Spotlight on Beethoven's Septet

Beethoven’s Septet for Strings and Winds op 20 is one of the works in our Sydney Soloists concert on 7 July 2017. Beethoven wrote the Septet when he was 29 years old, it was an immediate success with enduring popularity. Some remarkable people have been associated the Septet: the role model, the composer, the performer, the younger composer, the conductor, and the manuscript buyer. Read their stories then come to the concert to hear the music that so many people have come to love and, sadly, one man came to loathe.


cool septet guys

The Role Model

It all starts with Mozart. Beethoven drew his influences for the Septet from Mozart’s Divertimento for String Trio K.563, both as a musical work and as a method of composition. Mozart had demonstrated that it was possible to take an existing form, with which audiences would be familiar and comfortable, and invest it with freshness and unique character. This was what the young Beethoven did with his Septet. He gave the Septet the movements, charming melodies and harmonies the public would have expected of a serenade/divertimento but surprised them with the richness and sophistication of his writing; the public loved it.

The Composer

The Septet was of course composed by Beethoven and not as many years later he would fume, “It was written by Mozart!” This was his exasperated response to comments that his later works were oddities and what the public wanted were compositions by the “real” Beethoven, the Beethoven who had composed the graceful Septet. Sadly Beethoven came to loathe the Septet's popularity,

As Jan Swafford in “Beethoven Anguish and Triumph” explains, “The Septet became, to his eternal annoyance, the biggest success of his life. From then on, conservative critics would use it as a cudgel with which to belabor his more adventurous pieces…. Beethoven was subject to a classic dilemma of the artist with early success. As a young composer, he had to put up with being compared unfavourably to Haydn and Mozart; as a mature composer, he would have to endure unfavourable comparisons to his younger self.”

In our own age the perspective on Beethoven's works is clearer. We can be profoundly moved by the fierce emotions of his mature heroic works, and still enjoy the  élan and masterful techniques of his earlier works. 

The Performer

One of the enduring and most valuable friendships in Beethoven’s life was with violin virtuoso Ignaz Schuppanzigh. For Beethoven, Schuppanzigh was a teacher of violin technique and an expert interpreter and commentator on the works of Haydn, Mozart and others.  Schuppanzigh loved the good life, great music and Beethoven. He was someone who could bring life to Beethoven’s most demanding violin compositions.

With Schuppanzigh in mind, Beethoven created a prominent violin part with solos and a cadenza for the Septet. Schuppanzigh performed in the Septet premiere and continued to champion the Septet throughout his life, performing it on many occasions and contributing to its popularity.

The Younger Composer

In 1824 Franz Schubert received  a commission from Count Ferdinand Troyer, a talented amateur clarinetist and an admirer of Beethoven. He asked Schubert to compose a work for winds and strings modeled on the Septet.  Schubert enhanced the string part by adding a second violin to the Septet’s ensemble, thus creating an Octet.

The work was given a private premiere with an ensemble that included Count Troyer himself and several of the musicians – among them Ignaz Schuppanzigh – who had performed in the premiere of Beethoven’s Septet many years earlier. This announced that Schubert’s Octet was indeed a worthy companion piece to the earlier Beethoven work. 

Although inspired by Beethoven's Septet, Schubert’s Octet has its own vibrant character with beautiful solos and fine ensemble writing.  Like Beethoven’s Septet, Schubert’s Octet has become one of the best-loved works in the chamber music repertoire. You might remember that the Octet was performed for the Sydney Mozart Society  in 2016.

The Conductor

The Septet has continued to inspire arrangements and tributes, including an arrangement by the renowned twentieth century conductor Arturo Toscanini.  Toscanini had a great fondness for the Septet. As a young man he had gone without lunch so that he could afford to buy the score.

In his arrangement Toscanini left  the woodwinds untouched, but gave the string parts to the full string section of the orchestra. The effect is like a concerto grosso, with a small group of instruments – the woodwinds – in exchanges with a larger orchestral group – the strings.

Toscanini conducted his arrangement of the Septet  a number of times, including a sparkling  Carnegie Hall performance recorded in 1951 with the NBC Symphony Orchestra.

The Manuscript Buyer

Following Beethoven’s death his belongings, including a number of notebooks and music autographs, were sold at auction in 1827. The auction aroused what was described at the time as “an uncommon level of interest”.

The autograph score for the Fifth Symphony was sold for 6 florins, the original score for the great Missa Solemnis was sold for 7 florins. The original score for the Septet, however, fetched 18 florins, indicating the high regard - perhaps even love -  the successful buyer and the other bidders  must have felt for the Septet some 27 years after its first public performance.  


                                                                                                  Charmain Boyakovsky


The images above - clockwise from left - are Beethoven, Schuppanzigh, Schubert, Toscanini and Mozart. The images  were obtained from Wiki Media Commons and are in the public domain.