Listening to Beethoven #76 – 6 Minuets for piano


line art drawing of Minuet dance from the Archives of Pearson Scott Foresman, donated to the Wikimedia Foundation 

6 Minuets, WoO 10 for piano (1795, Beethoven aged 24)

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

Dedication not known
Duration 11′

Listen

Background and Critical Reception

As he grew accustomed to Vienna, Beethoven was increasingly aware of the potential for composers to make a name for themselves by writing music for dancing in the ballroom.

This was to bear fruition through sets of German Dances and Minuets for orchestra, but first we witness Beethoven trying out his skills on the piano. There is the possibility these six works were written for instruments but if they were that version is no longer available.

Instead we have a set of piano pieces that have caught on among amateurs and musicians in their infancy, the Minuet in G – no.2 in the set – becoming especially popular for Associated Board exams in the UK. Each of the Minuets has a contrasting ‘trio’ section in the middle, traditional among these dance forms – and Beethoven generally uses that to make more flowing melodies to complement the light-footed main material.

Thoughts

This is genial music for carefree music making. Beethoven writes the six pieces in a clearly defined sequence, the keys of each linking together nicely.

The first minuet is lively and slightly cheeky with its main theme. The second, the well-known Minuet in G, has more of a march-like quality, with a catchy tune, while its trio feels like a variation on the theme. We move to E flat major for a bold third tune, with a few chromatic leanings in the trio, then an amiable fourth minuet with a syncopated trio. The fifth minuet has a nagging and rather catchy motif, before Beethoven signs off back in C major with a bold and uplifting dance.

These pieces may be polite but fulfil their function comfortably, raising more than a few smiles in the process.

Recordings used and Spotify links

Mikhail Pletnev (Deutsche Grammophon)

Jenő Jandó (Naxos)

Pletnev applies a few idiosyncrasies to his reading but is otherwise very enjoyable. Jandó’s version links all six minuets together as one track, performing them as the one linked piece Beethoven possibly intended.

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 3-Voice fugues Hess 237

Listening to Beethoven #75 – Variations on ‘Là ci darem la mano’ from Mozart’s ‘Don Giovanni’

Portrait of Francisco D’Andrade in the title role of Don Giovanni by Max Slevogt (1912) / Young Beethoven

Variations on ‘Là ci darem la mano’ from Mozart’s ‘Don Giovanni’ WoO 28 for 2 oboes and cor anglais (c1795, Beethoven aged 24)

Dedication Not known
Duration 9′

Listen

Background and Critical Reception

This set of variations is closely related to the Trio in C major for the same instrumental combination, published later in Beethoven’s life as Op.87. The unusual trio of two oboes and cor anglais appears to have been inspired by Johann Wenth, a contemporary oboist and composer.

It is possible these variations were intended as a finale to the bigger work, sharing as they do the overall key of C major. There are eight variations and a coda.

Thoughts

Beethoven has an ability of making this trio sound like a much bigger ensemble right from the off. The theme gets a relatively polite outing, but soon Beethoven rolls his sleeves up to have some fun. Variation 2 gives the cor anglais a thorough workout with a very busy part in triplets, then a gentle Andante and spikier fourth variation work the players’ control.

The oboe has a flurry of notes marked ‘leggiero’ (‘lightly’) for the fifth variation, a real exercise in breath control, before the doleful tones of the cor anglais come to the fore in a straight faced minor-key variation.

To offset this, Beethoven writes a spiky and witty seventh variation, before the rich colours of the flowing eighth variation. A substantial coda follows, with a perky fugue that shows Beethoven putting into practice his recent teaching from Albrechtsberger. The three instruments then move in stepwise fashion before the piece fades to a graceful and more thoughtful close.

It is easy to see the link between this work and the Trio in C Op.87 for the same instrumental combination and mood, and these variations could effectively form an encore for that piece. They show Beethoven can write attractively and very skilfully for domestic music making, which like the best chamber music proves equally effective in concert as it does in private.

Recordings used and Spotify links

Heinz Holliger, Hans Elhorst (oboes), Maurice Bourgue (oboe) (Deutsche Grammophon)

Consortium Classicum (Christian Hartmann and Gernot Schmalfuß (oboes), Matthias Grünewald (cor anglais)

Les Vents FrançaisFrançois Leleux (oboe), Paul Meyer (clarinet), Gilbert Audin (bassoon) (Warner Classics) – tracks 8 to 16

The recording led by Heinz Holliger has aged a little but is still a lot of fun. Les Vents Français substitute the second oboe and cor anglais parts for a clarinet and bassoon, which gives a more rounded texture. The Consortium Classicum version, like their account of the Trio Op.87, is very well played too.

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 Berenice, che fai Hob.XXIVa:10

Next up 6 Minuets WoO 10

Listening to Beethoven #74 – Seufzer eines Ungeliebten und Gegenliebe


Gottfried August Bürger

Seufzer eines Ungeliebten und Gegenliebe WoO 118 for voice and piano (1794-5, Beethoven aged 24)

Dedication not known
Text Gottfried August Bürger
Duration 6’30”

Listen

Background and Critical Reception

This is one of Beethoven’s biggest solo vocal works to date, setting a pair of poems by Gottfried August Bürger. The first, Seufzer eines Ungeliebten (Plaint of a Loveless Man), is set out as an operatic recitative, while the second, Gegenliebe (Requited Love) is more of an aria with a broad, flowing profile. Commentators immediately noted the similarity of the melody in the second poem not just to the Choral Fantasy Op.80 but to the Ode to Joy from the Choral Symphony.

