Listening to Beethoven #86 – 12 German Dances

The panel of Leopold II after the wedding ceremony in the Redoutensaal, 1790 by Hieronymus Löschenkohl (c) Wien Museum

12 German Dances, WoO 8 for orchestra (1795, Beethoven aged 24

no.1 in C major
no.2 in A major
no.3 in F major
no.4 in B flat major
no.5 in E flat major
no.6 in G major
no.7 in G major
no.8 in C major
no.9 in A major
no.10 in F major
no.11 in G major
no.12 and Coda in C major

Dedication Vienna Artists’ Pension Society
Duration 20′

Listen

Background and Critical Reception

Beethoven’s increased standing in Vienna could be comfortably summed up by his commissions for the masked charity ball, held on 22 November 1795 by the Viennese Artists’ Pension Society. There were two balls, one held in the Large Redoutensaal and one in the smaller hall. Both required a set of 12 dances which were commissioned by leading composers of the day, including Haydn and Dittersdorf.

In 1795 the honour fell to Franz Xaver Süssmayr in the big hall, and Beethoven himself for the smaller venue. He delivered a set of 12 German Dances and 12 Minuets WoO7, up next. In the notes to DG’s Complete Beethoven Edition these are praised by Hans-Günter Klein, who notes Beethoven’s ability to ‘avoid any sense of monotony by his varied deployment of brass and woodwind and by his skilful choice of tonality. The use of piccolo and ‘Turkish’ percussion is for special effects, while the extended final dance, roughly twice the length of the other eleven, ‘sounds like a pre-echo of the ‘Pastoral’ symphony’.

Daniel Heartz tells a great story in his book Mozart, Haydn and Early Beethoven of the event and its context – and how composers would respond to the commission with deliberately ‘safe’ keys. He goes into impressive detail of the form Beethoven uses, which is simple but functional, and is topped off by pure melodic invention.

Thoughts

The dances are good fun – and most have a spring in their step, as though Beethoven relished writing for the ball. The second has an urgent demeanour and the fourth has a few witty glances. Each time Beethoven’s scoring is attractive, giving plenty of room for the tune to be heard but using short bass notes to keep the dancers on their toes.

Sometimes the scoring is thicker, such as in the fifth dance, or the seventh, which brings out heavier percussion. These return in the last dance, where Beethoven brings out the artillery, and the coda, which begins gracefully before getting carried away with trumpet fanfares. The tenth dance has a surprise in store too, with a brief minor-key central section. You can sense Beethoven having fun with his audience’s expectations, having successfully persuaded them all onto the dancefloor.

Recordings used and Spotify links

The playlist below includes recordings from Philharmonia Hungarica / Hans Ludwig Hirsch (Warner Classics), the Swedish Chamber Orchestra conducted by Thomas Dausgaard on Simax and the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields under Sir Neville Marriner (Philips)

Thomas Dausgaard’s sprightly versions feel as though they have been plucked from the centre of the Viennese dancefloor, with the crisp bass giving extra lift to each step. Sir Neville Marriner and the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields are more measured, which makes the final coda all the more enjoyable with its added humour. The Philharmonia Hungarica and Hans Ludwig Hirsch are on the slow side tempo-wise.

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

 

Also written in 1795 Gyrowetz Three Flute Quartets Op.11

Next up 12 Minuets WoO7

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