Listening to Beethoven #11 – Piano Quartet in C major WoO 36/3

How Bonn looked around the year 1790. Artist unknown

Piano Quartet in C major WoO 36/3 for piano, violin, viola and cello (1785, Beethoven aged 14)

Dedication Thought to be Elector Maximilian Friedrich
Duration 17′

Listen

Background and Critical Reception

There is a good deal of speculation that Beethoven played and improvised in front of Mozart when he journeyed from Bonn to Vienna in 1786. Reports on what actually happened – and indeed if the two composers met at all – are sketchy. Misha Donat, in his booklet notes to one of the recordings used here, says that ‘if, as we may assume, he (Beethoven) also showed him some of his compositions, they would almost certainly have included a set of three Piano Quartets, completed some two years earlier’.

These first examples of Beethoven chamber music set out in a musical idiom not used until now. This is surely a deliberate move by the 14-year-old composer, given the pressure he would have endured in either the string quartet or piano trio. Haydn and Mozart had made giant steps in those forms; the piano quartet – piano, violin, viola and cello – was untried, and it seems these early works even predate the two masterpieces offered by Mozart later the same year.

When published by Artaria, the works were re-ordered – but our listening reverts to Beethoven’s original plan, beginning with the C major work. When they were published – after Beethoven’s death – Lewis Lockwood notes they ‘so surprised even knowledgeable observers, including Ferdinand Ries, that they doubted Beethoven had written them at all, let alone at age fourteen’.

Beethoven thought highly enough of the first work in C major to recycle some of its themes in his Piano Sonata in F minor Op.2/1. Lockwood notes the work to be ‘clearly modelled on Mozart’s C major Violin Sonata, K296. You can decide for yourself here:

Thoughts

There is an attractive hustle and bustle about the C major Piano Quartet right from the start. Its first theme of the first movement (marked Allegro vivace – fast and lively) is a simple one, drawing the Mozart comparisons with its reliance on the notes of the ‘home’ C major chord. The piano has all the dressing, the strings content to provide accompanying roles as they might in a concert. The second theme is more lyrical but continues the piano’s dominance.

For the second movement we retreat to a slow tempo and close-knit scoring, the strings providing rich harmonic support to the piano’s melody. Soon the sweet tone of the violin takes the lead, bringing tenderness to the central section before all three strings enjoy reacquainting us with the first theme, Beethoven’s scoring nicely balanced at this point.

The third movement finale has a resolute quality. Led by the piano with a bright theme, it busies itself with developing that idea and introducing a fresh second theme, played on the piano over pizzicato (plucked) strings. The theme passes to violin – some of its most attractive music – before ending in a whirl of positivity.

Positive is definitely the word to describe this Piano Quartet, for it is a breezy first outing into chamber music for Beethoven. Even though he appears to be using Mozart as a model, there is more than enough evidence that he is at ease in this form, with an individual voice about to emerge.

Recordings used and Spotify links

Christoph Eschenbach (piano), Members of the Amadeus Quartet (Deutsche Grammophon) – tracks 7 to 9:

Anthony Goldstone (piano), Cummings String Trio (Meridian) – tracks 1 to 3:

New Zealand Piano Quartet (Naxos) – tracks 1 to 3:

Christoph Eschenbach and the Amadeus Quartet fly out of the traps in the first movement. The piano sound is a little ‘clangy’ at times, possibly due to the age of the recording, but this is a performance with plenty of energy.

The Goldstone / Cummings version goes off at quite a lick too. It has a thoughtful and considered slow movement, really nicely performed, while the third movement bustles along.

Finally the New Zealand Piano Quartet give a nicely nuanced performance on Naxos, with the best recording of the three sampled versions. Their interpretation is light on its feet.

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 1785 Mozart Piano Concertos nos. 20 & 21

Next up Piano Quartet in E flat major WoO 36/1

Listening to Beethoven #10 – Piano Concerto in E flat major


Beethoven, aged 13. This portrait in oils is said to be the earliest authenticated likeness of Beethoven – but Beethoven-Haus Bonn disputes this description, claiming it to be an unknown youth painted in the early 19th century.

Piano Concerto in E flat major WoO 4(1783-4, Beethoven aged 13)

Dedication not known
Duration 24′

Listen

Background and Critical Reception

Daniel Heartz tells the story of Beethoven’s first foray into the world of the concerto. Barely a teenager, ‘it was appropriate to the young composer’s status as a virtuoso of the keyboard that he should try his hand at writing a piano concerto.’

