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 #8 – An einen Säugling


A Peanuts strip drawn by Charles M. Schulz (c)PNTS

An einen Säugling WoO 108 (“Noch weisst du nicht, wes Kind du bist”) for voice and piano (1783, Beethoven aged 12)

Dedication not known
Text Johann von Dohring
Duration 3’20”

Listen

Background and Critical Reception

There are very few words written on Beethoven’s second song, a duet for two upper range female voices. It comprises four verses by Johann von Doring, with a piano introduction and postlude.

For Lewis Lockwood, the three-minute song ‘shows a slight touch of originality in its brief major-minor mixture, but reflects the pretty, homely sentimentality of the contemporary German ‘lied’ (song).’

Thoughts

An airy piano introduction leads to some rather beautiful harmonies in this song. Both singers are close together in pitch, occasionally uniting in unison but rarely further than a third apart.

The harmonic language is very straightforward – this is a song ‘to an infant’ so that is not a surprise! – but the elaboration of the piano part in between verses is attractive.

Recordings used

There are only two versions immediately available on Spotify. The Heinrich Schütz Kreis, Berlin deliver a chaste reading of the song with pianist Leonard Hokanson, but get to the right level of innocence with pure harmonies.

That said, the version on the DG complete edition, from single voices Karen Wierzba and Natalie Pérez, is really nicely done. The pair have more vibrato, but their unison and harmony singing is ideal, the roomy recording works nicely and pianist Jean-Pierre Armengaud adds some sensitive touches.

Spotify links

Heinrich Schütz Kreis & Leonard Hokanson:

Karen Wierzba, Natalie Pérez and Jean-Pierre Armengaud:

Also written in 1783 Dittersdorf Six Symphonies after Ovid’s Metamorphoses

Next up Rondo in C major

Listening to Beethoven #6 – Piano Sonata in F minor (‘Electoral’ no.2)


Portrait of Maximilian Friedrich von Königsegg-Rothenfels, Archbishop-Elector of Cologne. Artist unknown

Piano Sonata in F minor WoO 47/2 ‘Electoral’ for piano (1783, Beethoven aged 12)

Dedication Maximilian Friedrich, Elector of Cologne
Duration 11’20

Listen

Background and Critical Reception

The three Electoral sonatas divide opinion among Beethoven scholars. While you can read largely complimentary thoughts in the background to no.1 – as appraised yesterday – Lewis Lockwood‘s biography decides that the three works are ‘short, undeveloped and crowded with stereotyped figures. He does however go on to concede that ‘still, these three little works show that the barely adolescent Beethoven could spin coherent phrases and short paragraphs as capably as many an adult professional.’

Charles Rosen‘s observation that Beethoven’s three Electoral Sonatas ‘start clearly from Haydn’s work of the late 1760s’ appears to have greatest traction with the second work in F minor. This key was important to Beethoven’s contemporary, and accounts for two of his most profound works – the Symphony no.49 (‘La Passione’) and the Variations in F minor for piano.

Beethoven too made use of F minor for important works, and it was a relatively brave choice to use it early on in his career as here. For Barry Cooper, writing in the complete edition as released on Deutsche Grammophon, this second sonata is ‘the most strongly emotional in the set, with powerful gestures that anticipate some of Beethoven’s later minor-key sonatas such as the Pathétique and the Moonlight.’

Thoughts

The first movement starts deep in thought, but Beethoven snaps out of that mood with a flash the music suddenly tearing forward. However it doesn’t completely throw off the mood of the sombre opening, which leaves its striking mark and brings to mind the writing of C.P.E. Bach in the process – not to mention the aforementioned La passione symphony from Haydn.

In spite of this the slow movement is the emotional heart of this sonata – and it is probably the most meaningful music we have heard so far. Time really does slow as Beethoven’s thoughts unfurl, a method with which we will become increasingly familiar as time moves on. Here it feels like we have a private audience with him as the music becomes more freeform.

The third movement, marked Presto, throws off the shackles, with a heavily ornamented melody which must be tricky to play. It means the music retains some tension despite its much quicker delivery.

Recordings used

There is a terrific account of this piece from Emil Gilels, whose playing gets to the heart of the emotion in the second movement but also catches the devil-may-care freedom of the third. Jenő Jandó also gives a fine performance, if slightly trailing in the wake of the Russian.

Spotify links

The playlist below is for all three Electoral Sonatas, and includes the two recordings discussed above – Emil Gilels and Jenő Jandó:

https://open.spotify.com/playlist/1W1r89tTztAA360Ph8pt7P?si=rM1d3FxfQLWTDQXPHnZPnA

You can chart the Arcana Beethoven playlist as it grows, with one recommended version of each piece we listen to. Catch up here!

https://open.spotify.com/playlist/4BJCc2kWe7McJUVsR7t7bF?si=t8WaPuz4SIGhzDawjH2avA

Also written in 1783 Mozart Mass in C minor, K427 (the Great Mass) .

