Chamber masterworks by the young Beethoven
Saturday, March 26th, 2005, 8:00pm
Paul's United Church
Admission: $20 (adults), $15
(students and seniors)
Tickets available at the door, by phone at (905) 737-0748 or from Ossia members
Quintet in Eb Op.
16 for fortepiano, oboe, clarinet, horn and bassoon
in G minor Op. 5 No. 2 for fortepiano and cello
Septet in Eb Op. 20
for clarinet, horn, bassoon, violin, viola, cello and bass
“It is undeniable that Herr Beethoven
goes his own way; but what a bizarre and painful way it is!”
“Whoever sees Beethoven for the
first time and knows nothing about him would surely take him for a malicious,
ill-natured and quarrelsome drunkard who has no feeling for music…”
“Keep your eyes on him; some day
he will give the world something to talk about.”
By the late 1790s, the young Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) was well established in the musical life of Vienna, having moved there from his native Bonn in 1793. As well known for being obstreperous and obnoxious as for his musical talents, his name was made first as a virtuoso pianist (renowned in particular for his improvising exhibitions and duels, a popular spectator sport of the time), but early on his reputation as a composer began to blossom. Of the music written in this period he later claimed “At that time I had no idea how to compose.” He may not yet have found his mature voice - he was modest enough to continue lessons in composition with Antonio Salieri until 1802, for example - but we recognise in Beethoven’s early music the same genius as in his later works, albeit in a lighter form. His writing for wind instruments in particular is dominated more by a buoyant and genial spirit than by angst, by melody rather than by motivic development. The quirkiness and instant about-faces that so distinguish Beethoven’s music led at the time to it being labelled “unnatural” (hence the quote from the reviewer, above); two centuries later it doesn’t seem so odd.
The Quintet Op. 16 for fortepiano, oboe, clarinet, bassoon and horn dates from 1796, when Beethoven, at 26, was just two years younger - albeit considerably less advanced in musical development - than Mozart when the latter wrote his pioneering Quintet K. 452 for the same instrumental combination. Beethoven’s Quintet was unabashedly inspired by Mozart’s; both works share the same key and movement structure, though in contrast, while Mozart’s Quintet is a model of restraint and balance, Beethoven’s is more progressive in musical style and has a more extroverted piano part, though somewhat simpler wind writing. The debt to Mozart is extended by the fact that the theme of the slow movement of Op. 16 is based on the aria “Batti, batti” from Don Giovanni.
Beethoven’s student Ferdinand Ries reported that in one performance of the Quintet, Beethoven at one point in the Finale without warning launched into an extended improvisation, to the consternation and annoyance of the wind players. We are reasonably confident that this will not occur in our performance this evening…
In 1796 Beethoven left his adopted home of Vienna and embarked on a concert tour which included a lengthy stay in Berlin. There he was introduced to King Friedrich Wilhelm II, a great patron of music and an enthusiastic amateur cellist. It was during this sojourn that Beethoven composed, and dedicated to the King, the two Sonatas Op. 5.
In these works, the first two of Beethoven’s five sonatas for cello and piano - the others being Op. 69 of 1809 and the Op. 102 pair from 1815 - he virtually invented the genre of the cello sonata, by solving the problem of achieving an equal partnership between the instruments, and by using the cello in innovative musical ways which went far beyond its Baroque function as a player of the bass line. The cantabile side of the cello’s character is especially explored. In Op. 5 No. 2, which is in the key of G minor - significantly, Mozart’s most emotionally charged tonality - intense passion is followed by playful jollity, all conceived on a grand scale as befits its dedication to a monarch.
One of the most enduringly popular of Beethoven's compositions dating from the turn of the 19th century was the Septet Op. 20 for clarinet, bassoon, horn, violin, viola, cello and bass. It was first performed in April 1800, on the same concert programme as the Symphony No. 1. Its accessibility and instant acceptance led to it becoming the prototype of later suites for similar instrumentation by Schubert, Lachner and others throughout the subsequent century. Full of joy and singable tunes, the Sextet was praised by the press on its debut as being written “with so much taste and imagination”; while the author of the Beethoven article in Grove's Dictionary may damn it as "amiable but rather mindless" (perhaps because it carries no social manifesto?!), countless other musical works would count themselves lucky to be so mindless.
