Sunday, July 17, 2022

Summermusic: Spend an Evening with Beethoven & Dohnányi (Part 1)

Beethoven, c.1796
A serenade by definition means "evening music" and there are two serenades by two composers in their mid-20s on the first program of MSC's Summermusic 2022. Join us Wednesday night (July 20th) at 7:30 in St. Michael Lutheran Church on the first block of State Street for a serenade Beethoven composed in 1797 and one Ernő Dohnányi completed in 1902 (which you can read about in this subsequent post). Both for string trios, they'll be performed by MSC Director Peter Sirotin, with violist Michael Isaac Strauss and cellist Sophie Shao. 

In this first video, you can follow along with the score as you listen to a classic recording by the Arthur Grumiaux Trio (scroll down if you'd rather watch a live performance).

A classic multi-movement serenade in the 18th Century manner, there are six movements starting with the traditional march. Originally, the idea was for a serenade to be performed "around town" to celebrate graduations or weddings or other community events, and the march would be played while the ensemble literally marched from location to location. Once it became more of a concert-hall piece, there was no need to go marching (no doubt a great relief to the cellists), but they still opened with a march, regardless. 

This short opening movement is followed by a minuet, a slow movement interrupted by a scurrying scherzo (very unusual for its day), a polacca (a bow to the popular appeal of this latest dance craze to hit Vienna) with its little winding-down ending, then a set of variations on a slow, lyrical theme, before rounding things out with the opening march's return (as they'd now start marching off to the next location).


Now, if you're primarily familiar with Beethoven's music from his 3rd or 5th Symphonies of the early-1800s to the rarefied atmosphere of the Late Quartets 24 years later, small wonder his early works might strike you as “Haydn-like.” After all, he studied with Haydn (if not willingly or, for that matter, even successfully) and Haydn was, after all, the Greatest Living Composer of the Day. 

True, the teenaged Beethoven, growing up in the provinces, had dreamed of going to Vienna to study with Mozart, may even have met him on a visit that had been cut short by his mother's last illness; and was making plans to try again a few years later when word arrived that Mozart had died.

Imagine a young composer who idolized Mozart finding out his hero had died – a hero who was only 35 years old! So, a year later, Beethoven tried the “Next Best Thing” – Haydn. As one friend wrote, “may you receive Mozart's spirit from the hands of Haydn.”

If only it were that easy.

What Mozart was writing when he was 35 was a lot different from what Haydn was writing at 60. Heading to London for a second season in 1794 and leaving his pupil to his own devices, Haydn returned the following year with the last of his great London Symphonies. A year later, he produced his last batch of six great string quartets. (Still, from there until 1802, writing more sporadically, he still had in him two more quartets, a handful of masses and the two oratorios, all masterpieces.)

Beethoven, a fairly hot-blooded young man in his mid-20s who approached his future the way a “generalissimo” planned a battle, realized his only real competition was, in fact, Haydn. To avoid comparisons with his former teacher, he produced two piano concertos – realizing Haydn was not a performer (like Mozart was) and did not excel at writing concertos (as Mozart had) – and held off presenting himself as a writer of symphonies and string quartets until he'd honed his style and gained the experience necessary to compete on that level.

So instead of symphonies, he turned primarily to chamber music – piano trios, piano sonatas, and works that might have more popular appeal – but not string quartets. Not yet.

If the atmosphere was a little strained before Haydn left for London in 1794, it burst not long after The Old Man returned, just as Beethoven was presenting his three Piano Trios which he was planning on publishing as his Op. 1. Haydn heard them, heard especially the C Minor one – the one Beethoven wanted to start the set with because he thought it was the best of the three – and advised him not to publish the C Minor one at all, because he felt the public would not understand or accept the piece.

Even though Haydn had some nice things to say about the other two trios, Beethoven was “stunned and outraged” by his reaction to the C Minor. This could only mean one thing: Haydn viewed him as a rival, “jealous and conniving who wished him ill.” Beethoven thought the C Minor Trio would make his name, so why else would Haydn want to suppress it? (Ah, the conspiracy theories the ego is prone to...)

When it was published, the set was dedicated to Prince Lichnowsky who was one of Beethoven's most generous patrons. To us, it would be logical, but in the cultural politics of the day, dedications were often a very courtly ritual, especially first ones. Haydn would no doubt have been stunned to find them not dedicated to him. When the three piano sonatas of Op. 2 were dedicated to Haydn, there was no mention Beethoven had been his pupil, another glaringly obvious omission.