Susan Youens, writing for the recording made by Roderick Williams and Iain Burnside for Signum Classics, notes that ‘if the prosody leaves something to be desired, it is nonetheless fascinating that this melodic idea was brewing in Beethoven’s brain literally for decades and that the song’s impulse gave rise to the mighty symphony’.

Amanda Glauert, in The Cambridge Companion to Beethoven, draws a strong parallel with the forthcoming concert aria Ah, Perfido! For her Beethoven ‘chose to adopt an exaggeratedly operatic idiom for his setting of the first poem’, concluding that ‘the gracious triple-meter melodies in E flat into which both song and aria resolve are so similar in contour that one can sense how Beethoven must have borrowed the style from his teacher (Salieri) or other Italianate models. In Gegenliebe, ‘the awkward text setting…when heard in context…becomes the natural consequence of the voice being pushed forwards by the piano’s rhythmic intensity.’

Meanwhile in The Beethoven Companion, Leslie Orrey finds the piano writing ‘suggests a transcription of an orchestral score.’

Thoughts

Just as his studies with Albrechtsberger have been blooming, so Beethoven’s education with Salieri appears to be bearing bigger and greater fruit. The songs we are hearing now are more substantial and adventurous, and this two-parter is one borne of the stage rather than the recital room.

From the first notes it is clear this is substantial and meaningful vocal work for Beethoven. There is an immediate sense of drama, maybe exaggerated a bit but ideally suited to the male singer. Tension surrounds the music from the off, but is resolved beautifully into the Requited Love, where we first hear the memorable theme. Its similarity to the Ode To Joy is uncanny, and as Susan Youens says it must have meant a lot to the composer, a melody whose profile stayed at the front of his thoughts for decades.

Once heard it is the tune that dominates, and the aria finishes in a resilient and triumphant mood.

Recordings used

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (baritone), Jörg Demus (piano) (Deutsche Grammophon)
Hermann Prey (baritone), Leonard Hokanson (piano) (Capriccio)

Peter Schreier (tenor), Walter Olbertz (piano)

Anne Sofie von Otter (mezzo-soprano), Melvyn Tan (fortepiano) (Archiv)

An imperious performance from the great baritone Fischer-Dieskau, with a dramatic introduction and ideal phrasing on the big tune. Hermann Prey and Leonard Hokanson are even more expansive, clocking in at nearly seven minutes. Peter Schreier moves the music up in pitch (in C minor rather than B flat minor) but his version also carries a sense of occasion. Anne Sofie von Otter does too, though not quite as full bodied in tone. Melvyn Tan’s fortepiano provides ideal support.

Spotify links

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Jörg Demus

Hermann Prey, Leonard Hokanson

Peter Schreier & Werner Olbertz

Anne Sofie von Otter, Melvyn Tan

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 Reicha –  Concerto Concertant Op.3

Next up O care selve (first version)

Listening to Beethoven #73 – Fugue for string quartet in D minor (fragment)

Commemorative medal for Ludwig van Beethoven – silver medal, probably based on a design by Fritz Schwerdt © Beethoven-Haus Bonn

Fugue in D minor, Hess 245 for string quartet (1794-5, Beethoven aged 24)

Dedication not known
Duration 0’45”

Listen

Background and Critical Reception

A ‘fragmentary fugue’ is not necessarily a phrase to get the musical pulse racing, but since we are trying to cover everything Beethoven wrote, even the snippets are worth a listen.

This short excerpt also hails from Beethoven’s lessons with Albrechtsberger.

Thoughts

We return to the key of D minor, a popular selection for output from these lessons – but when the excerpt starts it feels like we have walked into a performance half way through.

Even at the end, in spite of the busy part writing, there is no resolution – so this is very much a scrap from the cutting room floor rather than something you would expect to see included in a concert.

Recordings used

Fine Arts Quartet (Naxos)

A very well played version – though it is far from complete, so difficult to judge.

Spotify links

Fine Arts Quartet

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 Hyacinth Jadin 3 Piano Sonatas Op.4

Next up Prelude and Fugue in C major Hess 31

Listening to Beethoven #72 – Prelude and Fugue in C major

Commemorative medal for Ludwig van Beethoven, 1927 – Silver medal from the Bavarian Main Mint based on a design by Josef Bernhart, Munich, 1927 © Beethoven-Haus Bonn

Prelude and fugue in C major, Hess 31 for string quartet (1794-5, Beethoven aged 24)

Dedication not known
Duration 5′

Listen

Background and Critical Reception

A third Prelude and Fugue from Beethoven’s lessons with Albrechtsberger in Vienna, 1794-5. By way of a reminder, Beethoven was taking lessons from the Austrian composer, whose relatively rigorous approach to working with counterpoint complemented the vocal teaching he was receiving from Salieri.

Beethoven had worked writing fugues in two or more parts, and here is another in four – with a short prelude added to the front.

Thoughts

During his lessons with Albrechtsberger it seems that Beethoven opens up a little more with every piece. This attractive Prelude and Fugue are outgoing from the start, with a very solid ground note on the cello beginning proceedings. After that the Prelude proceeds on its genial way, compact and very approachable. It ends on an open chord (G major)…

…which allows Beethoven to lead straight into the energetic fugu, back in C major. There is a strong pointer here towards one of his true masterpieces of counterpoint, the String Quartet in C major Op.59/3 ‘Razumovsky’, which he would publish in eleven years’ time.

Recordings used

Fine Arts Quartet (Naxos)

Endellion Quartet (Deutsche Grammophon)

Both ensembles give a full-bodied account of this piece, the Fine Arts noticeably louder while the Endellion have a bit more light and shade.

Spotify links

Fine Arts Quartet

Endellion Quartet

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 Hyacinth Jadin 3 Piano Sonatas Op.4

Next up Prelude and Fugue in C major Hess 31