Program Notes: Beethoven Septet
Curated by Jonathan Crow, Concertmaster
Available to view February 12–March 4, 2021
- Schubert: String Trio in B-flat Major, D. 471 – Mvt. I
- Emilie LeBel: Haareis auf Morschem Holz (hair ice on rotten wood)
- Beethoven: Septet
String Trio in B-flat Major, D. 471
Born: Himmelpfortgrund, Austria, Jan 31, 1797
Died: Vienna, Austria, Nov 19, 1828
Work Composed: 1816
Haareis auf Morschem Holz (hair ice on rotten wood)
Septet in E-flat Major, Op. 20
I. Adagio – Allegro con brio
II. Adagio cantabile
III. Tempo di menuetto
IV. Tema con variazioni: Andante
V. Scherzo: Allegro molto e vivace
VI. Andante con moto alla marcia – Presto
Baptized: Bonn, Germany, Dec 17, 1770
Died: Vienna, Austria, Mar 26, 1827
Work Composed: 1799–1800
The Septet is one of Beethoven’s most popular works for large chamber ensemble. He wrote it during a fruitful period of his early professional life, active as a composer, pianist, and teacher in Vienna. There, he had come into direct contact with the city’s aristocratic circles, many of whom became friends and patrons of performances of his works. Dedicated to Empress Maria Theresia, the Septet was first performed at a private reception at the house of Prince Josef Schwarzenberg, a frequent sponsor of chamber music, on December 20, 1799. Later, on April 2, 1800, it received its first public performance at a concert for the composer’s own benefit in the Burgtheater, as one of two new works (the other was the First Symphony) on a program that also included a Mozart symphony, selections from Haydn’s Creation, and a piano concerto.
The Septet was an instant success. Indeed, it became such a hit (Beethoven arranged it also for piano, cello, and violin or clarinet, as well as for string quintet) that its enormous popularity later irked him as he sought to garner attention for his more “serious” chamber works. Nevertheless, it alone is a fine example of how the composer catered to the tastes of his aristocratic listeners while he also subtly experimented with aspects of a genre of which they were fond: the 18th-century divertimento.
Notably, Beethoven’s use of a mixed ensemble of wind and string instruments, its structure of six relatively short movements, and a tuneful, elegant musical style, draw on the divertimento tradition. As for innovations, there are several, including the Septet’s scoring for single (rather than pairs of) wind instruments, with the clarinet’s role equal to that of the violin; the inclusion of a slow introduction to both the first and final movements; and the replacement of the second minuet with a fast scherzo (fifth movement).
Beethoven’s deft combination of the instruments’ timbres, thereby creating sonic textures and blends that are interesting to the ear, is also part of the work’s appeal. In addition to their interplay, there are plenty of moments when the instruments are given the chance to individually shine. Listen, for example, for the violin and clarinet in the opening two movements; the horn in the Trio of the third movement as well as in the Scherzo; the bassoon in the second and third of five variations in the fourth movement; the cello in the Trio of the fifth movement; and the violin, in a bravura cadenza-like passage, in the finale.
Program note by Dr. Hannah Chan-Hartley
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