Listening to Beethoven #149 – Septet in E flat major Op.20

The old Burgtheater in Vienna by Franz Gerasch (before 1906)

Septet in E flat major Op.20 for clarinet, horn, bassoon, violin, viola, cello and double bass (1799, Beethoven aged 28)

  1. Adagio – Allegro con brio
  2. Adagio cantabile
  3. Tempo di menuetto
  4. Tema con variazioni: Andante
  5. Scherzo: Allegro molto e vivace
  6. Andante con moto alla marcia – Presto

written by Ben Hogwood

Background and Critical Reception

Beethoven’s Septet was a novelty work when it first appeared at the Burgtheater in Vienna on 2 April, 1800. The piece, completed by the composer over the winter beforehand, was not breaking any new musical ground particularly. Indeed, Beethoven biographer Lewis Lockwood speaks of it almost dismissively in finding an ‘ambition to please…written all over his Septet, Opus 20, a divertimento companion to the First Symphony intended for salon performance.’

The First Symphony appeared on the same bill at the Burgtheater, but to cast the Septet off as a trifle would be a mistake. Certainly it stays true to the Mozart models used in serenades and divertimenti for wind and strings, in its use of six movements and in the choice of not one but two dance-themed faster movements.

It is the instrumentation where Beethoven’s thoughts are new, the string quartet consisting of violin, viola, cello and now double bass. This adds depth to the scoring, but also frees the bassoon and cello up for more melodic roles. Peter Holman, writing for Hyperion, notes how ‘the relationship between strings and winds is more flexible and varied than before’. He enjoys the ‘mixture of grandeur and intimacy, virtuosity and informality’, while also noting a prominent part for virtuoso violinist Ignaz Schuppanzigh.

Elsewhere it seems almost unfashionable for commentators to give the Septet too much room, as though it is not forward-thinking enough – but its public appeal is clear. Philip Reed, writing in a booklet note for Chandos, makes up for that shortfall, discussing how ‘Beethoven contrives to give the work a quasi-orchestral atmosphere. This quality is most apparent in the tuttis; elsewhere subtle use is made of different instrumental groupings to achieve maximum variety of texture. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the central Theme and Variations’.

Thoughts

It is surely impossible to dislike Beethoven’s Septet. This is a piece full to the brim with good tunes, attractive scoring, persuasive rhythms and a very strong sense of community between all seven players. The scoring is a treat, working to bolster the sound to a small orchestra, in a model that was to be replicated by contemporaries Kreutzer and Berwald, as Holman points out.

The tunes are catchy enough for audiences to be humming them hours after a performance, which I can admit to first hand! The two best in this respect are the first Minuet, a delightfully cheeky tune that just refuses to go away, and the finale,

The first movement has some frothy exchanges when the faster sections arrives, while the slow movement, placed second, has some lovely sonorities, the clarinet coming to the fore in the tune and then the violin given some space to prove its virtuosity.

Placed fourth of the six movements is the Theme and Variations, where Beethoven’s invention is twofold – development of the theme and inclusion for each of the seven instruments, with solos for cello and then a lovely moment where clarinet and bassoon come to the fore. The doleful tones of the woodwind look on in the minor-key fourth variation, with a restless violin, while there are some ghostly timbres towards the end, the double bass growling low in the texture.

The second ‘dance’ movement is next, the horn coming to the front to lead a brisk march, then the cello asserting its new-found prominence as a melody instrument in the ‘trio’ section. Communal fun is the name of the game here, as it is in the finale, Beethoven ensuring all seven protagonists have fun with the abundance of melodic material.

The Septet is a tonic to the most subdued of moods, a true ray of sunshine – and one of Beethoven’s crowning early works.

Recordings used and Spotify Links

Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields Chamber Ensemble (Chandos)
Members of the Berlin Philharmonic Octet (Philips)
Nash Ensemble (ASV)
The Melos Ensemble(Eloquence)
Soloists of the Lucerne Festival Orchestra
(Accentus)
Wiener Oktett (Deutsche Grammophon)

There are some lovely versions here, particularly a new release of a live performance from the Soloists of the Lucerne Festival Orchestra. The Wiener Oktett are enjoyably ‘old school’ and full bodied, while versions from the Nash Ensemble, the Melos Ensemble and the Gaudier Ensemble on Hyperion all hold their own. A mention, too, for a recording currently not on streaming services from the Academy of Ancient Music Chamber Ensemble, likely to be the only period instrument recording currently available.

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 1799 Haydn String Quartet in G major Op. 77/1

Next up Piano Concerto no.1 in C major Op.15

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