Nikolaus Zmeskall von Domanovecz, courtesy of Beethoven-Haus, Bonn
Duo for viola and cello in E flat major WoO 32, ‘Eyeglass Duo’ (1797, Beethoven aged 26)
Dedication Nikolaus Zmeskall
Background and Critical Reception
This is a title to raise the eyebrows – and is one of the curious corners of Beethoven’s output for sure. Perhaps fortunately the eyeglasses are not used to make any music – not directly, at any rate – rather, they refer to the wearers of the eyeglasses, Beethoven himself (viola) and Nikolaus Zmeskall (cello).
Baron Zmeskall was an accomplished cellist and a good friend of Beethoven, and the piece seems to have been written for domestic use only. It is in two lopsided movements, with a substantial first movement full of interaction between the players and a much shorter Minuetto. Richard Wigmore writes of how ‘in the minuet, with its pawky canonic trio, Beethoven suddenly pulls the rug from under the listener’s feet, by veering from E flat to a remote C flat – just the kind of comic-mysterious effect he had learnt from Haydn’.
Beethoven would surely have been aware that Mozart wrote two accomplished – and underrated – duos for violin and viola, and possibly of the four sonatas Michael Haydn published for the combination in the same year, 1797. Working lower down the range, Mozart also wrote a Sonata for bassoon and cello, lasting roughly the same length as this piece.
Perhaps Beethoven was aware of these when writing this highly amenable duo – which presumably appeared in large print, given the sight limitations of the players! Listening to the bright and busy Allegro, the first movement of this piece, the listener can imagine how much pleasure it brought to the bespectacled music makers. It is a lively discourse where the two instruments are treated completely as equals. The writing could easily be lifted from a string quartet, and several times I found my ear was expecting two violins to appear in harmony. The Minuetto is good fun too, including the harmonic trick noted above.
It may be intended for domestic music making only but Beethoven’s craft is all too evident, and his wit too, in this enjoyable miniature.
Veronika Hagen (viola), Clemens Hagen (DG)
Lawrence Power (viola), Paul Watkins (Hyperion)
Jürgen Kussmaul (viola), Anner Bylsma (cello) (Sony Classical)
Three excellent performances, bringing through the elegance of the piece, its genial nature, and also its humourous touches. Kussmaul and Bylsma, on period instruments, have a relatively grainy sound which is still appealing.
Veronika & Clemens Hagen
Jürgen Kussmaul, Anner Bylsma
You can listen to clips from Lawrence Power and Paul Watkins’ version on the Hyperion website
written by Ben Hogwood
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 1797 Michael Haydn 4 Sonatas for Violin and Viola
Next up 12 Variations on the Russian Dance from ‘Das Waldmädchen’