Listening to Beethoven #204 – Minuet in E flat major WoO 82

Commemorative medal for Ludwig van Beethoven, 1927 – Bronze medal from the Hungarian Ministry of Culture based on a design by József Reményi

Minuet in E flat major WoO 82 for piano (1803, Beethoven aged 32)

Dedication not known
Duration 4′

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written by Ben Hogwood

Background and Critical Reception

There is some doubt around when this piece was first written. In his notes for Ronald Brautigam’s BIS recording of the Minuet, Roeland Hazendonk notes how an early Beethoven scholar found an early edition of the piece seemingly dating from Beethoven’s time in Bonn in his early teens.

It was however published in 1805, and has proved to be a hit with students starting out on the piano. Hazendonk says this is due to its ‘full, orchestral sonority’.

Thoughts

This is a very easy-going dance, with a repetitive theme that becomes quite an earworm. It is a relatively slow tempo, almost Andante, with poise and a hint of humour. The middle section moves to A flat major, encouraging the pianist to take flight in the right hand a little more, before returning to the easy charm of the first theme.

A simple but enjoyable piece.

Recordings used and Spotify playlist

Ronald Brautigam (BIS)
Jenő Jandó (Naxos)
Gianluca Cascioli (Deutsche Grammophon)
Martino Tirimo (Hänssler)
Olli Mustonen (Decca)

Olli Mustonen plays this piece a little impishly, and is the fastest of the five interpretations considered here. Martino Tirimo is very slow, while in Ronald Brautigam’s hands the dance feels rather earthbound and foursquare.

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 Pleyel 3 Keyboard Trios, B.474–476

Next up Das Glück der Freundschaft Op.88

Listening to Beethoven #203 – Prelude in F minor WoO 55

Commemorative medal for the unveiling of the Beethoven monument in Vienna – bronze medal based on a design by Anton Scharff depicting the Beethoven sculpture by Caspar von Zumbusch

Prelude in F minor WoO 55 for piano (1803, Beethoven aged 32)

Dedication not known
Duration 3′

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written by Ben Hogwood

Background and Critical Reception

Roeland Hazendonk, writing booklet notes for the recording made by Ronald Brautigam for BIS, describes this piece as ‘an almost perfect pastiche of a prelude by Bach’, drawing attention to its similarity with the Prelude in the same key from the first book of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier.

Thoughts

If you heard this piece without knowing, your first guess at a composer would surely not be Beethoven, for this is a piece of incredibly accurate pastiche. It is remarkably similar in both mood and profile to the F minor prelude of Bach referred to above, yet it is clearly not a copy as you will hear by comparing the two:

Beethoven starts the Prelude confidently, and it evolves naturally in a series of arpeggios that pass instinctively between the hands. For much of the piece he keeps the tonality close to F minor, though the central section starts wandering towards further flung keys. It all comes back together for a poised conclusion.

Perhaps this was a study for one of Beethoven’s teachers at the time, but it expresses his knowledge and love of Bach better than words could possibly manage!

Recordings used and Spotify playlist

Jenő Jandó (Naxos)
Olli Mustonen (Sony BMG)
Ronald Brautigam (BIS)

Gianluca Cascioli adopts a slow and steady tempo, but gives great feeling to his performance. Ronald Brautigam is much quicker but still allows the notes to breathe, pausing at strategic points in the music to give the phrasing a natural structure.

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 1802 Reichardt Das Zauberschloss

Next up 6 Ländler WoO15

Listening to Beethoven #202 – Serenade in D major Op.41

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View of Freyung Plaza in Vienna from South-East by Bernardo Bellotto

Serenade in D major Op.41 for flute and piano, arranged by Franz Xaver Kleinheinz (1803, Beethoven aged 32)

Dedication not known
Duration 22′

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

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Background and Critical Reception

The original version of this serenade, for flute, violin and viola, was completed in 1801. It was sufficiently popular for Beethoven to be approached for an arrangement by Franz Xaver Karlheinz, who was keen to use it for flute and piano. Beethoven approved, further adding his assent by checking the finished version, which was published in 1803.

As Arcana noted with the original version, 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.

Thoughts

As noted in the original version of the Serenade, ‘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’.

The arrangement for flute and piano works well, though the piano is in danger of dominating if there is not the required sensitivity from the player. The music remains bright and breezy, its good tunes exchanged frequently between flute and piano. The third movement, while lively, is noticeably heavier with the piano employed, while the first movement can also be punchier with the greater attack a piano offers. The dance movements, however, are enjoyably rustic and retain their charm, the fifth movement breezing along and the sixth, with its slow introduction, full of good humour too.

Recordings used and Spotify links

Jean-Pierre Rampal (flute), Robert Veyron-Lacroix (piano) (Vox Box)
Emmanuel Pahud (flute), Eric Le Sage (piano) (Auvidis Valois)
Kazunori Seo (flute), Makoto Ueno (piano) (Naxos)

Each of these three versions features a flautist who appears to be thoroughly enjoying themselves. Emmanuel Pahud is arguably the most stylish, and has an attentive partner in Eric Le Sage, but the other versions are also very enjoyable.

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 1803 Paganini Le streghe Op.8

Next up Prelude in F minor WoO55

Listening to Beethoven #201 – 5 Variations on ‘Rule, Britannia’ WoO79

beethoven-arne

Beethoven and Thomas Arne (a lithography caricature after Francesco Bartolozzi)

7 Variations on ‘God save the King’ WoO78 for two pianos (1799-1803, Beethoven aged 32)

Dedication George Thomson
Duration 5’30”

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What’s the theme like?