The work was incomplete however, with the orchestral part left unfinished beyond its two-piano reduction. The trip to Holland mentioned in the previous article on the Rondo in C major looks to have been the driving force behind this composition, for Heartz says that ‘Beethoven may have performed it in a concert at The Hague for which he was paid a large sum as a pianist, and at which Carl Stamitz also appeared as a viola soloist.’

As Jan Swafford notes, the work begins with a ‘flavour of hunting call-cum-march’, an ‘abiding topic in his future concerto first movements’. He calls it a ‘lively and eclectic piece that showed off his virtuosity’, while in his booklet notes to the DG complete Beethoven edition Barry Cooper notes its proximity in style to J.C. Bach rather than Mozart.

Thoughts

In Ronald Brautigam’s recording – where he made the orchestral arrangement – the horns are prominent in the opening salvo, which is reasonable to expect given the key of E flat major which will suit them. Then the piano takes over with an upbeat theme and some florid passagework. The music is fluently written, and follows the rules relatively closely in moving to the keys expected in the course of its development – B flat major, G minor, closely ‘related’ to the home key. The music is both charming and virtuosic.

For the slow movement Beethoven revisits a Larghetto direction (slow but not as slow as the ‘adagio’ tempo marking’) and writes music of an appealing delicacy and charm – undemanding but giving the soloist room to spread their wings a little.

For the finale Beethoven uses a Rondo form (presenting three themes in the sequence A – B – A – C – A – B – A) – a form he used for the last movement of each of his five published piano concertos. Despite the rigorous structure it again sounds very natural and the ‘A’ theme – which you hear from the start – is lightly playful, suggesting a less formal dance. The grace and charm of the third movement has a nice complement in the shape of a rustic ‘C’ theme where we briefly flirt with the minor key and the melody becomes more decorative. Only the ending is a bit strange, with a sudden cut-off point.

Recordings used

Ronald Brautigam (piano), Norrköpping Symphony Orchestra / Andrew Parrott (BIS)
Orchestra of Opera North / Howard Shelley (piano) (Chandos)

Ronald Brautigam gives a fine performance of the concerto, with attentive accompaniment from Andrew Parrott and the Norrköpping Symphony Orchestra. Howard Shelley’s version has a softer orchestration for the first theme of the piece which works really nicely. His playing follows suit, proving particularly effective in the second movement where his affection for Beethoven’s early work is clear.

Spotify links

Ronald Brautigam, Norrköping Symphony Orchestra / Andrew Parrott (tracks 1-3 of the link below)

Orchestra of Opera North / Howard Shelley (piano) (the fourth disc of an album containing all the Beethoven works for piano and orchestra)

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 1783 Abel 6 Symphonies Op.17

Next up Piano Concerto in E flat major WoO 4

Listening to Beethoven #9 – Rondo in C major


Beethoven statuette – plaster cast by Gebrüder Micheli based on an original by Gustav Adolf Landgrebe (Beethoven-Haus, Bonn)

Rondo in C major WoO 48 for piano (1783, Beethoven aged 12)

Dedication not known
Duration 2’40

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Background and Critical Reception

March 1783 saw a tragic time for the Beethoven family, as a younger brother to Ludwig, Franz Georg van Beethoven, died at the age of two. This precipitated a family visit from Rotterdam of the dead child’s sister, Maria Magdalena, who arranged for a return visit from Beethoven and the opportunity to perform new works.

With the three Electoral sonatas on the table Beethoven was really hitting his stride with writing for the piano, and with a first concerto just around the corner he produced another short Rondo for solo piano. Its exact composition date is not known, only that Beethoven was ‘around 12’.

Daniel Heartz describes the Rondo as having a ‘catchy and quite folk-like theme’. He says that ‘the model is clearly the second and last movement of Mozart’s Violin and Piano Sonata in G major K301’. Explaining in detail, he declares ‘The correspondence is evident not only in the theme but also in the way it is treated to rapid alternation of major and minor forms. Beyond looking up to Mozart as a legendary performer, Beethoven obviously took him as a model for composition. You can compare for yourself here:

Thoughts

Daniel Heartz’s observation is a fascinating one, and on listening it rings true. The purity of Beethoven’s theme is closely aligned to Mozart’s, though there is a slight glint in the eye at times, especially with one or two of its harmonic shifts. The use of C major is also in line with one of Mozart’s most popular piano sonatas.