Next up Piano Sonata in D major, ‘Electoral’

Routes to Beethoven – Mozart

by Ben Hogwood

It has often been speculated that Beethoven met Mozart in Vienna when he was 17. What a meeting that would have been, with a musician and composer at the peak of his powers and the man seen by many as his successor-in-waiting.

There were many contacts to link the two – not least Archduke Maximilian, elector and archbishop of Cologne. Mozart enjoyed good relations with him, and Beethoven was sent out with his strong recommendation. However not much is known about the outcome of their proposed meeting, nor even if it took place at all, given the conflicting tales afterwards. Yet what cannot be doubted is that the music of Mozart exerted a considerable influence on Beethoven for years – more so even than Haydn.

In his biography of the composer Lewis Lockwood writes of how Beethoven played Mozart piano concertos with the orchestra in Bonn. Beethoven’s good friend Reicha recounts of how, ‘after hearing an aria from Mozart’s Idomeneo (Electra’s passionate D minor aria), he talked of nothing else day and night for weeks thereafter.’ He also treasured Mozart’s Piano Concerto no.20, written in the same key, and wrote two cadenzas for it to be performed by his student Ferdinand Ries.

Lockwood goes on to examine the 14-year old Beethoven’s prodigious Piano Quartets, found after his death and posthumously published. So accomplished was the writing in these pieces that contemporaries doubted if Beethoven could have written them at all, but an autograph score survives to confirm their authenticity.

Lockwood notes them as ‘the first and clearest examples of the teenage Beethoven’s dependence on Mozart. They mark the beginning of a relationship to Mozart that remained a steady anchor for Beethoven over the next ten years as he moved into his first artistic maturity. Just as Mozart himself had once told his father that he was ‘soaked in music’ so Beethoven was soaked in Mozart. His invention of new ideas sometimes began with his asking himself if what he was writing was his own, or something he might have heard or seen in a work by Mozart, or partly both.

Several sources note that Beethoven copied out two of Mozart’s string quartets when the time came for his first forays into the form. Both form part of the set of six dedicated to Haydn – in G major (K387) and A major (K464), and the latter became a model for the fifth of the set published as Beethoven’s Op.18. He was also deeply impressed and affected by the otherworldly way in which Mozart begins another ‘Haydn’ quartet, the one known as the Dissonance in C major, K465. The introduction to this work is remarkable, removed almost completely from tonality and – at the time – regarded as deeply unattractive. Beethoven took it on board, however, and imitated it twice in subsequent slow introductions, the string quartets Op.18/6 and Op.59/3.

In his early work Beethoven used a number of titles and forms common to Mozart. A Serenade, a Quintet for piano and wind instruments, and he built several pieces of variations on Mozart themes. Some of Mozart’s forays into C minor – often seen as a ‘tragic’ key – are precedents for Beethoven’s own thoughts. The Piano Concerto no.24 is an especially vivid example, its mood and musical arguments emulated in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no.3.

As I mentioned, Beethoven had to check a theme he had written was not a Mozart original, so concerned was he about marking his own path. As Lewis Lockwood writes, ‘Nothing could be more revealing of his anxiety about Mozart, his musical god and artistic father, whose music he knew and heard in his mind so well and clearly that he must have felt he had to work his way through the Mozartian landscape to find his own voice.’

The playlist includes all the works mentioned above and closes with Mozart’s crowning orchestral glory – the final Symphony no.41 in C major, known as the Jupiter:

Next we’ll briefly examine Beethoven’s relationship with the music of Clementi, one of the piano-playing stars of the time…and then it’s a look at the music of 1770, Beethoven’s birth year!

Routes to Beethoven – Joseph Haydn

by Ben Hogwood

November, 1792. The 21-year old Beethoven was planning to leave his home town of Bonn for Vienna, and he left with a ringing endorsement from Count Waldstein, his most important patron. Mozart had died the previous year at the age of thirty-five, and Waldstein sensed the stage was clear. “Dear Beethoven!”, he wrote. “You are going to Vienna in fulfillment of a wish that has long been frustrated. Mozart’s genius is still in mourning and weeps for the death of its pupil. It found a refuge with the inexhaustible Haydn but no occupation; through him it wishes to form a union with another. With the help of unceasing diligence you will receive the spirit of Mozart from the hands of Haydn.”

This was of course rather fanciful. To suggest Haydn as a channel for Mozart’s inspiration did the older composer – now sixty and in the prime of his musical life – little recognition. Haydn was aware of Beethoven, the younger composer having sent him his ambitious choral Cantata on the Death of Emperor Joseph II – and was willing to take him on. Thus Beethoven left Bonn in early November 1792 and travelled for ten days until arriving in Vienna.

