Beethoven at the Blackfriars

Beethoven at the Blackfriars

August 22 at 11:00 am
Blackfriars Playhouse

Program Notes

Before Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) felt confident enough to step onto the public stage with a first symphony—the genre long dominated by Haydn—he dutifully cut his teeth with smaller chamber works, such as sonatas for violin or cello, piano trios, and string quartets. That first symphony would eventually come to fruition, appearing at Beethoven’s first benefit concert held in April 1800. The marathon event also included an early piano concerto, piano improvisations, arias by Haydn, a Mozart symphony, and more! Beethoven never made much money from such events, but the music on the program certainly helped him secure private financial backers.

One particular work from that concert would become Beethoven’s calling card for years to come, much to his chagrin: the hugely successful Septet in E-flat for Winds and Strings, Op. 20 (1799-1800). Creative artists are always suspicious of works that succeed with the public. But a divertimento like this, especially with winds included, was generally regarded as less serious than a formal concert work or opera. And Beethoven really wanted to establish himself as a serious composer, stepping out from the intimate salons onto the public stage. He would have been upset that the Septet made a stronger impression than the symphony and concerto on that benefit concert. On the other hand, a popular work means money from publication (which followed in 1802), high-profile dedication (to Empress Maria Theresa), arrangements for domestic consumption (several appeared in 1803), and subsequent commissions. Despite his grandstanding and later dismissal of the Septet, Beethoven was never one to look askance at solid income.

At nearly 45 minutes, Beethoven’s Septet embraces the dimensions of a substantial symphony; his own Eroica in the same key, the longest symphony of its day, is just barely longer. The six movements recall an older tradition of serenades, and nearly every listener can find something to enjoy: from the gentle Adagio to the brusque Minuet, from the Theme and Variations all the way to the March finale. Walt Whitman celebrated the Septet as presenting “nature laughing on a hillside in sunshine.” The luminous, clear texture will remind many of Mozart. Indeed, at this early stage in his career, it seemed as if Beethoven would carry forward the mantle of the dear-departed master. Of course, events would soon carry Beethoven down a very different path. This Septet may have been one of the last works he heard in performance with his full hearing.

The Septet’s scoring partly explains its success. No other classical-era work for seven chamber instruments can rival Beethoven’s. Apart from the number of instruments, the Septet is importantly scored for seven different instruments: one each of violin, viola, cello, double bass, clarinet, bassoon, and horn. No doubling; every voice distinct, audible, and unique. It brings together in one work several outstanding features from other well-known chamber masterpieces. For instance, Mozart’s great Clarinet Quintet K. 581 showed just how wonderfully that instrument can fulfill a leading melodic role. In his Septet, Beethoven deftly divides the first movement’s main theme between violin and clarinet. Consider also the role of the double bass. By taking the main harmonic action at the bottom of the texture, the bass liberates middle-range instruments (such as cello and bassoon) to realize their own melodic ambitions. A similar strategy works to great effect in Schubert’s beloved “Trout” Quintet.

The following slow movement offers a complete contrast in its languorous opening section, which moves from A-flat major to E-flat major. Beethoven opens the door to a new section in C major simply by harping on a shared pitch, G (common to both C major and the previous E-flat). The return journey from C to A-flat is more dramatic and drawn out, leading to a reprise of the main theme in the home key, decorated with active string accompaniment.

The bustling Minuet, with its signature tick-tock accompaniment in viola, brushes aside the reverential mood of the previous movement. It displays all the posturing and ceremony that contemporary audiences would have associated with the Minuet, which was a rather formal court dance. To our ears, it may remind us of similar Minuets in Beethoven’s early symphonies and piano sonatas. Indeed, this movement represents a very atypical case of self-borrowing on Beethoven’s part. He had already used this material in his Piano Sonata in G Major, Op. 49 No. 2, written several years before the Septet but not published until 1805.

More than anywhere else, theme and variations form offered a concise resumé of any composer’s skill; it was a chance to sample styles and techniques in à la carte fashion. Variation 1 is a string trio, reminding everyone that Beethoven had already composed five such trios. Variation 2 unfolds from the first violin, while the horn player is given a rest during this and the following canonic variation (no. 3). The requisite minor-mode variation (no. 4) starts with long-breathed phrases in horn and paired clarinet-bassoon. The short coda echoes both the theme and tick-tock accompaniment of the earlier Minuet, though Beethoven can’t resist the chance to insert surprising chromaticism and mincing rhythmic gestures for a tongue-in-cheek, comic finish.

Beethoven eschews a second Minuet for a brilliant Scherzo, arguably the finest he wrote before the Eroica. The main section tumbles out first as a horn call motive, which will become the clear marker for each subsequent thematic return. Punctuated figures are balanced by rapid violin tremolos that range from low to very high register. In the central Trio section, Beethoven lets the cello take the lead in a reduced quintet texture. The horn rests momentarily, biding its time until called upon, once again, to usher in the main theme.

The Septet’s Finale moved Whitman to rapture. A tragic slow introduction gives way to a wonderfully eclectic main theme. It starts as a slightly raucous duet for violin and cello. The horn, as if asleep at the wheel, snaps to attention by playing the very same horn-call figure it used to such good effect in the previous movement, though here it merely sets the violin off into cadenza-like flourishes. (In fact, an actual cadenza is coming during the development.) Beethoven’s comic strategy culminates in the violin’s rush to high B-flat and precipitous drop through several octaves. The earnest development leads to a solo cadenza and return of the main theme. But again the eager horn steals the lead with a suddenly quiet, minor-mode version of its “call” motive, upon which Beethoven redirects the harmonic motion to keep it solidly within the home key. Home, indeed, is not far off now, and a short coda brings the whole Septet to a rousing conclusion.

© Jason Stell, 2021