Beethoven’s career witnessed the evolution of the piano from the Classical fortepiano to instruments recognisably on the path towards modern pianos. The fortepiano of the 1780s and 90s, as built by numerous makers in Vienna and South Germany, had a small range of normally five octaves (FF to f’’’), and either knee levers or hand stops instead of pedals to raise the dampers and to apply muting. A lightweight wooden frame with consequent low string tension, leather covered hammers, and light, simple, direct action combined to produce an incisive, percussive sound with little volume or sustaining power, and a touch that encouraged subtle articulation. In this concert we use a modern reproduction by Thomas and Barbara Wolfe of a Viennese fortepiano by the Schanz brothers, ca. 1790. The development of this instrument into pianos of a recognizably modern type, which began shortly before 1800, was paralleled by a fundamental change in the way it was played, with the earlier, mostly separated, harpsichord-influenced approach being replaced by a dominantly legato style. (Only a couple of decades after Mozart’s heyday, Beethoven asserted that Mozart “used a technique entirely unsuited to the piano”.)
Woodwind instruments of the Classical period were built according the dictum that keys and pads were a regrettable necessity to be avoided if at all possible, being unreliable and detrimental to the tone, and consequently a were equipped with a minimum of keys. The poor or idiosyncratic notes which inevitably resulted were either carefully avoided by composers, or regarded as part of the character of the instrument. To provide the flexibility to deal with unevenness of the scale, a much lighter, more subtle playing approach was employed compared with the present day. As with keyboard and string instruments, playing style emphasized articulation rather than long legato lines. (The rapidity of the mechanical revolution in woodwinds which occurred after 1800 can be judged from the fact that the saxophone was patented only 55 years after Mozart’s death.)
The clarinet of the Classical period was made of boxwood, with normally five simple brass keys with flat, square leather pads. The mouthpiece was also of wood, and it and the reed were considerably smaller than their modern counterparts. A much lighter, more subtle playing approach was employed compared with the present day, to provide the flexibility to deal with uneven response and some very difficult notes (notably C# and Eb in the low register, which were wisely avoided whenever possible by composers, and low B natural, which unfortunately was not!). As with the piano and string instruments, playing style emphasised articulation rather than slurring. The clarinet employed here is a reproduction, built by the performer, of an original by Theodor Lotz, woodwind instrument maker to the Imperial court in Vienna in the 1780s.
The oboe was also made of boxwood, with usually only two keys; a larger reed compared with the modern style, and some differences in bore shape, produce a darker tone more similar to the modern Viennese oboe than to the familiar French type. The bassoon of Mozart’s era had a minimum of four keys, sometimes a few more; a larger reed than used now, and significant differences in the bore shape, account for the veiled sound quality, more akin to the modern French bassoon than to the elsewhere ubiquitous Heckel type.
The natural horn, or hand horn, or Waldhorn, was the horn used in orchestras and chamber ensembles through the Classical period. It achieved a full chromatic scale by means of interchangeable crooks and the complex, difficult technique of hand stopping, which gave it a tone quality which frequently varied dramatically from note to note; in general the sound was more veiled and less brassy than with a modern horn. The invention of valves in the early 19th century was controversial; while some players and composers welcomed the much easier technique, greater freedom of modulation, greater power and more homogeneous tone of the new valve horn, others decried the loss of the distinctive sound and character of the natural horn.
The fundamental design of the bodies
of stringed instruments had reached its current state by the late 17th
century; subsequent development took place in the areas of the neck and
fingerboard, the strings and the bow. The Classical period and the
early 19th century were a time of transition, during which were fitted
and heavier soundposts and bass bars. At the same time, the short,
highly arched Baroque bow gave way first to a “transitional” bow and then
to the modern style, Tourte pattern bow, with its longer, stronger, concave
stick and wider, tighter, more readily adjusted bowhair. The holding
position of the bow changed correspondingly. All of this led to an
evolution in the idioms of bowing, articulation and musical expression,
the emphasis switching from delicate articulation to smooth legato, and
more power and projection. Strings until into the 20th century remained
a combination (with many regional differences) of plain gut, twisted gut
or - for the larger strings - gut core with silver or copper winding.
In this performance a cello of the Baroque model is used, with gut strings
and a Classical bow. The cello endpin did not enter general use until
the mid 19th century.
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