Listening to Beethoven #197 – Polyphonic Italian Songs WoO 99

Portrait of Antonio Salieri by Joseph Willibrord Mähler, 1815 Polyphonic Italian Songs for largely unaccompanied voices (1801-1803, Beethoven aged 32) 1. Bei labbri che amore (duet) 2. Ma tu tremi, o mio tesoro (trio) 3. E pur fra le tempeste (solo) 4. Sei mio ben (duet) 5. Giura il nocchier: trio (5a), quartet (5b), quartet (5c) 6. Ah rammenta (duet) 7. Chi mai di questo core (trio) 8. Scrivo in te (duet) 9. Per te d’amico aprile (trio) 10. Nei campi e nelle selve: quartet (10a), quartet (10b) 11. Fra tutte le pene: duet (11a), trio (11b), quartet (11c) 12. Salvo tu vuoi lo sposo: solo (12a), duet (12b) 13. Quella cetra ah pur tu sei: trio (13a), quartet (13b), quartet (13c) 14. Già la notte s’avvicina: trio (14a), quartet (14b) 15. Silvio amante disperato (quartet) Dedication not known Duration most songs between 1′ and 1’30” Listen Background and Critical Reception This collection of Italian songs provides us with a fascinating insight into Beethoven’s studies with Antonio Salieri, while also closing this particular chapter in his career. All the settings are of texts by Pietro Metastasio, whose poetry Beethoven was already familiar with. Keith Anderson writes for Naxos that the exercises provide a substantial collection of songs in varied form, in many cases offering Beethoven’s original version, followed by Salieri’s corrected version. They have been brought together under the number WoO 99, with a series of numbering from Beethoven compiler Willy Hess for each item. These settings offer varied insights into Salieri’s teaching methods and Beethoven’s achievements in these years. The unaccompanied Italian settings were written during Beethoven’s early days in Vienna, generally between 1793 and 1797 and those with accompaniment up to 1802. The listings and earlier complete recordings are discussed in full by Mark S. Zimmer in The Unheard Beethoven. Jan Swafford gives valuable insight into Beethoven’s manner as a student. “As with his counterpoint masters, in his dealings with Salieri Beethoven was a wilful student even as he dutifully set his assigned old-fashioned Italian texts in a suitable style. One day Beethoven ran into Salieri in the street after the teacher had thrashed one of rhose efforts. Salieri complained that he hadn’t been able to get the tune out of his head. “Then, Herr von Salieri,” Beethoven grinned, “it can’t have been so utterly bad.” Thoughts These songs give fascinating insights into Beethoven’s development as a composer. The music feels much ‘older’, with the overriding impression that the pupil is diligently aiming for a style coveted by his teacher, rather than breaking particularly new ground – bolstering his abilities and covering perceived weaknesses. The first of these settings, Bei labbri, che amore, is a chaste two-parter for male and female voice in close harmony. Ma tu tremi is initially similar but there is a slightly more awkward top line in the middle section. E pur fra le tempest is a short setting of just under a minute, for solo voice and flowing piano, moving to an unaccompanied and quite serene Sei mio ben for three voices. It is interesting to hear three versions of Giura il nocchier, the second of which is much fuller in texture than the first, while the third shifts the pitch down a tone. The four-part Chi mai di questo core is the fullest song here, and features a nice dialogue between the voices, if still polite and functional. Some of the arrangements are written for full, choral textures, such as the second and third short arrangements of Giura il nocchier. There are no fewer than six versions of Fra tutte le pene availble, each of the three originals with revisions by Salieri to make the part movements a little more logical. Other songs include the pure C major of Scrivo in te, a minute-long setting in three parts, and the fuller choral songs Per te d’amico aprile and Nei campi e nelle selve, in two versions – the second of which has a mournful edge. Also in two versions are Salvo tu vuoi lo sposo, and Gia la notte savvicina, which has a feather light choral setting for its alternative. Meanwhile the choral Quella cetra ah pur ti sei has three – and sounds rather like Haydn in the first. Spotify playlist and Recordings used Soloists, Ensemble Tamanial, Cantus Novus Wien / Thomas Holmes (Naxos)
The Naxos recordings are very well delivered, with the caveat that it is difficult to convey emotion in songs that are so short. The solo items have the necessary intimacy, while the choral numbers have a nice space surrounding the textures in the recording picture. Occasionally the top edges of the soprano lines feel like a bit of a strain, but that could be as much due to the composer’s writing as anything else! 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 1803 Boieldieu Clarinet Concerto no.1 in E flat major Op.36 Next up Bei labbri, che Amore WoO 99/1

Listening to Beethoven #164 – Sonata for piano and violin no.4 in A minor Op.23


Mountain Scene (1796) by Joseph Anton Koch

Sonata no.4 for piano and violin in A minor Op.23 (1801, Beethoven aged 30)

1. Presto
2. Andante scherzoso, più allegretto
3. Allegro molto

Dedication Count Moritz von Fries
Duration 20′


by Ben Hogwood

Background and Critical Reception

A relatively quick return for Beethoven to the duo sonata, with a pair of works for piano and violin. He worked first on Op.23 and then immediately began Op.24, the Spring sonata, its much more famous sibling. The two works were published together, like the Op.12 trio of sonatas, but due to an error in the engraving they were assigned separate opus numbers. Both pieces were written for Count Moritz von Fries, a banker who was an important patron to Beethoven around this time.

