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Octet in E flat major, Op 103

begun in Bonn in 1792 and complete early in 1793; later radically re-worked as the String Quintet in E flat major, Op 4; published posthumously

The Octet in E flat major, Op 103, originally styled 'Parthia dans un Concert', was probably written for the excellent Harmonie of Elector Maximilian Franz, Beethoven’s patron in Bonn. It seems, however, that the work was not performed in Bonn before Beethoven moved to Vienna in November 1792 to study with Haydn; in a letter of August 1793 to Simrock in Bonn, Beethoven asked his friend whether the Parthia had yet been played. The work finds a further mention in a letter dated November that year from Beethoven’s new teacher Haydn to the Elector on behalf of his pupil: ‘I am taking the liberty of sending to your Reverence in all humility a few pieces of music—a quintet, an eight-voice Parthie, an oboe concerto, a set of variations for the piano and a fugue composed by my dear pupil Beethoven who was so graciously accepted by your Reverence as evidence of his diligence beyond the scope of his own studies. On the basis of these pieces, expert and amateur alike cannot but admit that Beethoven will in time become one of the great musical artists in Europe, and I shall be proud to call myself his teacher. I only wish that he might remain with me for some time yet.’ Haydn proceeded to ask for more money for his student, explaining that Beethoven’s yearly stipend was insufficient even for basic living expenses and that he had been obliged to lend him a further 500 florins. The Elector was unimpressed; he pointed out that all the music in Haydn’s list had in fact been composed in Bonn, apart from the fugue; furthermore, Beethoven’s stipend was twice what Haydn thought it to be. In view of the lack of serious progress, the Elector wondered whether Beethoven should return to Bonn, before more debts were incurred. In fact, Beethoven stayed in Vienna but discontinued his studies with Haydn by mutual agreement and began to study with Johann Georg Albrechtsberger and Antonio Salieri, receiving no more financial assistance from the Elector.

The Octet was substantially revised in Vienna and completed in 1793. The only surviving autograph, on Viennese paper, is a working manuscript with many corrections. It was eventually published by Artaria only in 1830 and thus acquired another misleadingly late opus number. The autograph suggests that Beethoven originally intended the Rondino in E flat major, WoO25, as part of the Octet, since he began to write it on the page following the Menuetto but only got as far as writing the clef signs and the opening theme in the first horn part before abandoning the movement in favour of the Presto finale. The Octet underwent further revision in 1795 and was published as the String Quintet in E flat major, Op 4, the following year. The music itself is light yet subtle, more rough-edged and abrupt in character than Mozart. Despite its title, the Menuetto is one of the earliest examples of Beethoven’s predilection for replacing the minuet with a more untamed and light-hearted scherzo. Like the Rondino, the Octet is notable for its high-flying, virtuoso writing for the horns, an instrument for which he had clearly established an early understanding. Arpeggios were something of a second horn visiting card and feature dramatically towards the end of the opening movement. This kind of writing is typical of the figures illustrated in such tutors of the period as Heinrich Domnich’s Méthode de Premier et de Second Cor of 1808. Composers and arrangers of Harmoniemusik variously allocated the principal voice to oboe or clarinet; in the Octet the oboe takes the lead in the first three movements, partnering the bassoon in an operatic duet in the Andante; the ensemble colour changes abruptly when a virtuoso clarinet is unleashed to lead the Finale.

from notes by Colin Lawson © 2017


The Classical Harmonie
CDH55037Archive Service


Movement 1: Allegro
Track 9 on CDH55037 [7'41] Archive Service
Movement 2: Andante
Track 10 on CDH55037 [5'48] Archive Service
Movement 3: Menuetto: Allegro
Track 11 on CDH55037 [3'40] Archive Service
Movement 4: Finale: Presto
Track 12 on CDH55037 [3'57] Archive Service

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