Again, this is very surefooted music for a 12-year-old boy to be writing!

Recordings used

Mikhail Pletnev (DG); Jenő Jandó (Naxos), Ronald Brautigam (BIS)

Jenő Jandó takes the ‘Allegretto’ tempo marking more to heart with a slower reading which initially sounds quite pedestrian but makes sense when it has settled down. Ronald Brautigam goes for a very similar approach, adding a little more mystery to the middle section. Mikhail Pletnev is quite light hearted, and affectionate at the end – but his tempo choice is much faster than Beethoven indicates.

Spotify links

Mikhail Pletnev

Jenő Jandó

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 1783 Paisiello La passione di Gesù Cristo

Next up Piano Concerto in E flat major WoO 4

Routes to Beethoven – Clementi

by Ben Hogwood

“Clementi plays well, with regard to right-hand technique. His speciality is passages in thirds. Otherwise he hasn’t a trace of feeling, or taste, in a word, he is a mere mechanic.”

This withering assessment of the virtuoso 18th century pianist Muzio Clementi came from none other than Mozart, who had engaged in a keyboard competition with the Roman composer at the request of Haydn on Christmas Eve in 1781. Mozart was writing to his father Leopold, as Daniel Heartz reports the duo in his superb book Mozart, Haydn and early Beethoven. Perhaps not surprisingly Haydn, who organised the duel, was more independent in his views, describing a set of Clementi’s Piano Sonatas as ‘very beautiful’ a year or so later.

Clementi was a nimble-fingered virtuoso. Born in Italy but settling in London, he is not mentioned a great deal in books of the time. Heartz reports a number of lukewarm reactions to his symphonies in England, though again this is not surprising given he was being compared with the visiting Haydn.

It was then in the field of piano music where Clementi really made his mark, and not just as a musician but as a publisher too. Beethoven recognised his influence in both disciplines, recommending his music for the use of piano students. Jan Swafford writes of how Beethoven and Clementi finally cemented a friendship in 1807. “As a pioneering composer for the piano, he had been a formative influence on the young Beethoven, because Clementi was among the best available models for how to write idiomatically for the instrument. Now retired from performing, Clementi lived in England and prowled the continent looking for music to publish and customers for his pianos.” He made several visits to Vienna. After an initial misunderstanding in Vienna in 1804, the pair struck a publishing deal and a friendship on a subsequent visit three years later.

Charles Rosen, writing in The Classical Style, recognises his influence. “In his (Beethoven’s) youthful works, the imitation of his two great precursors is largely exterior: in technique and even in spirit, he is at the beginning of his career often closer to Hummel, Weber, and to the later works of Clementi than to Haydn and Mozart.”

Harold Truscott, writing in The Beethoven Companion about Beethoven’s piano music, goes further. “I think it is true that Beethoven absorbed so much of this music of Clementi and Dussek that many times themes crop up in his work which go right back to themes in their work and that it seems probable he was unconscious of any origin; they had become part of him. We should be careful to distinguish between such unconscious connections and real influence, although the mere fact that these themes penetrated so deeply into his musical make-up seems to show that they had a great impact upon him.”

He observes many characteristics in the make-up of Beethoven’s themes and their treatment that have their common points with equivalent Clementi works. Looking at the Op.2 sonatas in particular, Truscott says, “Throughout his career the essentials of Beethoven’s piano writing changed little from what is displayed in these three sonatas. It was the writing of a virtuoso, using the basic techniques of Clementi and Dussek, but gradually developing their potential in his own way to meet new expressive demands as they arose.”

We will encounter the Op.2 sonatas early on in the Beethoven listening project…but for now we can enjoy Clementi’s own writing, when at its best is full of dramatic contrast, taking minimal melodic material and growing it substantially. The Sonata in G minor is perhaps the best example of his craft, and showing these qualities with the reminder that its date of composition, 1795, is before all of Beethoven’s early published work. It is included in the Spotify playlist below.

About the F minor work, also included in the playlist, Anselm Gerhard writes in his booklet notes how “the whirl of the final movement proclaims the definitive end of music’s historical dependence on traditional dance forms: here purely instrumental music reveals its determination to stand on its own two feet. It was not long before this idea was put into practice by Beethoven”, he continues, “albeit using completely different, characteristically revolutionary means: by consistently dramatising his music, he set out to transfer the prestige of the age’s most celebrated literary genre to instrumental music, and in the highly charged atmosphere of works like the Op.26 and Tempest sonatas, the medium’s new artistic ambitions were plain for all to hear.”

