Listening to Beethoven #119 – Serenade in D major Op.8

Ignaz Schuppanzigh, Austrian violinist, teacher and friend of Beethoven

Serenade in D major Op.8 for string trio (violin, viola and cello) (1796-7, Beethoven aged 26)

Dedication unknown
Duration 30′

1. Marcia: Allegro
2. Adagio
3. Menuetto: Allegretto
4. Adagio – Scherzo: Allegro molto – Adagio – Allegro molto – Adagio
5. Allegretto alla Polacca
6. Andante quasi allegretto – Variations 1-4 – Allegro – Tempo I
7. Marcia: Allegro

Listen

Background and Critical Reception

Beethoven returned to the string trio for a love letter to Vienna – possibly echoing his feelings after returning to the city. He chose the form of a serenade, and followed many of its conventions, including a March which ushers the players in and takes them out after a series of dance movements.

Choosing a string trio to perform the Serenade was quite unusual. In Mozart’s case the string ensemble would have been more substantial, with wind instruments possibly included.

Beethoven biographer Lewis Lockwood is quite dismissive of this work, implying it is lightweight when compared with the ‘higher level’ of the three string trios that follow as Op.9. Daniel Heartz notes this, but makes a strong claim for the Serenade’s endearing humour. ‘For three solo string instruments to produce such a big, pompous sounds as this Marcia in common time is already funny and portends a good show to come’. He notes how each of the three instruments gets a good solo in the theme and variations movement, placed fourth of six.

He also reveals that the work was advertised alongside another E flat major composition, the Piano Sonata no.4 Op.7, in the Wiener Zeitung on 7 October 1797. Stephen Daw, in his notes for the Leopold Trio recording on Hyperion, observes how ‘the Serenade was challenging material to play by the apparent standards of the time, but it looks as though Beethoven was already acquainted with the great violinist Schuppanzigh (above) at this time.

The use of a Polacca for the fifth movement is unusual, for Daw ‘one of the few real polonaises to survive from the period between those of W. F. Bach and Chopin.

Thoughts

The Serenade is a bright and breezy work, but an ambitious one too, far from the lightweight piece of fluff suggested by Lewis Lockwood.

The Marcia theme that forms the outer casing of the sandwich is hefty, and deceptive with it – Beethoven could easily have four or five instruments on stage rather than three. The contrast with the tender Adagio is rather affecting, and this movement takes its time, looking back longingly when it moves into the minor key.

A brisk Menuetto takes us back for a whirlwind stint on the dancefloor, and fades out rather cleverly with pizzicato. The fourth movement is one of extremes, with a slow section that threatens to spoil the mood, but ends up being a po-faced foil for a capricious Scherzo, taken at a breakneck speed.

The Polacca is next, tripping along with an enjoyment of the dance, and with a catchy tune. Then the theme and variations, which Beethoven turns over beautifully, showcasing each of the trio’s instruments in significant solo episodes – with a special place for the viola in the middle and the cello at the end. After this the reappearance of the Marcia theme ensures the Serenade signs off with a flourish – and everyone can go home!

The Serenade is a thoroughly enjoyable piece, not to be taken too seriously – but with plenty of emotion under its often frivolous surface. It is definitely not a Beethoven work to be thrown away.

Recordings used and Spotify links

L’Archibudelli (Vera Beths (violin), Juergen Kussmaul (viola), Anner Bylsma (cello)
The Grumiaux Trio (Arthur Grumiaux (violin), Georges Janzer (viola), Eva Czako (cello) (Philips)
Anne-Sophie Mutter, Bruno Giuranna and Mstislav Rostropovich (Deutsche Grammophon)
Leopold String Trio Isabelle Van Keulen (violin), Lawrence Power (viola), Kate Gould (cello) (Hyperion)
Trio Zimmermann (Christian Tetzlaff (violin), Antoine Tamestit (viola), Christian Poltéra (cello) (BIS)

You can listen to the versions from L’Archibudelli, the Grumiaux Trio and the Mutter-Giuranna-Rostropovich trio on this playlist:

There are some very fine recordings of the Serenade, with three standing out as excellent – the Grumiaux Trio, who are quite luxurious in their thick sound, the Leopold Trio for a strongly characterised account, and Trio Zimmermann for an equally musical recording. All of them capture Beethoven straining at the leash, offering a Serenade but much more besides.

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 1797 Wranitzky Symphony in C minor, Op. 31 “La paix”

Next up Sonata for piano (four hands) Op.6

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