Although it provided an early boost to his popularity at a time he most needed it, Beethoven grew to resent the success that his Septet generated following its public premiere in Vienna, April 2, 1800. He had worked hard for the concert, his first benefit concert – organizing, promoting, conducting, and playing piano in a typically huge program, with the Septet as its centerpiece. It paid off, and Beethoven is estimated to have been able to live off the proceeds for two years. A piano duo version of the Septet quickly appeared. Then Beethoven encouraged his publisher to issue arrangements for strings alone, for flute quintet, and he even made a transcription himself (his op. 38) for the very marketable, and comfortably domestic, combination of piano trio. The benefit concert at the Burgtheater presented the young Beethoven (Septet, First Symphony, a piano concerto, and piano improvisations) alongside the venerated Mozart (a symphony) and Haydn (excerpts from the newly written oratorio, The Creation). Here was Beethoven standing tall, out of the shadow of his mentors and, by implication, every bit their equal. But the very success of the genial Septet would soon raise expectations that Beethoven was unwilling to meet as his composition evolved. Conservative critics would use it as a barometer against which they would measure the challenges that his more progressive, more demanding later music would pose. Beethoven grew to despise the Septet, whose popularity has never waned. “That damned thing!” the composer told an English visitor a dozen or so years later: “I wish it were burned!”

The Septet is highly original in its one-to-a-part combination of a trio of winds and quartet of strings. Its six movements are rooted in the serenade/divertimento tradition where the winds customarily play in pairs. Here, however, there is just one clarinet, oboe, and bassoon playing individual lines with violin, viola, cello, and bass. Beethoven’s palette is similarly far from traditional, with both bassoon and cello climbing well beyond their habitual bass line support, while the bass itself has more of an orchestral rather than a doubling role. The winds generally either support the strings or work as a group and occasionally as soloists, providing contrast to the sonority of the strings. The stately introduction immediately gives notice of the importance of the violin. Its earliest performer was Ignaz Schuppanzigh, then the foremost violinist in Vienna, chosen to give the premieres of many more of Beethoven’s works in the years to come. Beethoven probably had Schuppanzigh in mind when he turned the second variation (fourth movement) into a miniature concerto, wrote some virtuoso arpeggios in the scherzo movement, and even included a brilliant cadenza for the violin in the finale. The clarinet, too, has time in the limelight, notably in the first two movements. Beethoven draws the theme of the third movement from an earlier G Major Piano Sonata (later published as op. 49, no. 2), crisping up its rhythm and adding flamboyant little displays for horn and clarinet in its central trio section.

To this point, Beethoven follows the pattern of movements of a traditional classical chamber work, and a brisk finale would normally follow. Instead, in the spirit of the serenade, he introduces a fourth movement containing a sequence of five variations on what is believed to be a German folk song, choosing a different texture for each variation. The horn sets the mood of the jaunty Scherzo, which is then introduced to balance the earlier minuet, while the cello commands its lyrical trio section. The finale opens with an imposing, slow march in the minor key. It is a moment of tongue-in-cheek humour and the solemnity is short-lived since the Presto that follows positively exudes joie de vivre. The Septet, where shared enjoyment is a hallmark of the musical language, inspired many 19th century large-scale chamber works by Spohr, Kreutzer, Moscheles, Hummel, Onslow, Berwald, and others – none more celebrated than (with the addition of a second violin) Schubert’s great Octet of 1824.

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Credit – Keith Horner

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