There is humour in Clementi’s thought process too, nowhere more so than in the brilliant pastiche of the Preludes in the style of Haydn and Mozart. Beginning the playlist is the Piano Concerto in C major, and there are two symphonies that illustrate how the composer’s prowess was not as stilted as some might have claimed. They may of course have seen him as a rival.

Clementi’s standing proves him to be more than that – and his influence on Beethoven will become clear in due course.

Routes to Beethoven – The Mannheim School

by Ben Hogwood
Picture: Mannheim National Theatre, 18th century (Schlichten & Klauber)

As we move towards the music of Beethoven we have so far encountered the music of three great masters – J.S.Bach, C.P.E. Bach and Handel. While all three exerted some sort of influence on Beethoven’s music, it is arguably the music of C.P.E. that was to prove the most far-reaching and original.

C.P.E.’s music went in hand with the Sturm und Drang approach, composers encouraged to bare their souls more explicitly in their music rather than (or as well as) sticking to more conventional rules.

The court orchestra of Mannheim was a hotbed for composers employing the Sturm und Drang in the mid-18th century. Its high level of musicianship was noted by Leopold Mozart and son Wolfgang, who made a prominent visit to Mannheim in 1777.

In his fantastically readable and comprehensive history Music In European Capitals – The Galant Style 1720-1780, Daniel Heartz takes up the story. He tells of how the city was incredibly well-placed for musical entertainment. Much of this took place in the palace, built from 1720 and containing the Knights’ Hall or Rittersaal, which became “the site of the orchestral academies for which Mannheim’s court music was to become most famous”. From 1742 the palace (below, depicted in 1725 by J.C. Froimon) was equipped with an opera house installed in its eastern wing, and a huge number of musicians in its employment.

One of those musicians was Johann Stamitz, described by English music historian Charles Burney as ‘the late celebrated Stamitz, from whose fire and genius the present style of Sinfonia, so full of great effects, of light and shade, was in considerable degree derived’. The ‘light and shade’ of which Burney speaks corresponds with the Sturm und Drang.

Stamitz worked at the court in Mannheim from 1743, but his fame soon spread, and Heartz writes of ‘the performance of a symphony by him with horns, trumpets, and timpani to open the Concert Spirituel in Paris in 1751’. This led to a prolonged period of work in the French capital, though soon Johann returned to Mannheim where he died in 1757, succeeded by his pupil Christian Cannabich.

The playlist below includes a number of Mannheim composers, headed by Johann Stamitz and his son Carl. Johann’s Sinfonia pastorale in D major begins the selection, quoting extensively from a Bohemian Christmas carol. Heartz writes of how ‘Stamitz’s fame rests principally on the handful of symphonies…attributed to his last four years…without equal in the 1750s’.

From there son Carl takes up the baton with the well-loved Clarinet Concerto no.3. Listening to this bright piece, brilliantly played by Sabine Meyer, gives an illustration of the positive energy Stamitz used throughout his music. The Cello Concerto in G major, later in the selection, is even more substantial, an assured piece that has a deeply soulful slow movement.

Cannabich himself wrote a large number of symphonies. Heartz writes of how his Symphony no.22, included here, contains crescendos – the idea of music changing in volume now a completely accepted one by scholars and audiences. It also includes oboes and horns in the scoring, signs that the orchestra was beginning to expand.

Mozart, however, was not impressed for a good while – until a later Cannabich symphony passed his ears in Munich in 1780. Now the story was different. ‘I assure you, if you had heard it yourself it would have pleased and moved you as much as it did me, and if you had not known ahead of time, you would not have believed that it was by Cannabich. Come soon then and hear the orchestra and admire it!’

Other prominent composers in the Mannheim court were Franz Xaver Richter, whose Symphony in B flat major appears on the playlist, as well as Franz Ignaz Beck and Ignaz Fränzl.

Did they influence Beethoven’s way of thinking in any way? We shall find out in due course. In the meantime, listen below:

Next up

Routes to Beethoven moves on to a quick look at the music of two of his teachers, Anton Albrechtsberger and Antonio Salieri.