Janine Jansen and friends perform Ludwig van Beethoven’s Septet in E-flat major for clarinet, horn, bassoon, violin, viola, cello, and double bass, Op. 20. Recorded during Janine Jansen’s International Chamber Music Festival Utrecht (Internationaal Kamermuziek Festival Utrecht) 2011.
- Janine Jansen, violin
- Dana Zemtsov, viola
- Jens Peter Maintz, cello
- Stacey Watton, double bass
- Martin Fröst, clarinet
- Jasper de Waal, horn
- Fredrik Ekdahl, bassoon
Ludwig van Beethoven’s Septet in E-flat major
Ludwig van Beethoven’s Septet in E-flat major, Op. 20, is a chamber music masterpiece that embodies the classical virtues of clarity, balance, and proportion while also hinting at the emotive depth and innovation that would characterize Beethoven’s later works. Composed in 1799 and first performed in 1800, the Septet was one of Beethoven’s most popular compositions during his lifetime, appealing to both the connoisseurs of the day and the wider public. Its success can be attributed to its engaging melodies, inventive harmonies, and the rich interplay between the seven instruments.
The Septet is scored for a mixed ensemble of strings and winds-violin, viola, cello, double bass, clarinet, bassoon, and horn-making it distinctive in Beethoven’s chamber music repertoire. This instrumentation allows for a colorful palette of timbres and textures, which Beethoven exploits with great skill. The work is often noted for its Classical elegance and structural balance, drawing inspiration from the 18th-century serenade and divertimento traditions, yet it also pushes boundaries in terms of form and harmonic exploration, foreshadowing the Romantic era.
Beethoven’s use of the septet ensemble was innovative for its time, as it was not a standard chamber music grouping. The combination of wind and string instruments allowed him to explore new sonorities and textures, blending the clear, singing tones of the strings with the expressive, varied colors of the winds. This instrumentation also enabled Beethoven to create intricate contrapuntal dialogues and rich harmonic landscapes that were uncommon in the chamber music of his predecessors.
The work’s popularity led to numerous arrangements, including one for clarinet, cello, and piano by Beethoven himself, which helped to further disseminate the Septet’s themes and melodies. Despite its initial success, Beethoven’s later ambivalence towards the Septet, possibly due to its classical restraint and popularity overshadowing his more ambitious works, reflects the composer’s evolving artistic vision. Nonetheless, the Septet remains a key work in the chamber music canon, offering insights into the transitional period of Beethoven’s career where the elegance of the Classical era meets the expressive depth of Romanticism.
1. Adagio – Allegro con brio
The first movement of Beethoven’s Septet in E-flat major, Op. 20, is marked as “Adagio – Allegro con brio” and serves as a compelling introduction to the entire work. This movement embodies a dual structure, beginning with a slow, grand introduction (Adagio) that sets a solemn and anticipatory mood, leading into the main body of the movement (Allegro con brio), which is lively and full of energy.
The Adagio section opens with a majestic theme, introducing the listener to the rich, sonorous quality of the ensemble. Beethoven uses this section to establish the harmonic foundation of the movement and to showcase the individual colors of the instruments through solo passages and intricate interplay. This part of the movement, though brief, is essential for setting the stage for what is to come, creating a sense of expectation and suspense.
Transitioning into the Allegro con brio, Beethoven employs a swift change in tempo and mood. The main theme of this section is introduced by the violin and quickly taken up by the rest of the ensemble, leading to lively and spirited exchanges between the instruments. The Allegro con brio is characterized by its rhythmic vitality and the clarity of its thematic development. Beethoven demonstrates his skill in counterpoint and thematic variation, weaving the main theme through the texture of the ensemble in various guises.
Throughout the Allegro con brio, Beethoven explores a range of dynamics, articulations, and harmonic progressions, adding depth and contrast to the movement. The development section sees the composer playing with the main theme, modulating through different keys, and creating tension that is ultimately resolved in the recapitulation. Here, the main theme returns to its original form but is enriched by the journey it has undergone, leading to a triumphant and satisfying conclusion.
This movement, with its blend of solemnity and exuberance, sets the tone for the Septet as a whole. It showcases Beethoven’s ability to balance classical form with his own innovative ideas, creating music that is both engaging and profound. The first movement, in particular, demonstrates the composer’s mastery of orchestration, allowing each instrument to shine while contributing to the overall texture and coherence of the ensemble.
2. Adagio cantabile
The second movement of Beethoven’s Septet in E-flat major, Op. 20, is marked “Adagio cantabile” and offers a striking contrast to the energetic and dynamic first movement. This movement unfolds as a serene and lyrical song, showcasing Beethoven’s gift for melody and his deep understanding of the expressive capabilities of each instrument in the ensemble.
