Piano Trio No. 4 in Bb, op. 11, “Gassenhauer-Trio”
Beethoven’s “Gassenhauer” Trio derives its name from the last movement’s melody. This well-known tune from Josef Weigl’s opera The Corsair was wildly popular with Viennese vagabonds, thus earning the nickname “Gassenhauer,” or “Street Song.” Originally written for clarinet, cello, and piano, violin sometimes substitutes for the clarinet: this version will be played today. Differences between the clarinet and optional violin part are few: descending lines in the clarinet are altered in the violin part when they would pass below its range, and some of the single notes in the clarinet part are written in double- or triple-stops for the violin.
A striking statement, in unison, of the first theme opens the “Allegro con brio.” A startling key change introduces the second theme. To continue the tonal adventure, the development begins unusually, with the second theme rather than the first. The second movement, “Adagio,” is characterized by the cello’s intimate and sentimental melodies, followed by the clarinet. The third and most famous movement takes the Weigl tune for its theme and comprises nine variations upon it. First is a piano solo; second, an unaccompanied clarinet and cello duet; third, a simple con fuoco trio. Variations four and five are minor and major renditions, respectively, of the theme. Six finds Beethoven playing with the imitation between the piano on one hand and the cello and clarinet on the other. Minor returns in the march-like seventh variation but retreats in the eighth, where quivering piano triplets sound under the melodic clarinet and cello. In the final variation, the trilling piano takes charge of a small development. A dancing 6/8 allegretto coda concludes the journey.
Quintet for Piano and Winds in Eb, op. 16
Beethoven’s debt to the music of Mozart is evident in his early works and has been analyzed in some detail by scholars of the two composers. Mozart’s Quintet K. 452, in the same key as this Beethoven quintet, was the inspiration for the structure of Beethoven’s work: a slow introduction to a sonata-form first movement, a slow second movement, and a rondo finale. That, however, is about as far as the similarities go. Where Mozart treated the five voices as equals, Beethoven has written more of a mini-concerto for piano with wind accompaniment. Beethoven admired Mozart, and had intended to study with his idol, whose death, in 1791, put an end to that plan.
Beethoven’s young friend and piano pupil Ferdinand Ries reported on a gathering at which the piano quintet was performed: “In the last Allegro a pause occurs several times before the theme returns; on one of these occasions Beethoven began to improvise, taking the Rondo as his theme, pleasing himself and those listening for a considerable time, but not pleasing the other players. They were annoyed, and the oboist even enraged. It really looked highly comical when these gentlemen, expecting the movement to be resumed at any moment, kept putting their instruments to their mouths, but then had to put them down again without playing a note. At length Beethoven was satisfied, and started up the Rondo again. The whole assembly was delighted.”
A stately fanfare in unison opens a long, grave, introduction to the quintet, in which each of the instruments speaks. The piano then launches into the “Allegro ma non troppo”, in sonata form. The contemplative “Andante cantabile” shows Beethoven’s skills in creating an inventive rondo-with-variations, the three appearances of the piano’s refrains grow increasingly ornate. The third movement, also a rondo, is based on a hunting theme, in swingy 6/8 measure.
Septet in Eb, op. 20
Many of Beethoven’s most highly esteemed compositions, especially some of the later works, were initially received with a mixture of admiration, bewilderment, and resistance. But there were also works that were truly popular or at least aimed to be so. These pieces are generally less familiar today than when they were the favorites of his contemporaries: Wellington’s Victory, the oratorio Christ on the Mount of Olives, and the Septet, op. 20.
Beethoven followed eighteenth-century serenade/divertimento tradition by writing this septet in a more easygoing style than some of his more ground-breaking works, and by including six rather than the typical four movements of a symphony or string quartet. Yet he broke with convention by using a mixture of winds and strings with one on a part—clarinet, bassoon, horn, violin, viola, cello, and bass, which allowed him great freedom to explore a variety of non-traditional soloistic and accompanimental combinations. He did give the violin a particularly prominent role, knowing it would be played by Ignaz Schuppanzigh, one of Vienna’s foremost violinists.
The first movement’s stately introduction, highlighting the first violin, begins with an elaboration of the home chord of E-flat. The violin again takes the spotlight in the fast section, with the clarinet soon following. True to serenade style, Beethoven keeps his development short and provides a regular recapitulation, but he can’t resist adding a substantial coda. The lovely slow movement gives the clarinet a starring role, though the violin soon takes up the main theme. Beethoven also allows the bassoon and horn melodic prominence later in the movement.
Serenades typically contained two minuets, but here Beethoven includes a minuet and a scherzo. He borrowed the minuet’s delightful main theme from his own Piano Sonata, op. 49, no. 2. The trio section particularly shows off the agility of both the horn and clarinet. The fourth movement, a set of five charming variations plus coda, showcases individual instruments. A rustic horn theme sets off the Scherzo, which displays a playful, almost frolicsome side of Beethoven. The trio allows the cello to shine.
The brief haze that accumulates in the slow introduction to the Finale clears immediately with the entrance of the ebullient main theme. The second theme is no less lively and Beethoven keeps contrapuntal suggestions to a minimum in the development. Two unique features precede his recapitulation—a chorale-like episode and a virtuoso violin cadenza. The brilliant coda, with more pyrotechnics for the violin, provides an effervescent conclusion to this gem and to this season’s Beethoven Chamber Series.
- Ryan Turner, 2011