All appeared to be going well for him there, but when Haydn sent a letter to Elector Maximilian dated just over a year later he included a clutch of works that Beethoven had already written in Bonn. Most were sadly lost – including an Oboe Concerto – but an Octet-Partita for wind ensemble has survived. The covering letter expressed the conviction that ‘On the basis of these pieces, expert and amateur alike must admit that Beethoven in time will attain the rank of one of the greatest musical artists in Europe, and I shall be proud to call myself his teacher. I only wish that he might remain with me for some time yet.’

The reply was curt, since Maximilian was receiving music he had already seen – and could not see any discernible progress to finance Beethoven further. As Lewis Lockwood points out in his Beethoven biography, Haydn’s priorities as a composer were stacked up. He had made a pioneering and highly successful visit to London in 1792, and a sequel was on the cards, for which he would need new string quartets and symphonies. Beethoven, too, given his ability and individuality, was not to be the perfect match. Lockwood talks of ‘the same stubborn personal resistance’…which ‘seems to have troubled his relationship to Haydn, though here it was mingled with reverence for authentic genius.’

With Haydn’s focus abroad, Beethoven looked elsewhere for his teaching and found counterpoint studies with Johann Schenk. Haydn returned to London and the brief relationship was at an end. Before he left Vienna, however, he was privy to Beethoven’s Op.1 – three trios for piano, violin and cello – and Op.2, a set of three piano sonatas dedicated to Haydn.

The trios contained a problem, in the explosive form of the third piece in C minor. Haydn advised withholding this from publication, calculating the impact on the Viennese audience might damage Beethoven’s reputation. It was, as Michael Steinberg in The Beethoven Quartet Companion points out, ‘a surprising attitude from a composer who was himself so bold. An observer went further, noting ‘a kind of apprehension, because he realised that he had struck out on a path for himself of which Haydn did not approve.

Jan Swafford holds the conviction that Beethoven took far more from Haydn than he himself declared at the time. ‘There is no record of what transpired in their lessons’, he writes. But it can be said that at least by his Op.2 Piano Sonatas, composed in 1794-5, Beethoven was showing the fruits of his studies in a startlingly mature way. After his months with Haydn, Beethoven emerged a far more sophisticated composer. To mention only one issue: Before Haydn, Beethoven had a shaky idea of proportion, might write an introduction to an aria that was a quarter of its length. After he finished the lessons with Haydn, he had one of the most refined senses of proportion of any composer – a sense of it, in other words, at the level of Haydn.’

Haydn’s influence on Beethoven can be gauged at this stage by listening to some of the works he was writing while teaching the younger composer. The three string quartets published as Op.74 are a case in point. The slow movement of no.3 in G minor finds the sort of spaciousness we became accustomed to from Beethoven in his equivalent slow movements. Meanwhile in the slow movement of no.1 in C major Haydn goes on all sorts of unusual tonal routes, seeming to travel far from home but only so he can show his dexterity as a composer, bringing the music ‘home’ with a single, deft switch. Beethoven was to acquire that quality too.

The Piano Sonatas offer some clues, too. The playful opening of the Sonata in C major has a wit Beethoven was only too keen to take forward. So too the grand gestures of the Sonata in E flat major, a key that was to assume great importance for Beethoven over the years. Haydn’s Masses were well known to Beethoven too, and the Nelson Mass – closely associated with Nelson’s victory over Napoleon – cast quite an influence on the younger composer’s Mass in C major.

The later symphonies acquire a dramatic instinct which must have appealed to Beethoven too. Like C.P.E. Bach, who we have already heard from, Haydn had a Sturm und Drang period that marked his music forever, and the last twelve symphonies, written for use in London, are even more vivid in their stories. The introduction to the relatively unsung Symphony no.98 in B flat major has a dark edge, and these works, now laden with timpani, have more emotive and dynamic contrasts, straining at the leash of the conventions of form and harmony. The final, London symphony – no.104 in D major – demonstrates best of all how far Haydn had taken the form. Its dramatic slow introduction reaching towards the 19th century and beyond, while the slightly rustic finale is brilliantly written.

There is much speculation on how Beethoven and Haydn’s relationship developed, if it did at all, beyond that of a prodigious pupil and a seasoned master of his craft in his early sixties. Certainly a healthy mutual respect existed, Haydn spotting the gifts Beethoven had in abundance, while Beethoven himself found his early works bearing clear influence of Haydn even more than Mozart. We will explore those in greater depth, as Beethoven takes on the forms of symphony, string quartet, piano trio and piano sonata and bears them into the 19th century.

You can listen to selections from Haydn’s enormous output, including the works discussed above, on the playlist below: