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

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

Listen

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.

Thoughts

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

Listen

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

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

Listen

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. It is in the unusual time signature of 5/8, giving it a slightly lopsided appearance.

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’.

Thoughts

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

Listening to Beethoven #146 – 8 Variations on ‘Tändeln und Scherzen’, WoO 76

beethoven-sussmayrLudwig van Beethoven and Franz Xaver Süssmayr  (right)

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

Dedication unknown
Duration 9′

written by Ben Hogwood

Listen

What’s the theme like?

The theme is taken from a trio in the opera by Soliman oder die drei Sultaninnen by Franz Xaver Süssmayr. A popular Austrian composer at the time of composition, Süssmayr is not a familiar name in the concert hall nowadays, except for his completion of Mozart’s Requiem.

Background and Critical Reception

Thoughts

This is pure, instinctive inspiration – and is quite stop-start as a result. Yet just as Beethoven has a lot of fun with these variations, so does his listener. The fourth variation is especially brilliant, the hands tumbling down the keyboard like a waterfall.

An elegant seventh variation, the one about which Hoffelé writes, leads to a run of trills, like the end of a cadenza, which look set to complete the set – until a twist in the tale appears in the form of a fugue, crisply executed in the form of a Bach invention.

Beethoven switches unexpectedly to D major near the end, yet this is wholly in keeping with the free running approach throughout this entertaining set.

Recordings used and Spotify links

Alfred Brendel (piano) (Vox)
Cécile Ousset (piano) (Eloquence)
Ronald Brautigam (fortepiano) (BIS)

Cécile Ousset is a model performer in these variations, with enviable dexterity and a good deal of humour. Ronald Brautigam enjoys the more brash, unscripted moments and the piece sounds great on the fortepiano. Brendel is excellent too.

Also written in 1799 Benjamin Carr Dead March and Monody

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

Listening to Beethoven #145 – Piano Sonata no.10 in G major Op.14/2

Woman at a Window by Caspar David Friedrich (1822) The woman in question is the artist’s wife

Piano Sonata no.9 in E major Op.14/1 for piano (1798-99, Beethoven aged 28)

1 Allegro
2 Andante
3 Scherzo: Allegro assai

Dedication Baroness Josephine von Braun
Duration 17′

Listen

written by Ben Hogwood

Background and Critical Reception

‘An exquisite little work’. The verdict of esteemed musicologist Donald Tovey, proving that in the lesser-known piano sonatas of Beethoven, there are gems to be discovered.

Lewis Lockwood writes of this piece as a ‘paired opposite’ to Op.14/1, encountered yesterday, describing it as ‘a foray into the smaller-sonata world; it is almost a sonatina…with a charming first movement…a slow, simple C major variation movement and a curt finale marked Scherzo that is actually a Rondo.

Thoughts

This piece has an innocuous beginning, floating in as though from the outside with a dreamy melody on the right hand. Beethoven settles immediately into an easy flowing style, bringing Bach to mind at the very end as the piece resolves in the manner of one of his keyboard preludes.

The second movement is a lightly playful march, slow but resolute – and with an offbeat emphasis that makes you feel Beethoven is not quite walking in a straight line. The silences keep the listener on the edge, though, as though Beethoven intends to make you jump sooner or later! He does exactly that at the end, having proceeded through just three charming variations.

The third movement is stop-start, phrased like an irregular story. When it flows it is incessant and brimming with enthusiasm, but often Beethoven will stop the flow for a shorter phrase, an aside to the listener, emphasising the human aspect of how the piano phrases work. Any parallels this time would be more with C.P.E. Bach in his free, ‘fantasia’ way of thinking.

Recordings used and Spotify links

Emil Gilels (Deutsche Grammophon)
Alfred Brendel (Philips)
András Schiff (ECM)
Angela Hewitt (Hyperion)
Paul Badura-Skoda (Arcana)
Stephen Kovacevich (EMI)
Igor Levit (Sony Classical)
Claudio Arrau (Philips)

The sense of enjoyment coarses through each of the selected readings of this sonata. Some, like András Schiff or Emil Gilels, take their time with the first movement but retain a special intimacy throughout. Paul Badura-Skoda enjoys the surprise element at the end of the second movement, as does Angela Hewitt, while the throwaway nature of the final bars of the piece are relished by the likes of Claudio Arrau.

You can hear clips of Hewitt’s recording at the Hyperion website

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 Ferdinando Paer La Camila ossia il Sotteraneo

Next up 8 Variations on ‘Tändeln und Scherzen’ WoO 76