Listening to Beethoven #44 – Octet in E flat major Op.103


View of Vienna during the Baroque era by Bernardo Bellotto (18th century)

Octet in E flat major Op.103 for wind octet (2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 horns and 2 bassoons) (1792-93, Beethoven aged 22)

Dedication Maximilian Franz, Elector of Cologne
Duration 21′

Listen

Background and Critical Reception

The Octet dates mostly from 1792, when Beethoven was still in Bonn – where author Daniel Heartz confirms it was written as Tafelmusick for the Harmonie band of the elector. The Harmonie band had a specific instrumentation mirroring the one written for by Mozart in Vienna – two each of oboes, clarinets, horns and bassoons.

When Beethoven had arrived in Vienna and was studying under Haydn, the elder composer unwittingly submitted the completed work back to the Elector in Bonn. It was covered in the enclosure of ‘a few pieces of music, a quintet, an eight-voiced parthie, an oboe concerto, variations for the piano, and a fugue composed by my dear pupil Beethoven, who was so graciously entrusted to me’. The Octet was finally published as Op.103, three years after Beethoven’s death.

In his appraisal of the piece, Anthony Burton writes that ‘some of the accomplishment of this work may be due to its revision in 1793, after Beethoven had moved to Vienna and begun studying with Haydn. He complements the first movement as ‘particularly well constructed, with intensive treatment of its opening idea’, saying that ‘Beethoven yields nothing to Mozart in his handling of the instruments. If anything, he makes more effective use of the contrast between the full band and groups of two or three players’. He gives the bassoon in the second movement as an example of this, and in the fourth movement applauds the way in which Beethoven ‘spreads the arpeggio figuration of the first theme around the group, including – spectacularly – the horns.’

Thoughts

The Octet is an attractive and entertaining piece, with all the first principles of communal chamber music. Beethoven’s part writing is inclusive, passing his melodies and their development between the groups of oboes, clarinets, horns and bassoons.

The lively first movement explores the lovely sonorities of the wind ensemble, with lively exchanges and imaginative working of the melodies. The second movement is effectively pared down to bring out the solo qualities of oboe and bassoon, who pass Beethoven’s graceful writing between each other, the rest of the ensemble content to accompany from afar.

The Minuet (really a scherzo in all but name) has a nervous energy running through it, generated from the four-note motif the instruments share, with a few unexpected minor-key harmonies and occasional pauses. The trio section of this movement has fragments of melody from the clarinet and bassoon, punctuated by horns.

The last movement is the standout, ending on a high with some virtuosic writing for the horns amongst the bright and characterful writing, while the clarinets bubble to the surface too. Beethoven’s wit comes out smiling here.

Given this is one of his early works for wind ensemble the assurance of Beethoven’s writing is striking, taking the piece close to the world of Mozart’s serenades for wind of around 11 years earlier. The Viennese audiences would surely have been impressed, and it’s no wonder Haydn made a case in favour of the Octet.

Recordings used

Members of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra (Deutsche Grammophon)
L’Archibudelli (Sony Vivarte)
Sabine Meyer Bläserensemble (Warner Classics)
The Albion Ensemble (Helios)

Like the Rondino previously heard, there are some fine versions of the Octet. The Members of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, a starry cast, give a strong account from 1969 for Deutsche Grammophon. There is a greater lightness of touch from the Sabine Meyer Bläserensemble, who are especially fluent in the first movement. The rougher contours of the L’Archibudelli horns are appealing, as is their expansive approach to the second movement, taken at a slower tempo. The finale is an eventful quickstep.

Spotify links

L’Archibudelli

https://open.spotify.com/track/21tzSX512uU3pTJgClXMeR?si=BfN5sBRoQiSFSnCIfkTk0w

Sabine Meyer Bläserensemble

https://open.spotify.com/album/14YW4LEuvkVJfAqB3Ed2PX?si=eIF2H30PQ7aLHqut9MiNcA

You can chart the Arcana Beethoven playlist as it grows, with one recommended version of each piece we listen to. Catch up here!

https://open.spotify.com/playlist/4BJCc2kWe7McJUVsR7t7bF?si=t8WaPuz4SIGhzDawjH2avA

Also written in 1793 Cimarosa Concerto for 2 flutes in G major

Next upOboe Concerto in F major (fragment)

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