Many see the separate publication of the two works as an appropriate move, for commentators regard the Op.23 sonata as the chalk to the Spring sonata’s cheese. Daniel Heartz gives Op.23 a surprisingly wide berth, and his detailed examination of early Beethoven only finds one short paragraph for the work. ‘It seems dour and astringently contrapuntal compared to the lushly endowed siren before us in Op.24’, he writes. ‘In competition with alluring beauties, overt sagacity has rarely won the day, nor does it do so here’. He does however point out that ‘it was the composer’s habit to work simultaneously on works of disparate character’.

William Drabkin is more complimentary, marking the influence of Mozart throughout. Writing in The Beethoven Companion, Nigel Fortune notes the rarity of A minor in Beethoven’s output, before observing that the sonata ‘is unique, too, in being dominated by so much tense and bare linear movement’.

The outer movements are prime examples of this, he says, while the ‘slow’ movement includes – exceptionally – ‘a fugato on a theme that contrasts vividly with the slurred and halting motion of the opening idea’.


This unusual piece has the feeling of a work Beethoven had to get out of his system. The key of A minor was one he very seldom used – nor, incidentally, did Haydn – and in fact this violin sonata is his only large-scale work to use the key. There is a marked tension between A minor and A major throughout, the sort of duel that would become a feature of the mature works of Schubert, who often used ‘A’ as a centre.

The bare opening of the first movement finds both instruments in unison, and though it looks like it should be playful on the page it proves rather acerbic. The movement proceeds with a stern dialogue, unwieldly but still effective.

Signs of warmth appear in the slow movement, where Beethoven switches to the major key. Rhythmically the two instruments are very much in step, with a stop-start feel to the tune, and as Beethoven constructs variations on it the music becomes a little more flowing. The unusual fugue passage would have been a big surprise to the audience of the time, and still feels a little odd here.

The third movement bursts out of the blocks in the same spirit of the first, and again feels more like a duel than a collaboration – but the simplicity of the second theme brings a tender contrast, a reminder of the warmth that can still be found in spite of Beethoven’s lean and slightly mean approach in this piece.

Recordings used and Spotify playlist

Midori Seiler (violin), Jos van Immerseel (fortepiano) (Zig Zag Classics)
Yehudi Menuhin (violin), Wilhelm Kempff (Deutsche Grammophon)
Josef Suk (violin), Jan Panenka (piano) (Supraphon)
Alina Ibragimova (violin), Cédric Tiberghien (Wigmore Hall Live)
Tasmin Little (violin), Martin Roscoe (piano) (Chandos)
Frank Peter Zimmermann (violin), Martin Helmchen (BIS)
Paul Barritt (violin), James Lisney (piano) (Woodhouse Editions)

Once again the fresh approach of Midori Seiler and Jos van Immerseel is invigorating, and the relative lack of vibrato from Seiler’s violin suits the character of the music without making it too dark. Yehudi Menuhin has a much fuller sound by contrast, but this brings a welcome warmth to the slow movement in particular, as does the responsive playing of Wilhelm Kempff. Josef Suk and Jan Panenka have a similar profile, while the newest version – from Frank Peter Zimmermann and Martin Helmchen – is quite a powerhouse, sweeping forward impressively.

The Spotify playlist below does not contain the Barritt / Lisney version, but does include a highly powered account by Gidon Kremer and Martha Argerich, recorded for Deutsche Grammophon:

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 Vanhal – Clarinet Sonata in C major

Next up Sonata for piano and violin no.5 in F major Op.24 ‘Spring’

Listening to Beethoven #161 – 6 Easy Variations on an original theme in G major, WoO 77

Ludwig van Beethoven – portrait by Gandolph Ernst Stainhauser

6 Easy Variations on an original theme in G major WoO 77 for piano (1800, Beethoven aged 29)

Dedication unknown
Duration 7′


What’s the theme like?

Unusually, the theme appears to be Beethoven’s own. It is an ‘easy to play’ number, simply structured but ripe for development. There is just the hint of a dance round the edges.

Background and Critical Reception

So far in his Viennese career Beethoven has not gone long without dashing off another theme and set of variations – and even with so many important pieces and premieres around him, the year of 1800 was no exception. Despite their title, these ones have meaning though. The educational intent behind the Easy Variations on an original theme,writes Jean-Charles Hoffelé, ‘should not distract the listener from what is daring about the music: the expressive power of the Poco sostenuto creates an astonishing effect at the centre of the set.’

The variation to which he refers is the fourth, set in a minor key and providing a striking contrast to those around it.


These are beautifully crafted variations, and as is suggested they prove far more emotive than the title suggests. They are a good showpiece for a pianist, with elements of soft and loud, delicate and heavy, often within the same variation. After a simple beginning Beethoven puts the pianist through their paces with a terrifically pacy second variation them an ultra-solemn fourth, which really delves deep into the heart. Set in the minor key, the music withdraws to a simple unison statement, the hands one octave apart and trapped further down on the keyboard.

