The Essential Hyperion, Vol. 2
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Movement 1: Adagio – Allegro con brio
Movement 2: Adagio cantabile
Movement 3: Tempo di Minuetto
Movement 4: Tema con Variazioni: Andante
Movement 5: Scherzo: Allegro molto e vivace
Movement 6: Andante con moto alla Marcia – Presto
In its own way, the septet was as much a novelty when it first appeared as these overtly revolutionary works. It was written in the winter of 1799/1800, and was given its premiere at the first of Beethoven’s benefit concerts, in the Burgtheater on 2 April 1800. The concert also included the first performance of the Symphony No 1, a piano concerto and an improvisation by the composer, as well as music by Haydn and Mozart. The septet was published by Hoffmeister in Leipzig in 1802 and was an immediate and lasting success. The work conforms to the serenade/divertimento tradition in its architecture: there are six movements, the standard four of the late-Classical sonata or symphony, a set of variations on a popular tune (the Rhineland song ‘Ach Schiffer, lieber Schiffer’), and a scherzo marked Allegro molto e vivace. The practice of framing a central movement with two minuet-like movements was well established at the time and is found in Mozart’s serenades, as is the idea of making the second faster and more scherzo-like than the first. Beethoven increased the sense of symmetry by giving the first movement a grand and expansive slow introduction – a device that had originated in the symphony and was still uncommon in chamber music – and by matching it with a slow introduction to the final Presto.
In matters of scoring, however, Beethoven broke entirely new ground. In eighteenth-century serenades wind instruments usually come in pairs, like animals in the Ark, but the septet only has a single clarinet, horn and bassoon. Indeed, there is only one of each instrument, since the ‘string quartet’ consists of violin, viola, cello and double bass – the latter included to lend weight to the ensemble, and because it had traditionally been a member of serenade ensembles. By this means Beethoven freed himself from using his instruments in their traditional roles: the bassoon rarely plays the bass, just as the cello is free to take a tenor part, or even soar into the treble clef. Also, the relationship between strings and winds is more flexible and varied than before. There is antiphonal writing between the two groups, ‘orchestral’ passages with the wind supporting the strings with held chords, florid wind solos and duets accompanied by the strings, and concerto-like passages for solo violin (written for the virtuoso player Ignaz Schuppanzigh) accompanied by the rest of the ensemble.
With its mixture of grandeur and intimacy, virtuosity and informality, Beethoven’s septet appealed enormously to his contemporaries. Indeed, its composer eventually came to resent its popularity, believing that it had overshadowed his more mature works. Arrangements of it were quickly made, for piano duet, and as Harmoniemusik. And it was imitated to the extent that a new genre of large-scale chamber music developed. The Beethoven combination was later used by, among others, Conradin Kreutzer and Berwald, and (with the addition of a second violin) by Schubert in his octet of 1824. Spohr published an octet in 1814 for clarinet, two horns, violin, two violas, cello and bass, and a nonet in the next year with a flute and oboe added to the Beethoven combination, an ensemble also used by George Onslow. By 1850 the genre had been largely superceded, though Brahms originally conceived his first orchestral serenade of 1857/8 as a nonet, and it has been revived in our own time by such works as Howard Ferguson’s octet.
from notes by Peter Holman © 1992