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ClassicsOnline Home » BEETHOVEN: Chamber Music for Horns, Winds and Strings
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Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 - 1827)
Septet in E Flat Major, for violin, viola, cello, double bass, clarinet, horn and bassoon, Op. 20
Quintet in E Flat Major for three horns, oboe and bassoon, H.19
Sextet in E Flat Major for two horns and string quartet, Op. 81b
In 1792 Beethoven left his native city of Bonn to seek his fortune in the imperial capital, Vienna. Five years earlier his patron, the Archbishop of Cologne, a scion of the imperial family, had sent him to Vienna, where he had hoped to have lessons with Mozart. His plans were frustrated by the illness and subsequent death of his mother, which made it necessary to return to Bonn and before long to take charge of the welfare of his younger brothers. Beethoven's father, overshadowed by the eminence of his own father, Kapellmeister to a former Archbishop, had proved inadequate both as a musician and in the family, of which his son now took control.
As a boy Beethoven had been trained to continue family tradition as a musician and had followed his father and grandfather as a member of the archiepiscopal musical establishment. In 1792 he arrived in Vienna with introductions to various members of the nobility and with the offer of lessons with Haydn, from whom he later claimed to have learned nothing. There were further lessons from the Court Composer, Antonio Salieri, and from Johann Georg Albrechtsberger, and an initial career of some brilliance as a keyboard virtuoso. He was to establish himself, in the course of time, as a figure of remarkable genius and originality and as a social eccentric, no respecter of persons, his eccentricity all the greater for his increasing deafness. This last disability made public performance, whether as a keyboard-player or in the direction of his own music, increasingly difficult, and must have served to encourage the development of one particular facet of his music, stigmatised by hostile contemporary critics as "learned", the use of counterpoint. He died in Vienna in 1827.
Beethoven's Septet in E flat major, Opus 20, for violin, viola, cello, double bass, clarinet, horn and bassoon, was completed in 1800 and played at a private reception at the house of Prince Schwarzenberg. On 2nd April it was included in a public concert for the composer's benefit given at the Royal Imperial Court Theatre by the Burg. The programme on that occasion included a symphony by Mozart, an aria and a duet from Haydn's Creation, an improvisation by Beethoven, a piano concerto and a new symphony by him and the Septet, which was dedicated to the Empress Maria Theresia, second wife of the Emperor Franz II. The players were Schuppanzigh, Schreiber, Schindlecker, Bär, Nickel, Matauschek and Dietzel, the first of these well known for his connection with Beethoven. The concert brought its difficulties and a contemporary critic had little good to say about the theatre orchestra, which refused to play under Wranitzky, as Beethoven wanted, and seemingly made a poor showing. No such criticism could be levelled against the performance of the Septet.
In the years following the Septet became enormously and embarrassingly popular. Beethoven made an arrangement of it for piano, cello and violin or clarinet for his doctor, Johann Adam Schmidt, and a string quintet version was issued by the publisher Hoffmeister. Other transcriptions appeared, authorised or not, and Beethoven is said to have come to dislike the work. The first movement opens with a slow introduction followed by a tripartite sonata-form Allegro, in which strings and wind instruments are skilfully combined. The clarinet is allowed the first statement of the main theme of the following A flat major Adagio, a theme taken up by the violin. Secondary material and a development of the themes already heard is followed by a return to the principal theme in the original key. The familiar theme of the third movement Minuet was also used in the Piano Sonata, Opus 49, No.2. It is begun by the violin, while the Trio allows clarinet and, for a moment, the horn, an accompanying figuration in triplets. The theme of the five variations of the fourth movement has been identified as a Rhineland folk-song Ach Schiffer, lieber Schiffer, although its later publication in a folk-song collection may simply be a reflection of Beethoven's very popular composition. The B flat major theme is varied first by the strings, joined vestigially by clarinet and bassoon in a second variation where the burden falls on the violin. It is clarinet and bassoon that start the third variation, while rapid violin and viola figuration accompanies the horn, then clarinet and bassoon dominate the fourth minor key variation, accompanied by the plucked strings of cello and double bass. The strings introduce the final variation, followed by a coda. The fifth movement is a rapid Scherzo, with a contrasting Trio for bassoon and strings that gives prominence to the cello. The Septet ends with a very solemn march that soon turns to other things, as violin and cello introduce a final Presto. Here a principal theme leads to secondary material, a development section and a violin cadenza, before the return of the first subject and a recapitulation capped by a cheerful coda.
Beethoven's Quintet in E flat major, Hess 19, for three horns, oboe and bassoon, was apparently completed in 1796 or 1797, a period when he showed a particular interest in wind instruments. It is thought that the work was started before 1793. The Quintet only survives in fragmentary form. The autograph of the first movement lacks its exposition, starting in bar 158, towards the end of the central development section. The second movement is complete, while only nineteen bars of the Minuet are preserved. Presumably the work would have included at least one more movement. The first movement has been reconstructed and was first played in a reconstructed form by Zellner in 1862, while the work was edited and first published by Willy Hess. The first movement is in the expected tripartite form. The exposition, of course, could be reconstructed with some certainty, while the development makes skilful use of the surviving material before the original recapitulation. The slow movement opens with a moving theme, over a descending bass figure of some poignancy. The Minuet is largely a reconstruction. It opens cheerfully with figuration based on the arpeggio and characteristic treatment of the horns.
The Sextet in E flat major, Opus 81b, for two horns and string quartet, was written in 1794 and 1795. It was published by Simrock in 1810, the year of publication by Breitkopf of the other wind sextet, for pairs of clarinets, bassoons and horns. It is a work of very considerable charm which makes very considerable demands on the wind-players in music that gives them prominence. The first movement is in the expected form and is followed by a slow movement in which the principal theme is again entrusted first to the horns, before the strings allow them brief respite. The final Rondo again allows Beethoven to make use of figuration characteristic of the hunting- horn, before the strings take over. The principal theme intervenes between the expected contrasting episodes that make up the rondo.
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