Listening to Beethoven #42 – 12 Variations on ‘Se vuol ballare’

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (left) and the young Ludwig van Beethoven

12 Variations on Mozart’s aria ‘Se vuol ballare’ WoO40 for piano and violin (1793, Beethoven aged 22)

Dedication Elenore von Breuning
Duration 12’30”

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What’s the theme like?

Mozart’s theme is from the first act of Le nozze de Figaro – Se vuol ballare being an aria for Figaro himself, on discovering the count’s schemes.

Background and Critical Reception

‘I should never have written down this kind of piece, had I not already noticed fairly often how some people in Vienna after hearing me extemporize of an evening would note down on the following day several peculiarities of my style and palm them off with pride as their own. Well, as I foresaw that their pieces would soon be published, I resolved to forestall these people’.

Beethoven’s statement, made in a letter in 1794, confirms he was now in Vienna – and already attracting great interest. In the covering note with the piece, he also makes reference to the extra prominence for the violin in the work – now seen alongside the piano. ‘The variations will be rather difficult to play, and particularly the trills in the coda. But this must not intimidate or discourage you. For the composition is so arranged that you need only play the trill and can leave out the other notes, since these appear in the violin part as well.’

Nigel Fortune, writing in The Beethoven Companion, suggests Beethoven included these features in his work to embarrass the pianists who tried to play his music, giving them music of extra difficulty.

Thoughts

Beethoven’s statement of the theme is unusual, choosing to announce the tune through pizzicato violin with the softest of piano accompaniments. In this way he imitates a guitar, mirroring the way the tune is first heard in the opera.

As the variations unfold the piano takes the lead, particularly in a thrilling fourth variation which has the mood of a Bach sonata with its bubbling counterpoint, passed back and forward between the instruments. The fifth variation enjoys subtle humour with the figure of a trill exchanged, but then the mood darkens.

The sixth variation moves to the minor key, and the violin plays a mournful melody as the piano adopts a slow, bell-like toll. The roles are reversed for the seventh variation, the music still in the minor key but with a few longer dissonances. Soon the sun returns, the music flowing forward through variations eight and nine, the latter generating terrific energy in its fast moving writing for piano alone, the violin taking a brief rest.

The final variations find the instruments close together, the music flowing and in affirmative mood, but then in the coda Beethoven unexpectedly moves into a new key (D major), which takes the listener by surprise and opens up the music completely. This is however shortlived, the false ‘departure’ quickly coming home to rest with a rather touching finish led by soft trills on the piano.

Beethoven’s first Viennese work is a strong statement, and a very enjoyable one at that. Anyone wishing to capture his music on paper would have had a hard time, for his music is starting to show invention and imagination at every turn.

Recordings used

Yehudi Menuhin (violin), Wilhelm Kempff (piano) (Deutsche Grammophon)
Takako Nishizaki (violin), Jenő Jandó (piano) (Naxos)

Menuhin and Kempff are delightful in this piece, playing as though they were at the opera themselves. The minor key variation has a strong pull. Takako Nishizaki and Jenő Jandó are excellent, too – they pull the tempo around less but that works well in the longer scheme of things.

Spotify links

Yehudi Menuhin, Wilhelm Kempff

Takako Nishizaki, Jenő Jandó

Also written in 1793 Haydn Piano Trio in G major Hob.XV:32

Next up Octet in E flat major Op.103

On record – Aurora Orchestra / Nicholas Collon: Music of the Spheres (DG)

Pekka Kuusisto (violin), Iestyn Davies (countertenor), Sam Swallow (vocalist), Aurora Orchestra / Nicholas Collon

Mozart Symphony no.41 in C major K551 ‘Jupiter’ (1788)
Richter Journey (CP1919) (2019)
Dowland arr. Muhly Time Stands Still (1603)
Adès Violin Concerto ‘Concentric Paths’ (2005)
Bowie arr. John Barber Life on Mars? (1971)

Deutsche Grammophon 4838228 [69′]

Recorded 9 June 2019, Maida Vale Studio 1, London

Written by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

Only the Aurora Orchestra could put together an album running from Mozart to David Bowie. Yet as we have seen from their previous themed releases such as Insomnia and Road Trip, there are no gimmicks involved in their musical choices and a clear theme runs through the programming.

Music of the Spheres is no exception, beginning with Mozart’s Jupiter symphony before music from Max Richter (Journey), Dowland via Muhly (Time Stands Still) and the Violin Concerto of Thomas Adès, subtitled Concentric Paths. The soloist here is Pekka Kuusisto, while the Aurora play the Jupiter symphony entirely from memory, as they did in the BBC Proms in 2016.

What’s the music like?

There is something for everyone here. Mozart’s Jupiter symphony is his 41st and final essay in the genre, setting a new bar for the form when it was completed. While the first three movements are particularly fine it is the finale that comes in for the greatest acclamation, for its well-nigh perfect fusion of melody and counterpoint.

Richter’s Journey CP1919, is inspired by and named after the discovery of the first Pulsar star. It fits perfectly onto the tail of the Mozart, running at a slow speed and operating in C minor rather than the earlier piece’s key of C major.

By contrast Adès’ Concentric Paths operates in a wider orbit, the violin soaring at great heights over the compelling orchestral writing, which has in its spiralling strong echoes of the music of Benjamin Britten. As soloist Pekka Kuusisto has described, ‘it’s hyper-emotional music for people in an accelerating world’.

Complementing these instrumental pieces are two songs of identical length but very different form – a serene early 17th century song from Dowland and one of the best-known pop songs of the 20th century. Having heard from Jupiter and CP1919, Sam Swallow asks, to effective arranged accompaniment, is there Life On Mars?

Does it all work?

Pretty much! The Jupiter gets an athletic performance from the Aurora Orchestra – no dallying here, or lingering on expressive notes. That does mean a darkening of the slow movement, and maybe some constricted phrases, but by contrast it means an exciting first movement, a mysterious Menuetto and a lithe finale, busy and brilliantly played.

The Richter is haunting and really effective, its simplicity leaving the orchestra plenty of room to create a remote atmosphere. The songs are great too – Iestyn Davies is the perfect choice for the Dowland, with Nico Muhly’s sensitive orchestration, while Sam Swallow puts his own stamp on Life on Mars? without losing the essence of the original, which is an impressive achievement.

Yet the performance I kept coming back to was Pekka Kuusisto’s white-hot rendering of the Adès. This is terrifically difficult music to play, but he makes it sound easy even at the highest points of the violin range, and the moods range from serenity to power and even anger as the music moves relentlessly forwards. On occasion I have to admit I find Thomas Adès music hard to relate to emotionally, but this is a clear exception and the music digs deep.

Is it recommended?

Yes. The Aurora’s albums are great at bringing music of very different origins together, exposing new elements and old qualities, and it does so again here. Freshly minted Mozart and brilliantly played contemporary works, plus a good deal of imagination. What’s not to love?

Listen

Buy

You can purchase this recording from various digital outlets via the Presto website

Listening to Beethoven #12 – Piano Quartet in E flat major WoO 36/1

Painting with a hillside view of Bonn around the year 1790. Artist unknown

Piano Quartet in E flat major WoO 36/1 for piano, violin, viola and cello (1785, Beethoven aged 14)

Dedication Thought to be Elector Maximilian Friedrich
Duration 23′

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Background and Critical Reception

It is curious to note that this group of three works from 1785 mark Beethoven’s only encounter with the form of the Piano Quartet – piano, violin, viola and cello – and that he would not write any more original works for the combination in his career.

Yet, as we outlined in the C major work heard yesterday, they are important works in the young composer’s development. The E flat major work is the most adventurous, and the one to which Beethoven biographer Jan Swafford devotes most time. “In the massive Adagio assai that begins the Piano Quartet in E flat major, listeners then and later could only be stunned at the subtlety and depth of feeling, call it a certain wistful pathos, coming from a composer of age fourteen”, he writes. “This does not sound like learned rhetoric, like everything he had written before; it sounds like music from the heart. What had he experienced to arrive at such an outpouring? All that can be certain is that he had experienced his model, Mozart’s Violin Sonata in G major, K379 (which you can compare below)

Swafford writes of how “the gestures and the low, close harmonies are Mozart’s, and so is the Mozart tone: languid, seemingly suspended between conflicting emotions, peculiarly shadowed for the major mode.” He then notes how Beethoven ‘pushes every envelope’ – with directions for volume that are fortissimo rather than forte, with harmonic writing that moves to the outlandish key of E flat minor, unheard of in his day, and piano writing notable for its difficulty.

Thoughts

This is indeed remarkably profound music for a fourteen-year old to be writing. To start with a slow movement of such depth of feeling is striking to the listener with its hushed, reverent string chords and expansive rhetoric from the piano. The strings grow into the movement, making some rather beautiful harmonies together.

The second movement is even more remarkable. Not only does Beethoven use a key which was never heard in public – E flat minor – he does so with grit and determination, under the marking Allegro con spirito. The piano drives forward relentlessly, and the strings hang onto its coat tails, as though the composer wants to get somewhere quickly. The obdurate nature of the music continues the whole way through, barely letting up.

After such strife, the third movement eases off the Sturm and drang a little, for a dance-inflected tune that stays lightly on its feet. Even this turns out to be a little deceptive, however, as it is a theme and six variations that bring the strings in from the cold. Beethoven gives the second variation to a sweet triple-time variation led by the violin, while the third is unusually handed to the viola – Beethoven’s ‘second’ instrument. The fifth plunges into the minor key, with stormy reminiscences of the second movement, but then the violin takes control of a march-like finale before the piece ends rather suddenly.

Recordings used and Spotify links

Christoph Eschenbach (piano), Members of the Amadeus Quartet (Deutsche Grammophon) – tracks 1 to 3:

Anthony Goldstone (piano), Cummings String Trio (Meridian) – tracks 4 to 6:

New Zealand Piano Quartet (Naxos) – tracks 4 to 6:

The Amadeus Quartet and Christoph Eschenbach bring all the drama to the second movement, which is driven and just the right side of aggressive. Their variations might be a bit too sweetly flavoured for some, but they never lack in character.

Both the other versions are very good, too – Anthony Goldstone and the Cummings String Trio not quite as darkly shaded but still giving a passionate account, while the New Zealand Piano Quartet are particularly good in the theme and variations, with which they spend more time.

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 Haydn Symphonies: nos. 83 in G minor ‘La poule’ & no.85 in B flat major ‘La Reine’

Next up Piano Quartet in D major WoO 36/2

Routes to Beethoven – 1770: Music in the year of Beethoven’s birth

by Ben Hogwood

Picture: Beethoven’s parents, Johann van Beethoven and Maria Magdalena Keverich

The last listening exercise before diving into the music of Beethoven is to explore the music being made in the year of his birth, to try and get an idea of the temperature in Western classical music.

For Mozart, opera was key – even at the age of 14. His year began with a trip to Italy, organised by father Leopold with the aim of securing a big stage commission. That was duly achieved in Milan, at the flagship Teatro Regio Ducal (below). In December this prestigious venue became the setting for the premiere of Mozart’s first opera, Mitridate, re di Ponto. An ambitious three-act work, it has some eyecatching arias for the leading cast, virtuoso writing that established Mozart as a composer of real intent and secured a number of standing ovations at the premiere.

With the commission for Mitridate secured in January the Mozarts toured Italy for much of 1770, where Wolfgang found the time to take his symphonic canon into double figures. Don’t forget, he was still barely a teenager!

Haydn, meanwhile, an established composer in his late thirties, was beginning to flex his symphonic muscles. His Sturm und Drang period was just under way, and the innovations he would make in nearly every musical genre were beginning to take shape. 1770 was a relatively quiet year for his output, however. The symphony he completed, no.43 in E flat major, is known as the Mercure for no obvious reason. It is perhaps a more ‘polite’ piece than the minor key examples around it, but that should not be seen as a derogatory observation – it has the typical Haydn poise, guile and wit.

In London, Johann Christian Bach (Bach’s eleventh and youngest son) was impressing with his symphonies and piano concertos, and Hummel published a set of six as Op.6 in 1770. Daniel Heartz writes of how no.5 was a favourite with the public, to judge by the number of reprinting, but that the sixth in the series is impressive, with a ‘fiery middle movement’.

Meanwhile the fifth Bach son, Carl Philipp Emanuel, was adding to his enormous output too. Exact dates are harder to find for his works, though the first version of the Passion According to St Mark can definitely be said to have been completed in 1770.

Meanwhile Gluck, one of the most prominent operatic composers of the day, was occupied with the Viennese premiere of Paride ed Elena. When compared with his stage successes Orfeo ed Euridice or Iphigenie en Tauride, it has not performed well historically. Little is written about its premiere or reception, save for the relative lack of a convincing plot in the opera itself, but listening to it reveals some beautiful writing for soprano and castrato, and a Chaconne that becomes increasingly daring as it proceeds. It has been cited in a number of articles such as this one that Paride ed Elena marks a change in opera from singing to storytelling.

Elsewhere Boccherini was making a name as a prolific composer of works for strings, the most since Vivaldi – and secured for himself a prestigious role as cellist and composer to the royal court in Madrid. He would write more than 15 cello concertos and much chamber music besides.

What of the music of Bonn, where Beethoven was born in 1770? Well not much is known – or at least, not within easy reach in books or on the internet! It would be intriguing to know what was played at his baptism in St. Remigius on 17 December. Listen to the playlist below though and you will get an idea of the music circulating in what appears to have been a transitional year in European music. In many ways it was the calm before the storm.

Listen

The music of 1770 is collected in a Spotify playlist below:

 

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.