“Adagio cantabile” is characterized by its beautiful, flowing melodies and the warm, rich harmonies that support them. The movement opens with a tender and expressive theme introduced by the violin, which is then passed and elaborated upon by the other instruments, creating a dialogue that is both intimate and expansive. The clarinet and horn, in particular, are given moments to shine, their voices adding color and depth to the texture.
Beethoven’s use of variation in this movement is noteworthy. Rather than presenting a straightforward theme and variations, he weaves the variations into the fabric of the movement, subtly altering the melody and harmony to explore different emotional landscapes. This approach allows the music to evolve organically, with each variation flowing naturally into the next, building a complex and nuanced emotional narrative.
The overall mood of the “Adagio cantabile” is one of peaceful contemplation and tender expression. Beethoven’s mastery of dynamics and phrasing is evident here, as he crafts lines that breathe and ebb, drawing the listener into a deeply personal and reflective space. The movement is structured to provide moments of introspection and gentle beauty, creating a sense of timelessness and tranquility.
Despite its calm demeanor, the movement is rich in harmonic subtleties and contrapuntal interplay, demonstrating Beethoven’s skill in creating intricate musical textures even within a seemingly simple framework. The “Adagio cantabile” serves as a testament to the composer’s ability to convey profound emotions through music, providing a moment of respite and reflection in the midst of the larger work.
3. Tempo di menuetto
The third movement of Beethoven’s Septet in E-flat major, Op. 20, is labeled “Tempo di Menuetto & Trio.” This movement harkens back to the classical tradition of including a minuet within a multi-movement work, though Beethoven infuses it with his unique creativity and dynamism, elevating the conventional dance form to new heights of expression and complexity.
The “Tempo di Menuetto” is not a mere dance piece but a sophisticated musical statement that balances elegance and wit. Beethoven adheres to the traditional triple meter characteristic of the minuet but enriches it with harmonic innovations and rhythmic subtleties that reflect his distinctive voice. The main section of the minuet is graceful and poised, featuring a melody that is both charming and dignified, with the ensemble providing a delicate and well-balanced accompaniment.
Following the classical structure, the minuet is followed by a trio section, which traditionally provides a contrast in texture, mood, or instrumentation. Beethoven’s trio in this Septet is no exception; it offers a change of atmosphere that complements the minuet. The trio typically presents a more relaxed and lyrical theme, allowing different instruments within the ensemble to come to the foreground and showcase their individual timbres and expressive capabilities.
After the trio, the minuet returns, creating a rounded binary form (A-B-A) that was typical for movements of this type. This return to the minuet material allows for the reiteration of its themes and the reinforcement of the movement’s elegant character, while also providing a sense of formal balance and closure to the movement as a whole.
Beethoven’s treatment of the minuet and trio in the Septet demonstrates his respect for classical forms while also pushing their boundaries. By incorporating his innovative harmonic language, rhythmic complexity, and intricate interplay between the instruments, he transforms what could have been a simple dance movement into a rich and multifaceted musical exploration.
4. Tema con variazioni: Andante
The fourth movement of Beethoven’s Septet in E-flat major, Op. 20, marked “Tema con Variazioni: Andante,” showcases Beethoven’s inventive and masterful approach to the theme and variations form. This movement is built around a simple, elegant theme that serves as the foundation for a series of variations, each of which explores different aspects of the theme’s character and potential for development.
The initial theme is presented in a clear, straightforward manner, allowing its melodic and harmonic qualities to establish a baseline from which the variations will diverge. This theme is characterized by its lyrical simplicity and clarity, setting the stage for the imaginative transformations it will undergo.
As the movement progresses through its variations, Beethoven employs a wide range of techniques to modify the theme. These include changes in instrumentation, rhythm, harmony, and texture, demonstrating not only the versatility of the theme itself but also Beethoven’s creative genius in reimagining it in numerous guises. Each variation brings a new character and mood, ranging from playful and light-hearted to more introspective and dramatic.
One of the remarkable aspects of this movement is how Beethoven manipulates the timbral and expressive capabilities of the ensemble. By assigning different variations to different instruments or groups of instruments, he highlights the unique colors and voices within the septet, creating a rich tapestry of sound. This approach also allows for moments of virtuosity and showcases the individual talents of the players.
The variations build upon each other, creating a cumulative effect where the complexity and emotional depth increase. However, Beethoven ensures that the underlying theme remains recognizable throughout, serving as a unifying thread that ties the movement together. This balance between variation and cohesion is a hallmark of Beethoven’s approach to the theme and variations form, demonstrating his ability to maintain structural integrity while offering a wide range of expressive possibilities.
The “Tema con Variazioni: Andante” culminates in a variation that feels both conclusive and transformative, effectively summarizing the journey that the theme has undergone. The movement then concludes with a coda that provides a sense of closure, returning to the spirit of the original theme while also reflecting the development it has experienced.
