Two stunning works anchor our second Beethoven chamber concert: the Piano Trio No. 2 in G, op. 1 and the String Trio No. 2 “Serenade” in D, op. 8. Serving as bookends are vocal works that could not be more different in character and purpose.
The Eight Songs, op. 52, composed in 1795, are strophic settings of texts by various poets. The subject matter in the first five is love and death. The sixth is about a traveler and his marmot (a small animal, heavily built, having short legs, a short furry tail, and coarse fur). The seventh explores the wonders of flowers. And lastly, a comic song “Urian’s Journey Around the World,” where the singer travels far and wide only to discover that people are the same everywhere!
As characterized by Kai Christiansen, “the Piano Trio, op. 1, No. 2 in G major sits between its two more extroverted siblings (op. 1, Nos. 2 & 3) as a kind of gentle middle child: the most classical of the set, it sounds by turns like Haydn or Mozart but for its ambitious length and its likely role as a relaxed contrast to the others. It is one of the most serene and least disturbed works Beethoven ever wrote.”
It begins with a significant introductory Adagio that floats, delaying any kind of consequential arrival at a home key until several bars into the Allegro vivace that follows. The close of the first movement features one of Beethoven’s very first substantial codas, recalling the preceding fugato. Mozart comes immediately to mind with the second movement, a graceful, lyrical song that expands longer than the other movements in time, as well as in its mood of gentle tranquility. The following Scherzo is rather mild by Beethoven’s standards -- no fierce tempo, jarring syncopations, or cross-rhythms here. Interestingly, Beethoven writes a coda for the Scherzo extending its usually tidy, sectional form with an unusual musical postscript in an ambitious and fervent gesture. The rollicking finale is a swift rondo evoking the humor of Haydn.
The 7-movement String Trio, op. 8, subtitled “Serenade” by Beethoven himself, joins together the genre of the divertimento for string trio with the formally related eighteenth-century tradition of the serenade. It opens and closes with a march, traditional in the serenade format. It is modeled on the serenades that Mozart wrote, in that serenades were usually composed for outdoor entertainments and background music for celebratory occasions. The first and last movements’ marches provided “traveling music” for the performers at such occasions. A lyrical adagio follows, then a minuet, another adagio which contains within it two brilliant scherzos; the fifth movement “alla polacca”—i.e., a Polonaise (requiring the cellist to engage in some daring acrobatics on his instrument); an andante with variations, and the second march—a repetition of its twin at the beginning—closes this tuneful trio.
It would probably come as a surprise to learn that folksong arrangements form the largest body of choral work produced by Beethoven -- over 160 of them! Most of these are arrangements of Scottish, Irish, Welsh, and British songs. However, you will also find arrangements of Swiss, Tyrolean, Cossack, Russian, Spanish, Polish, Danish, Venetian, Swedish, Hungarian, and Portugese songs. With the exception of a tune
from Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s opera Le Devin du Village, there are no French songs; perhaps because these arrangements were made during and after the Napoleonic Wars.
The idea for these folksong arrangements came from a Scotsman named George Thomson, (1757-1851) of Edinburgh. Thomson chaired the Board of Trustees for the Encouragement of Arts and Manufacture in Scotland, an office from which he retired upon a full pension after fifty years of service. He had a distinct affinity for Scottish melody. Therefore, he engaged some of Europe’s foremost composers, including Haydn, to compose instrumental sonatas and song arrangements using Scottish melodies. In his biography of Beethoven Thayer tells us, “A very remarkable feature of the enterprise was, that the composers of the accompaniments had no knowledge of the texts, and the writers of the poetry no knowledge of the accompaniments. The poets, in many cases, had a stanza of the original song as a model for the meter and rhythm; in all others, they and the composers alike received the bare melody, with nothing to guide them in their work but Italian musical terms: allegro, moderato, andante, affetuoso, espressivo, scherzando, and the like.”
When Thomson heard about Vienna’s exceptional new composer, Beethoven, he contacted him requesting similar works. After much negotiation, Beethoven agreed to song arrangements rather than instrumental sonatas. Not surprisingly, Beethoven’s works surpassed all of Thomson’s expectations.
The publisher intended them to be performed in the home, mostly by young ladies, and the piano parts, in particular, proved to be beyond their abilities. Consequentially, these collections of songs did not sell very well, and are rarely heard. Given the sheer number of songs, and Beethoven’s refusal to simplify the arrangements any further, one can only conclude that he enjoyed composing them.
P.S. I will also be glad to fulfill your wish to harmonize the little Scottish airs; and in this matter I await a more definite proposal, since it is well known to me that Mr. Haydn was paid one pound sterling for each song. - Ludwig van Beethoven
- Ryan Turner 2010