Beethoven’s Sonata, Op. 17 for horn and piano is among the most well known works in our repertoire. Though not one of his greatest works, it is the only solo piece we horn players have by him. Verne Reynolds gives an excellent description of the work and its importance in The Horn Handbook.
The Sonata Op. 17 was performed first on 18 April 1800 by Beethoven and Giovanni Punto. Its dimensions are modest compared with the mighty Kreutzer Sonata of 1802,its harmonic content limited compared with the Op. 14, and its dramatic effect nearly absent compared with the ominous Sonata Pathétique. These are false comparisons if we consider the limitations of the hand horn technique. That Beethoven wrote a structurally balanced and musically engaging work within those limitations is another manifestation of his extraordinary genius. [p. 119-120]
It’s true that the Op. 17 sonata doesn’t really measure up to Beethoven’s greatest works, but nonetheless it is still a very fine composition, and has been recorded numerous times on both modern and period instruments. Among my favorite hand horn recordings is this one by Lowell Greer, and one of my favorite recordings on the valved horn is this one by John Cerminaro. Mr. Reynolds is absolutely right when he notes that the shortcomings in the Op. 17 are due more to the limitations of the natural horn than the composer. Without a fully chromatic instrument at his disposal Beethoven must have felt somewhat limited, and this notion can be supported by the existence of an alternate version of the work for cello and piano. To my knowledge, Beethoven himself created this arrangement, and in this version (see the YouTube video below), he has essentially filled in all the gaps. The performers are Maria Kliegel on cello and Nina Tichman on piano.
The underlying structure of the piece is the same as the original, but many of the phrases are more ornate and fleshed out musically, with the cello doubling some of the piano’s sixteenth note passages. The first time I heard this version it was performed on the tuba, and I was very impressed! However, I think it’s definitely something that we could play on the modern horn, and perhaps it’s time to create an edition of the cello version for horn and piano (if it hasn’t been done already). This new version needn’t replace the traditional hand horn part, but it would definitely be interesting to work on and present in a recital. Any graduate students out there looking for a lecture recital topic? How about performing the original on hand horn, and then the cello (adapted for modern horn) version, then comparing the two?