5. Scherzo: Allegro molto e vivace
The fifth movement of Beethoven’s Septet in E-flat major, Op. 20, is marked “Scherzo: Allegro molto e vivace.” This movement stands out for its energetic and rhythmic vitality, embodying the spirit of the scherzo, which Beethoven elevated from a light-hearted musical joke to a dynamic and integral part of his compositions. The scherzo, replacing the traditional minuet in many of Beethoven’s works, allowed him to explore more dramatic contrasts and innovative textures.
“Scherzo: Allegro molto e vivace” is characterized by its brisk tempo and lively rhythm, immediately capturing the listener’s attention with its spirited opening. The movement is built on a rhythmic motif that is both playful and insistent, driving the music forward with a sense of unstoppable energy. This rhythmic foundation supports a series of themes that are at once catchy and complex, showcasing Beethoven’s ability to weave together melody and rhythm in a way that is both engaging and intellectually satisfying.
The structure of the scherzo typically includes a trio section, which provides a contrast to the main scherzo theme. In this Septet, the trio offers a moment of relative calm and lyrical beauty, creating a dynamic interplay between the more robust, energetic sections and this more serene, melodic passage. The contrast between the scherzo and the trio highlights Beethoven’s mastery of mood and texture, as he skillfully balances intensity and subtlety within the movement.
After the trio, the return to the scherzo theme is marked by a renewed vigor, as Beethoven reintroduces the main motif with even greater force and complexity. This recapitulation serves to reinforce the themes and rhythmic drive of the movement, culminating in a thrilling and exuberant finale.
Beethoven’s use of the scherzo in the Septet exemplifies his innovative approach to musical form and his ability to infuse traditional structures with new life and energy. The “Scherzo: Allegro molto e vivace” is not merely a diversion but a central component of the work’s overall architecture, reflecting the composer’s evolving artistic vision and his influence on the development of the scherzo as a key element of the symphonic and chamber music repertoire.
Through this movement, Beethoven demonstrates the expressive possibilities of the scherzo, blending wit, vitality, and complexity to create a piece that is both exhilarating and deeply satisfying. The “Scherzo: Allegro molto e vivace” is a testament to Beethoven’s genius, showcasing his ability to push the boundaries of form and expression in service of a dynamic and compelling musical experience.
6. Andante con moto alla marcia – Presto
The finale of Beethoven’s Septet in E-flat major, Op. 20, is marked “Andante con moto alla marcia – Presto.” This movement is notable for its march-like character in the opening section, followed by a rapid and spirited Presto, showcasing Beethoven’s skill in contrasting moods and tempos within a single movement.
The “Andante con moto alla marcia” section begins with a stately, march-like theme that conveys a sense of solemnity and dignity. This march theme is characterized by its steady rhythm and noble melody, which Beethoven develops through variations in dynamics, articulation, and instrumentation. The use of the ensemble in this section is masterful, with Beethoven creating a rich tapestry of sound that highlights the individual colors of the instruments while maintaining the cohesive unity of the group. The march proceeds with a deliberate pace, building in intensity through the interplay of the various musical lines and the gradual expansion of harmonic language.
Following the Andante con moto alla marcia, Beethoven transitions into the Presto section, which serves as a vivid contrast to the preceding march. The Presto is marked by its rapid tempo and energetic character, filled with lively rhythms and virtuosic passages for the instruments. This section is characterized by its brilliance and agility, with themes that dart and weave through the ensemble, creating a sense of exhilaration and joyous abandon.
The transition from the solemnity of the march to the exuberance of the Presto is a testament to Beethoven’s ingenuity in structuring his compositions. He effectively uses the contrast between these sections to create a dynamic and engaging narrative within the movement, showcasing his ability to evoke a wide range of emotions and characters through his music.
The Presto culminates in a thrilling finale, with the ensemble coming together in a display of technical prowess and musical unity. The rapid-fire themes and intricate counterpoint underscore the virtuosity required of the performers, while the overall effect is one of jubilant celebration.
In the “Andante con moto alla marcia – Presto,” Beethoven demonstrates his mastery of form and his innovative approach to combining different musical elements. This movement, with its blend of solemn march and vivacious Presto, reflects the composer’s ability to traverse emotional landscapes with ease and conviction, offering listeners a rich and varied musical experience that is both thought-provoking and exhilarating.
- Septet in E-flat major, Op.20 (Beethoven, Ludwig van) on the International Music Score Library Project website
- Septet (Beethoven) on Wikipedia
- Schumann: Piano Concerto [Martha Argerich, Zubin Mehta] - February 18, 2024
- Schubert: Arpeggione Sonata [Božo Paradžik, Mira Wollmann] - February 17, 2024
- C.P.E. Bach: Flute Concerto in D minor, Wq. 22 [Andras Adorján, Bach Collegium München] - February 16, 2024