Beethoven – the “Divine” Beethoven, as he is often imagined – is one of the cornerstones of the repertoire of classical music, his symphonies, sonatas and string quartets forming the foundation on which everything else seems to rest.
Music, like history in general, is too prone to such black-and-white observations. Beethoven did not erupt on the scene with his “Eroica” Symphony.
The Quintet for Piano and Winds, from the more “human side” of Beethoven, is not that well known. In fact, it would probably never be mistaken for a “great” work unless Beethoven had never written anything beyond his 2nd Symphony. It was consciously patterned after a similar quintet by Mozart (which Mozart regarded as one of the best things he had ever written at a time he was in the midst of writing the string quartets dedicated to Haydn) but because Beethoven’s is “not so original,” in hindsight, it is considered something of a student work.
Back in March, after Stuart Malina played Mozart’s “Kegelstadt” Trio and Schubert’s “Trout” Quintet as part of his annual “Stuart & Friends” concert with colleagues from the Harrisburg Symphony, I was thinking “wouldn’t it be great to do the Beethoven Quintet next year?” Not long afterwards, sitting in Stuart’s living room to record a pod-cast for an up-coming Masterworks Concert, I was delighted to see the score for the Beethoven Quintet on his piano’s music rack. At the time, I didn’t think it was for Market Square Concert’s Summermusic, but I was equally delighted to see it on the program. And there’s always the Mozart Quintet for Piano & Winds for the next time.
And this conjunction of the Mozart and Beethoven Quintets is not just accidental. Beethoven composed his around 1796 or so, about five years after Mozart’s death and only about a dozen years after Mozart had written his quintet.
This performance features another conductor at the piano – James Levine, best known as the music director of the Metropolitan Opera – with members of the Vienna and Berlin Philharmonics: oboist Hansjörg Schellenberger, clarinetist Karl Leister, hornist Günter Högner, and bassoonist Milan Turković.
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2nd & 3rd Movements:
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The overall elegance and balance of the style and formal structure of the piece is evident in the first movement, from its regal slow introduction (something Beethoven would rarely use in the future) – especially with its harking back to the rhythm of the French Overture of Handel’s day leading to a very dramatic dialogue between the pianist and the winds – to the eloquence of the themes, not to mention an almost cursory development section (something Beethoven would later greatly expand) and avoiding the return to the home tonic without even a wink.
It might bring to mind some of the wonderful piano concertos Mozart had composed after he arrived in Vienna himself, back in 1781, where the wind players were so much better than the ones he worked with at home in Salzburg. But as chamber music, there is more interplay between the players than just juxtaposition of the piano against a small orchestra.
If the first movement reminded me of a piano concerto,the slow movement, the emotional core of the work, brings to mind many of the great arias Mozart composed for his best operas, several of which have prominent woodwind obligatos. There is a moment at 0:50-1:06, the closing fragment of woodwinds’ version of Theme 1, which sounded like… well, I couldn’t quite place it: was it a quote or a coincidence? It was one of those moments where you let the music that’s there go off in a slightly different direction when the light-bulb went off – the opening of the final duet, “Es ist ein Traum” (5:58-6:13, here) in the conclusion of Der Rosenkavalier which Richard Strauss composed in 1911!
Of course, Rosenkavalier is Strauss’ tribute to Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, so the coincidence of this similarity would make sense. Both are invoking the spirit of Mozart, Beethoven from only a few years’ distance; Strauss, over a century later.
With the finale, we are back in the world of the concerto – as envisioned by Mozart. His themes often had an ebullient simplicity – child-like rather than childish – no matter how perfect the context was around it.
The story goes that at one performance with Beethoven at the piano and the great Friedrich Ramm playing the oboe (Mozart had written his Oboe Concerto for him), the composer took the liberty of taking off at what in a concerto would’ve been a soloist’s prerogative, improvising a short cadenza on a particular chord marked with a fermata. As the passage came around with each restatement, Beethoven would continue improvising: even though the wind-players began to anticipate this, it annoyed Ramm in particular.
Curiously, when the quintet was played in 1816 with Beethoven’s student, Carl Czerny, at the piano, Czerny did the same thing but Beethoven was so annoyed by this, he upbraided his student for his behavior - then sent him a letter of apology the next day.
Today, casual listeners might find Mozart and Haydn indistinguishable, both high points of the Classical Style (c.1750-1800) even if they couldn’t name another composer from the same era. But this is clearly a work inspired by Mozart right down to the turn of phrase and the smallest formal details. Haydn could never have written this piece: if the last movement makes you smile, it’s not the same sense of humor you would hear in a Haydn finale, lacking any overt jokes or musical puns. It is more the light-hearted spirit – that Viennese spirit that we call “joie de vivre” in French because “Wiener Blut” (“Vienna Blood”) sounds so ghastly – than outright humor, a smile rather than a chuckle.
The year after Mozart died and Beethoven was leaving Bonn to study with Haydn in Vienna, Beethoven’s friend and patron, Count Ferdinand Waldstein (for whom a later piano sonata would be named), wrote in his travel album, “With the help of assiduous labor, you shall receive Mozart’s spirit from Haydn’s hands.”
By studying and imitating the best of Mozart – what even Mozart thought was “the best of Mozart” – was this how Beethoven received Mozart’s spirit?
Not long after completing the Quintet – and also the three string trios later published as Op. 9 which, at the time, he thought were among his best works to date – he began his first string quartets (which became the six quartets of Op. 18) and his first symphony, all of which were first heard in 1800.
In 1802, as he was working on his Second Symphony, he told his friend Wenzel Krumpholz (for whom he often played through some new pieces), “I am only a little satisfied with my previous works. From today on, I shall take a new path.”
One of the works he began working on at that time would soon become his Third Symphony, the Eroica.
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What was Beethoven’s life like at the time he was writing his homage to Mozart?
You can read a continuation of this post, here.
- Dick Strawser