees in 1800, the year of the premiere of Beethoven’s Op 23 -24 sonatas. This shows a relaxed, but intense occasion, with guests and musicians, both male and female, gathered around a fortepiano. Some of them are concentrating on sheets of paper, which may be music, or listening attentively. The remaining guests are looking at a painting, which is being displayed on an easel adjacent to the piano. It is tempting to suggest that such a soiree, bringing together the appreciation of fine music and the arts, would entail their simultaneous appreciation, much in the same way that orchestral performances at the time were sometimes given with tableaux vivants. Ferdinand Ries, who came to study with Beethoven in 1801, described two of Fries evenings, when Beethoven encountered Steibelt. On the second of the two, having been badly ‘burnt’ by Beethoven before… “[Steibelt] played a quintet with much success, and in addition (and this was quite evident), had prepared a brilliant improvisation, choosing as a theme the subject of the variations of Beethoven’s Trio. (Op 11) This outraged not only Beethoven’s supporters but also the composer himself. He now had to seat himself at the piano in order to improvise. He went in his usual, I must say, ungracious manner, to the instrument as if half lunging towards it, grabbing, as he passed, the violoncello part of Steibelt’s quintet, placed it upside–down on the music stand, and from the opening notes drummed out a theme with one finger. Offended and stimulated at the same time, he improvised in such a manner that Steibelt left the room before Beethoven had finished. He refused ever to met him again, in fact he made condition that Beethoven should not be invited anywhere where his company was requested.” This description provides a clue as to the tenor of these evenings. It is clear that the close observation of dueling virtuosi, an opportunity best afforded in a chamber setting, was a key attraction, as well as the more elevated pure chamber music. It is most likely that the two sonatas for Piano and Violin, Op 23 and 24, were premiered at one of these private evenings, probably by Ignaz Schuppanzigh, who premiered all of the other Sonatas for violin and piano, except the last, Op 96, which was written for the French violinist Pierre Rode. When the Sonatas were published by the firm of Mollo and Co. on the 18th October 1801, they carried the dedication: ‘Monsieur le Comte Maurice de Fries/Chambellan de S.M.J & R./Par Louis van Beethoven Op 23. The following year, Beethoven dedicated his masterly C major string quintet, Op 29, to the Baron, and later d inscribe his 7th Symphony, Op 55 to him. Joseph Haydn, a frequent participant at his evenings, would dedicate his last, unfinished quartet to Von Fries in 1803, like in 1823 Franz Schubert’s song ‘Gretchen am Spinnrade.’
Beethoven himself had worked out a method of persuading rich amateurs to commission work by promising them a delay of at least six months, sometimes a whole year, between the delivery of the finished work in manuscript and its publication, with a dedication to the commissioner. This has its equivalent, of course, in the modern ‘performance ban’ often negotiated by commissioning artists or orchestras with composers. A year after the publication of ‘Fries’s’ two sonatas in 1801, he was the cause of a major misunderstanding after being hoodwinked by the publisher Artaria, into letting them have his set of originals for the work. They promptly brought out a ‘pirated; edition.
Carl Beethoven explained this system of private commissioning and performance restrictions in a letter to the firm of Breitkopf and Härtel written on the 5th December 1802:
“He who wants a piece pays a specified sum for it exclusive possession for a half or a whole year, or even longer, and bids himself not to give the manuscript to anybody. After this period the author is free to do as he wishes with the piece. This was the understanding with the Count Fries.”
Beethoven originally had hoped to publish this pair of works as a single opus, and indeed, when they were first published in October 1801, they were published as Op 23. A glance at the ‘Landsberg 7’ sketchbook will reveal that Beethoven was working on this pair of sonatas simultaneously, along with the Op 26 piano sonata. This was Beethoven’s usual practice, and hardly revelatory, but it serves to underline the importance of considering his works at any given time as a whole, particularly pieces such as Op 23 and 24 which are so evidently linked. Op 24 was originally the number given to the piano version of Beethoven’s ballet, “Die Geschöpfe des Prometheus”. However, in the spring of 1802, an announcement in the Intellegenzblatt of the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung announced a new edition; Mollo and Co. had separated the two works. Nottebohm suggested that this was driven by a need to maximize profits. It is probable they had an inkling of the widely different reception that these two works would receive, and that they could make more money by selling the more approachable F major Sonata separately.