When all seems lost a brighter passage appears on cue, a real ‘darkness to light’ moment where the music looks outwards and upwards. Beethoven can’t then resist a final flourish before the end, signalling his determination to push on.

Recordings used and Spotify links

Olli Mustonen (piano) (Decca)
Cécile Ousset (piano) (Eloquence)
Ronald Brautigam (fortepiano) (BIS)
Alfred Brendel (piano) (Vox)
John Ogdon (piano) (EMI)

Some really fine versions here. Olli Mustonen’s is spring-loaded to begin with but hurtles through a quick fourth variation which is far from anything easy! He is a terrific entertainer, whereas John Ogdon and Alfred Brendel are both superb but have a measured control. The variations transfer well to fortepiano, and are clearly enjoyed by Ronald Brautigam.

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 1800 Campagnoli 6 Fugues for Solo Violin Op.10

Next up Piano Sonata no.11 in B flat major Op.22

Listening to Beethoven #148 – 7 Ländler for piano WoO 11 (1799)

Der Kinderreigen (1872) by Hans Thoma

7 Ländler WoO 11 (1799) for piano (1799, Beethoven aged 28)

Dedication unknown
Duration 4’30”

written by Ben Hogwood


Background and Critical Reception

As part of his composing role in Vienna Beethoven did on occasion write dance music for the ball. We have already encountered sets of Minuets, written for the annual Redoutensaal balls, a discipline the composer seemed to warm to. This set of Ländler (a folk dance in 3/4 time) is thought to originate for 1798, and, writes Keith Anderson in booklet notes for Naxos, was presumably scored for two violins and bass.

That version is missing, but a piano version was published in Vienna the year after. All seven dances are in the same key, with a short coda added on the end.


The dances are charming and simple in their construction. Beethoven warms to the form with easy, hummable melodies and basic accompaniments often resembling drones. Harmonies are safe, and the rhythms have a nice lilt – ideal for moving easily around a crowded dancefloor. The seventh dance goes slightly offbeat, putting the emphasis on the second rather than the first beat in the bar, before a coda reinforces the drone and ends the dance with a trill.

Recordings used and Spotify links

Olli Mustonen (piano) (Decca)
Jenő Jandó (piano) (Naxos)

Olli Mustonen gives ideal account of these short, winsome pieces – and Jandó, a little faster, is enjoyable too.

Also written in 1799 Benjamin Carr Dead March and Monody

Next up tbc

Listening to Beethoven #147 – 10 Variations on ‘La stessa, la stessissima’, WoO 73

beethoven-salieriLudwig van Beethoven and Antonio Salieri (right)

8 Variations on ‘Tändeln und Scherzen’ WoO 76 for piano (1799, Beethoven aged 28)

Dedication unknown
Duration 9′

written by Ben Hogwood


What’s the theme like?

The theme is taken from a duet in Salieri‘s opera Falstaff, premiered on 3 January 1799 in Vienna’s Theater am Kärntnertor.

Background and Critical Reception

The variations that Beethoven dashed off after hearing Salieri’s Falstaff in January 1799 earned him a drubbing from critics, writes Jean-Charles Hoffelé. ‘Herr Beethoven may know how to improvise, but he is unable to create good variations’, wrote the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung.

Hoffelé speculates on the cause of the journalist’s irritation, suggesting it might be ‘the tone of pure entertainment, the impertinent giocoso manner’. He notes however that Beethoven is enjoying himself, citing ‘the distilled Adagio in the top register of the keyboard’.


A strident theme sets out its stall, before Beethoven takes it for a walk in the first variation and then a quicker, propulsive jog in variation two. Again this is a composer working instinctively, the feeling being this composition may well have been written in one sitting at the keyboard.

Beethoven has fun with the offbeat comments of the third variation, while things take a sombre tone in the minor key with the fifth. The music springs out of this with an upright gait, and a fugal episode, then a terrific flurry of notes in the seventh and tenth variations, which no doubt impressed or infuriated the Viennese audience!

The final variation, the tenth, is a tour de force of athletic prowess in the right hand before adding on a coda, as so many of Beethoven’s variation sets do. This one, however, is by turns violent, amusing and touching, channelling the spirit of C.P.E. Bach as it changes mood almost by the bar. Final resolution is forcefully achieved.

Recordings used and Spotify links

Gianluca Cascioli (piano) (Deutsche Grammophon)
Cécile Ousset (piano) (Eloquence)
Ronald Brautigam (fortepiano) (BIS)

If you are happy to listen to the relatively taut sound of Ronald Brautigam’s fortepiano, you will find much to enjoy in his version, a thoroughly entertaining and dramatic reading of Beethoven’s mood changes. Cécile Ousset, perhaps inevitably, has greater elegance but also enjoys the playful aspects, not to mention the outrageous final variation.

Also written in 1799 Benjamin Carr Dead March and Monody

Next up 10 Variations on ‘La stessa, la stessissima’ WoO 73