Listening to Beethoven #85 – 6 Minuets for string trio

The Grosse Redoutensaal (Grand Ballroom) of the Hofburg Imperial Palace in Vienna by Joseph Schütz

6 Minuets, WoO 9 for two violins and cello (1795, Beethoven aged 24)

no.1 in E flat major
no.2 in G major
no.3 in C major
no.4 in F major
no.5 in D major
no.6 in G major

Dedication not known
Duration 12′

Listen

Background and Critical Reception

Here we have some more of Beethoven’s music for dancing – another set of six minuets that showed the young composer was really getting into the spirit of Vienna’s social culture. With Haydn looking further afield to London, there was definitely room for him to grow – and as we will see, the mid 1790s were Beethoven’s time to provide these social soundtracks.

Beethoven appears to have had small scale dancing in mind with these six dances, originally scoring them for two violins and cello. There is an unnamed version of them for full orchestra too.

Thoughts

Once again these are attractive pieces with easy melodies and amiable rhythms that make them ideal for communal merrymaking. Beethoven continues writing in ‘safe’ major keys, and the dances all last for around two minutes with a slightly contrasting ‘trio’ section in the middle.

This set begins with a stately and genial E flat major minuet, which moves on to a more legato dance in G major.

The third minuet has some more vigorous steps in a style that sounds almost Schubertian in the orchestral version, and it has a lovely central ‘trio’ section with pizzicato from the violins. We move to F major for some regal gliding across the floor, then to D for a jaunty and quite spiky number, a faster minuet.

The sixth minuet channels the spirit of Mozart with its deceptively simple phrases and interplay between instruments.

Recordings used and Spotify links

Lukas Hagen, Alois Posch, Rainer Schmidt


Tristan Segal, Noa Sarid, Isabel Kwon

Philharmonia Hungarica / Hans Ludwig Hirsch

Three attractive versions here, though naturally the ones for string trio sound much more intimate and homely. The orchestral versions have more weight but are nicely scored.

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 German Dances WoO8

Listening to Beethoven #83 – Canon in C major

Beethoven’s compass © Beethoven-Haus Bonn

Canon in C major Hess 248 for four voices (1795, Beethoven aged 24)

Dedication not known
Duration 1’10”

Listen

Background and Critical Reception

This short canon is for four ‘voices’ – as in four separate parts. It is the second canon of Beethoven’s we have heard to date, but as we listen to more of his music this aspect of his output will be more fully revealed.

Thoughts

A bold, confidently written piece – with a motif whose repetitions become a little trying after a while! It is however a good example of Beethoven’s rigorous training and ability to work with an ever-increasing number of techniques.

Recording used and Spotify link

Benjamin Lichtenegger, Lara Kusztrich, Luka Kusztrich, Dominik Hellsberg (violins) (Naxos)

An attractively performed and brightly lit version.

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 Hyacinthe Jadin 3 String Quartets Op.1

Next up Im Arm der Liebe ruht sich’s wohl

Listening to Beethoven #81 – String Quintet in E flat major Op.4

View of the Kohlmarkt from Michael-platz by Karl Schütz (18th century)

String Quintet in E flat major Op.4 (1795, Beethoven aged 24)

1. Allegro con brio
2. Andante 3. Menuetto più Allegretto – Trio 4. Presto

Dedication unknown
Duration 29’30”

Listen

Background and Critical Reception

In which Beethoven returns to his Octet for wind in E flat major, eventually published as Op.103. At this point however the work was only privately known, so Beethoven followed the example of Mozart in reworking a work for wind ensemble for string quintet, part of a response to a double commission from Count Apponyi. Mozart’s revised work was the conversion of the Serenade in C minor K388, also for octet, into the String Quintet published as K406.

In spite of their acknowledged quality, Beethoven’s two string quintets are relatively neglected, in spite of their acknowledged quality. In them Beethoven skirts around the string quartet, writing for it directly but disguising his efforts either with the addition of two horns or an extra viola. In a sense he was playing it safe until fully ready to enter a pressurised arena.

Lewis Lockwood notes how Beethoven’s String Quintet makes considerable advances on the music of the Octet. “Especially revealing of Beethoven’s musical growth from the final apprentice years to his first true maturity in Vienna is his revision of the Wind Octet as a String Quintet”, he writes. “The whole revision – which is no mere arrangement but a true recomposition – exemplifies Beethoven’s command even more than does his use of Bonn material in the piano sonatas of Op.2.”

Richard Wigmore writes perceptive notes for the recording made by the Nash Ensemble for Hyperion. He notes Beethoven’s new-found maturity to be ‘not least because of his intensive contact with Haydn’s latest symphonies and string quartets’, and shows how those encounters are manifested in the Quintet. “No-one could guess”, he says, “that this music – or large tracts of it – was not originally conceived for strings.”

Thoughts

The neglect in which the Op.4 string quintet is held is surprising, given its obvious quality. Pleasant though the material for the wind octet is, this feels like a real step up in terms of structural command and instrumental invention. The mood is much more purposeful, the dialogue between the strings containing music of deep substance and featuring impressive development of Beethoven’s themes.