It hardly needs pointing out that the Op 24, which has come to be known by the acronym ‘Frühlingssonate’, is the most popular of all of Beethoven’s accompanied piano sonatas, whereas the A minor is almost unknown, even by violinists, and the most rarely programmed. Perhaps, the other reason is that this sonata is epitome of the true piano sonata, with the violinist mostly carrying one of the internal lines. This makes it very clear, that this, like all the other sonatas, is very much for ‘piano with violin accompaniment’. The very fact that the ‘Spring’ Sonata begins with a lyrical violin melody, before passing it over to the piano, as opposed to the Op 23 , which does not, has rendered it very attractive to violinists uncomfortable with the true nature of this genre. After all, even the most authoritative of the Urtext editions, cannot bring themselves to describe these works as anything but ‘Violin Sonatas’.
The popularity of the Op 24 began almost immediately. It is, by way of illustration of this, the only Beethoven sonata that there is evidence that Paganini performed, albeit with elaborate ornamentation and fingered harmonics in the final Rondeau. Despite the seriousness of Fries’ intentions, his very public failure as a business man was the subject to considerable ridicule. It was widely assumed that the writer Ferdinand Raimund based his play ‘der Verschwender’ on the ‘spendthrift’ baron. When Fries remarried after Maria Theresia’s death in 1819, it was to a mere commoner, plain Fanny Münzenberger; the contrast between his two brides was held up as example of his social and financial ruin: he was once again the subject of ridicule. The Countess Maria Theresia had died in 1819, and was greatly mourned. Count Griesinger, who a regular at Fries’ salon, wrote:
“The solemn burial of Countess Fries took place in Vöslau. The procession first moved to the neighboring church in Gainfarhn where every step reminded me of the happiest hours…Seclusion, occupation and smiling surroundings are the most effective cure after such a shock”.
On his death in 1826, all of Fries’s money, his palace and his farmlands went to his creditors. Griesinger noted: “Not a penny to his children.” The Baroness de Montet blamed his final ruin on his mistress, “…a French actress, a small yellow-complexioned and ugly slut, Mme Lombard…the evil spirit who fastened herself on to the Count…One of his daughters became a governess.”
In October 1801, the young pianist and composer Ferdinand Ries arrived in Vienna. He had come to study the piano intensively with the composer. Like Beethoven, he also went to study counterpoint with Albrechtsberger. This was, in many ways, the repayment of a debt. Ferdinand’s father, Franz had given violin lessons to Beethoven in Bonn, and effectively treated him as a member of his family. It seems that there had been a long-standing understanding that Beethoven should reciprocate in some way. He performed Beethoven’s 4th piano concerto on the 1st August 1804, to the great delight of his teacher.
Ries’s Op 38 Sonata, was published after Ferdinand had moved to London in 1813. However, stylistically, it seems likely that was written during this period, demonstrating Ries’ familiarity with Beethoven’s op 30 sonatas, and the ‘Rondo alla Zingarese’ of Beethoven’s own teacher, Joseph Haydn. It is notable that the Sonata was published with Stichnoten in the piano part which would enable this work to be played by pianist alone.
In 1803 Ries described his lessons with Beethoven to the Bonn publisher Nicholas Simrock:
“Beethoven takes more trouble with me than I could have ever believed. Each week I receiver three lessons, usually from 1 o’clock to 2:30. I can almost play his ‘Sonate Pathétique’ (Op 13), which might give you pleasure, because the precision than he demands is hard to imagine. To hear him improvise, however, may not be imagined at all….”