The theme is one of the best-known tunes in the British Isles today. Rule, Britannia! was written by James Thomson in 1740, and set to music by Thomas Arne the same year. It first appeared in Arne’s opera Alfred, but went on to gain its standing as one of Britain’s most patriotic songs through frequent performance at the Last Night of the Proms:

Background and Critical Reception

This is the second of two British national tunes taken up by Beethoven after an approach from George Thomson in 1803. Towards the end of the year Beethoven sent him the variations on God Save The King and this smaller set of five, taking its lead from Thomas Arne’s famous tune.

Angela Hewitt writes how the variations, ‘besides being a humorous offering from the composer, are also a great piece on which to work, and demand careful preparation’. After presenting such a rousing theme, Beethoven surprisingly gives us some rumbling in the bass (maybe a nod to the navy—it sort of sounds like being underwater), though we come out of it eventually. Variation 2 has a lovely lyrical, syncopated line, while variation 3 has typical Beethoven fingerwork. The fourth variation goes into an angry B minor and gives us the theme in recognizable form, again with those bass rumblings. Things lighten up for the last variation, onto which he tacks a very amusing coda. I hope your first reaction at the end will be to laugh!’

Thoughts

Once again Beethoven’s sense of humour comes to the fore in this variations set. It takes a little longer, however, for as the Rule, Britannia theme is presented the mood is chaste and respectful. The first variation does indeed sound mysterious, and the lilting second continues the watery association, a kind of barcarolle.

For the third variation the mood is busy and energetic, then the fourth puts on a stern countenance and heads for the lower reaches of the piano again. The slip back to D major from the darker B minor is effortlessly done – at which point the music races away to a sparkling fifth variation and impudent coda. Once again, beautifully and amusingly done!

Recordings used and Spotify playlist

Cécile Ousset (Eloquence)
Rudolf Buchbinder (Teldec)
Ronald Brautigam (BIS)
John Ogdon (EMI)
Olli Mustonen (Decca)
Angela Hewitt (Hyperion)

The variations give a rousing finish to Angela Hewitt’s superb new disc of Beethoven variations on Hyperion, with the first variation appropriately strange as it plumbs the murky depths of the piano. Ousset is typically classy with her account, while Ronald Brautigam is very much outdoors in the full spray of the waves. His third variation in particular is a treat.

You can listen to an excerpt from the recording by Angela Hewitt, released in 2021, on the Hyperion website

Also written in 1803 Krommer Oboe Concerto in F major Op.37

Next up Serenade for piano and flute in D major Op.41

Listening to Beethoven #200 – 7 Variations on ‘God save the King’ WoO78

beethoven-kaiser-franz

Beethoven and Joseph Kreutzinger – Kaiser Franz I, ruler of Austria in 1803. Portrait by Joseph Kreutzinger c.1815

7 Variations on ‘God save the King’ WoO78 for two pianos (1799-1803, Beethoven aged 32)

Dedication George Thomson
Duration 9’30”

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Background and Critical Reception

Beethoven continued to use the variation form as something of a compositional playground, while on the other hand completing works of an ever-expanding structure, such as the Kreutzer Sonata we have just appraised.

His source material was imaginatively drawn, and on occasion to him suggested by others. As Angela Hewitt writes for Hyperion. ‘it probably comes as a surprise to many to know that Beethoven wrote variations on the current British national anthem….but indeed he did. In 1803 he was approached by George Thomson, a civil servant living in Edinburgh who was passionate about collecting folk songs from his own country. He wanted Beethoven to compose six sonatas on Scottish melodies—a project which never materialized, but which started a business relationship that lasted until 1820. For Thomson, Beethoven completed some 150 arrangements of Scottish, Welsh and Irish folk songs (including Auld lang syne). Towards the end of 1803, he sent him these two sets of variations for piano, saying they weren’t too difficult and hoping they would have much success.’

Beethoven was keen to ‘show the English what a blessing they have’ with that tune’, which had by 1795 found use in Prussia as a royal anthem.’.

Thoughts

It comes as no surprise to report that Beethoven has a good deal of fun with this tune. It is almost crying out for the slightly irreverent but highly musical treatment it gets at his hands, from the skittish rhythms of the second variation to the rumbling bass of the left hand in the third.

The fourth variation resorts to the minor key but is not as downcast as Beethoven has tended towards in previous variation sets. Soon we recapture the tongue in cheek mood through a march (variation six) and a mischievous coda, which runs from po-faced solemnity to outrageous gymnastics for the pianist.

A thoroughly entertaining ten minutes offering the firmest possible proof of Beethoven’s sense of humour. A good one to pull out at dinner parties, too!

Recordings used and Spotify playlist

Cécile Ousset (Eloquence)
Rudolf Buchbinder (Teldec)
Ronald Brautigam (BIS)
Alfred Brendel (Regis)
John Ogdon (EMI)
Olli Mustonen (Decca)
Angela Hewitt (Hyperion)

There are some very entertaining versions in the list above. If anything Beethoven’s humour sounds most brazen on a fortepiano, giving Ronald Brautigam’s version extra edge. Cécile Ousset  is typically classy, Buchbinder too, while Hewitt’s new recording shows how much she clearly loves Beethoven’ send-up of one of the world’s most famous tunes.

You can listen to an excerpt from the recording by Angela Hewitt, released in 2021, on the Hyperion website

Also written in 1803 Pierre Rode Violin Concerto no.7 in A minor Op.9

Next up 5 Variations on Rule Britannia WoO79