A View of the Karlskirche, Vienna by Bernardo Bellotto
Serenade in D major Op.25 for flute, violin and viola (1801, Beethoven aged 30)
Dedication Countess Maria Wilhelmine von Thun
1. Entrata, Allegro
2. Tempo ordinario d’un Menuetto
3. Allegro molto
4. Andante con Variazioni
5. Allegro scherzando e vivace
6. Adagio – Allegro vivace e disinvolto
Background and Critical Reception
This attractive trio was initially thought to have been written around the same time as Beethoven’s Trio for clarinet, cello and piano – but as Richard Wigmore observes, writing in a booklet note for Hyperion, its actual date is three years later.
The flute was a very bankable instrument thanks to Frederick The Great, and Wigmore describes how ‘the Serenade, like the Septet, is a delightful late offshoot of the eighteenth-century divertimento tradition’.
There are six movements in a piece which appears not to have been written with any particular person in mind, more for the Viennese domestic market.
Beethoven looks back to Mozart and Haydn with this piece, using the form of a Serenade to its full potential. Like Mozart he brings the most out of seemingly small forces. On the face of it the combination of flute, violin and viola is relatively slight, but not in Beethoven’s hands. Each of the instruments gets a thorough workout in music that is both vivacious and touching.
The air of Spring, so prevalent in the sonata for piano and violin of the same name, is here in abundance too. The bright sound of the flute is one of the reasons for this, but so are the busy parts Beethoven assigns to violin and viola. There are few if any breaks for the instruments, and because of the almost complete lack of a bass instrument the piece has the lightest of textures.
The first movement is fun, the flute imitating a piper with the catchy main theme, but in the second movement Beethoven brings through a number of dance rhythms, with a minuet and two contrasting trio sections. The third movement is a rustic dance, with busy strings and lively flute.
The centrepiece, however, is the theme and variations movement, the strings introducing the theme with double stopping that makes them sound like a full quartet. As the music progresses each of the three protagonists gets their turn in the spotlight, which the audience would have enjoyed.
There is more, too – a scherzo where the instrumentalists are all at play, and a final Rondo where Beethoven heightens the folksy mood with the use of open strings on the violin and viola. The abundance of tunes and good humour in this piece make it a treat for audiences and listeners alike.
Recordings used and Spotify links
Gaudier Ensemble (Jaime Martin (flute), Marieke Blankestijn (violin), Iris Juda (viola) (Hyperion)
Members of the Berliner Philharmoniker (Karlheinz Zoeller (flute), Thomas Brandis (violin), Siegbert Uebershaer (viola) (Deutsche Grammophon)
James Galway (flute), Joseph Swensen (violin), Paul Neubauer (viola) (RCA)
Emmanuel Pahud (flute), Daishin Kashimoto (violin), Amihai Grosz (viola) (Warner Classics)
Melos Ensemble of London (Richard Adeney (flute), Emmanuel Hurwitz (violin), Cecil Aronowitz (viola) (Eloquence)
There are some fine versions of this piece available, the musicians clearly enjoying Beethoven’s high spirits throughout. The two I enjoyed most are from members of the Gaudier Ensemble on Hyperion, beautifully recorded, and the bright tones of three members of the Berliner Philharmoniker on Deutsche Grammophon, a recording made in 1969 that stands up very well.
You can listen to these versions on the playlist below:
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 1801 Wranitzky 3 String Quintets Op.8
Next up Piano Sonata no.12 in A flat major Op.26