There followed a series of “lesser” pieces, nothing particularly outstanding as far as posterity is concerned: the first string quartets are Op. 16, the first symphony was Op. 21, both putting in their first appearances on the world stage around 1800. But here was this series of five string trios – his Op. 3, Op. 8, and the three of Op. 9 – as well as an octet, reworked as a string quintet and published in 1796 as Op. 4 (the original Octet didn't see the light of ink until Op. 103 many years later).

There was also this large-scale piano sonata, Op. 7 (until the Hammerklavier, Op. 106, it was the longest of his sonatas), written while he was in Pressburg (now Bratislava, Slovakia – incidentally the birthplace of Ernő Dohnányi) in November, 1796, to give a concert. Considering what I'd said about the politics of dedications, this sonata – called a “grand sonata” because it was in four, not the usual three movements, though it has a grandeur we would associate with Beethoven's later sonatas – was dedicated to one of his young students, a countess who happened to be Beethoven's current infatuation. Some say this sonata is “so passionate it deserves the subtitle Appassionata more than the famous Op. 57 sonata.” For a time, it did have the nickname “The Belovéd,” not to be confused with The Immortal Belovéd, but I digress...

The Op. 8 Serenade was completed around February of 1797, only a few months later. 

Here is a live performance by members of the WDR Symphony Orchestra of Köln.  

If you have the time and the curiosity, listen to both Op. 7 and Op. 8 consecutively: you'll understand the difference between Beethoven's private, more personal voice, which in this case sounds more like the Romantic Beethoven of the near-future (the great Appassionata is only 7 years away), especially in its first two movements, and the social or public Beethoven, the composer writing for what we might dismiss as “popular consumption,” meant to entertain and please and, ultimately, if not too crassly put, to earn more sales by performing amateurs. The Septet, Op. 20, essentially a serenade in form and style, was definitely a work geared to public appeal: one would not likely consider either this Op. 8 Serenade or the Septet “serious works,” or, on the other hand, the Op. 7 Sonata “charming, delightful.” The fact he even called this string trio a Serenade and not a String Trio (like he did the next three works of Op. 9) meant he didn't take Op. 8 as all that serious a work. Not that there's anything wrong with “charming and delightful and downright appealing.”

Something like the Op. 7 and Op. 13 sonatas we'd look back at and consider “prophetic” of the Mature Beethoven, by comparison to the symphonies he started writing in 1803. But in these lighter works, we can hear Beethoven not only testing his skills but also testing his audience, to see, perhaps as Papa Haydn had warned, how far they'd be willing to go along with him – like that C Minor Piano Trio which, after all, turned out to be more of a success than Haydn was willing to concede (he still would refer to Beethoven as “The Young Turk”).

One such challenge in this Serenade is the 4th Movement which starts out as a slow movement in D Minor but then breaks into a contrasting middle section. Keep in mind, most three-part forms like a minuet or scherzo (marked as an A-B-A Form) would have a fast section and then a contrasting section that's more lyrical or less dance-like. A slow movement usually wasn't an A-B-A form, so imagine what an audience in 1797 was expecting when what they heard was an almost tragic-sounding slow movement interrupted by a boisterous scherzo (not once but twice)! That would've definitely raised some eyebrows! To us, it's just another form of contrast.

But that's part of how Beethoven matured: he rarely worked on one piece and then, finishing that, went on to a new and different piece. When he might have finished something, we might be able to tell, but it was usually hard to figure out when he started a new piece. Examining those notebooks he might have used for his sketches, it's often possible to find a sketch for one piece buried back in the pages where he's working out another piece a year or two earlier. He may have finished the Op. 7 Sonata early in 1797 to publish it the same year, but he also completed the Serenade early in 1797 (one source I can't corroborate said February) and published it in October.

One other thing of note: during the summer of 1797 – he would turn 27 that December – he became seriously ill with typhus which meant, according to Jan Swafford's biography, “weeks of pain, fever, coughing, stupor, even delirium. The disease is a terrific shock to the body and nervous system, in those days often a killer. And it can affect the hearing.”

As soon as he had gotten back on his feet, he quickly composed the three string trios, Op. 9, three short piano sonatas Op. 10, a clarinet trio Op. 11, and the three violin sonatas of Op.12.

Then, during the following year, he reported the first symptoms of hearing loss. He was 27.

So, while you're listening to this “charming and delightful” light-hearted Serenade, Op. 8, keep in mind it was one of the last works Beethoven would complete before he became aware he was going deaf.

– Dick Strawser

Read Part 2, the Beethoven-Dohnányi Connection, here... 


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