The first movement is tautly argued, its ten minutes passing quickly with concentrated musical thought. The second movement finds a much more tender spot, a lovely Andante where time slows and the subject becomes more lyrical.

The scherzo is closely linked to the Octet, and its theme flits across the five instruments, an insistent rhythm working away like a persistent insect. The big difference is in the two trio sections. The first is what seems like a throwaway phrase that Beethoven works between the parts beautifully, while the second – for quartet alone – is quite chromatic, the melody sliding by step but very fluid in its execution.

The finale is quick and wraps up the quintet with a nice balance of wit and purpose.

Recordings used and Spotify links

Nash Ensemble [Marianne Thorsen, Malin Broman (violins), Lawrence Power, Philip Dukes (violas), Paul Watkins (cello)] (Hyperion)

Endellion String Quartet [Andrew Watkinson, Ralph de Souza (violins), Garfield Jackson (viola), David Waterman (cello)], David Adams (viola) (Warner Classics)

Two excellent recordings.

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 Haydn Symphony no.103 in E flat major ‘Drum Roll’

Next up Seufzer eines Ungeliebten und Gegenliebe

Listening to Beethoven #80 – Sextet in E flat major Op.81b


University square in Vienna by Bernardo Bellotto (18th century)

Sextet in E flat major Op.81b for 2 horns and string quartet (1795, Beethoven aged 24)

1. Allegro con brio

Dedication unknown
Duration 17′

Listen

Background and Critical Reception

In his early twenties Beethoven wrote a good deal of music for wind instruments, staying close to the ‘Serenade’ and ‘Divertimento’ forms perfected by Mozart. The combination for this particular work is quite unusual, with the two horns and string quartet unmatched in any other composition. The only comparable instrumentation would seem to be Mozart’s Horn Quintet in E flat major from 1782.

Peter Holman, in his booklet notes for the Gaudier Ensemble’s recording on Hyperion, speculates that the work may have been written for performance by Nicholas Simrock, a friend of Beethoven’s since their days at the orchestra in Bonn in 1789. Simrock published the work in 1810 with the misleading Op.81b, suggesting a composition date much later than the actual year of 1795.

The work brings the two horns to the front, giving them plenty of opportunity for display – and often has the horns and string quartet as opposing or complementary forces.

Thoughts

This is a light-hearted work, very undemanding for the listener – but pleasant too, with plenty of easy natured tunes. Sometimes it feels like Beethoven is just trying out the agility of the horns, while other times he writes unexpectedly moving music. Some of the horn lines in the slow movement in particular, a lovely reverie in A flat major, are sublime, as are the colours Beethoven achieves with the richness of the horns and the strings.

The third movement has something of the hunt about it, from the opening theme on the horn, but it also shifts to the minor key for quite a big section in the middle, exposing a mournful theme from one of the horns. There are some lovely low notes towards the end, part of a pretty rigorous technical challenge for both horn players.

Overall though the Sextet has a lovely communal feel, an undemanding but quite substantial work – and occupies quite a unique spot with its instrumental combination.

Recordings used and Spotify links

Members of the Berlin Philharmonic Octet (Philips)
Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields Chamber Ensemble (Philips)
L’Archibudelli (Sony)
Gewandhaus Quartet, Hermann Baumann, Vladimir Dshambasov (horns) (Deutsche Grammophon)

The older recordings from the Members of the Berlin Philharmonic Octet and the Gewandhaus Quartet show their age a little, with quite grainy string sound, and with the DG recording the two groups feel very separate. The L’Archibudelli version, on period instruments, is really enjoyable, and the slightly unpredictable horn tuning adds a touch of authenticity. The ASMF Chamber Ensemble are excellent in this repertoire, beautifully poised and balanced.

The Spotify playlist below collects the recordings used:

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 Frederich Witt Horn Concerto in E flat major

Next up String Quintet in E flat major Op.4

Listening to Beethoven #77 – Canon in G major

Plaster casts of Ludwig van Beethoven’s seals, probably made in the Beethoven House in Bonn © Beethoven-Haus Bonn

Canon in G major Hess 247 for three voices (1795, Beethoven aged 24)

Dedication not known
Duration 1’10”

Listen

Background and Critical Reception

The canons are a fascinating but very little-known part of Beethoven’s output – and they reveal plenty about him as a composer. Many of them are short pieces but often with a particular friend or person in mind, and often shot through with humour and witty musical play.

The first example we hear is for three ‘voices’ – as in, three distinct instrumental voices.

Thoughts

This short piece has an attractive lilt in triple time, rather like a Minuet – and . Beethoven repeats his idea several times, and it is catchy enough to have worked its way into your head by the end of its 70-second stay.

Recording used and Spotify link

Benjamin Lichtenegger, Lara Kusztrich, Luka Kusztrich (violins) (Naxos)

An attractively performed version.

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 Salieri Il mondo alla rovescia

Next up 6 Minuets WoO 10 (orchestral version)