Program Notes to Beethoven’s Septet, Op. 20

Beethoven’s Septet is an interesting piece that offers a new twist on the Classical tradition of Serenades and Divertimenti. While those two forms tended to be fun, light, party background music composed by Haydn, Mozart and others, the Septet tends towards a more symphonic style, with a bit more weight and craftsmanship. And while Serenades tend to be for ensembles of 4-6 strings, or wind octets, Beethoven’s Septet is scored for one each of seven different instruments: violin, viola, cello, bass, clarinet, bassoon and horn. So, in what becomes a hallmark of Beethoven’s music, he is keeping just enough of the traditions of the day to make the audience comfortable and stirring them up a bit to make them more his own.

 

According to a footnote in Maynard Solomon’s great biography Beethoven, the first performance of the Septet happened in Jahn’s Restaurant in December of 1799. This seems like an extremely appropriate venue for such enjoyable music. The official premiere is considered by most to be at the marathon concert in April of 1800 (where he also premiered his First Symphony and many other works) in the more formal Vienna Burgtheater. It was a huge success from its first performance, proving to be one of the most popular things that Beethoven ever composed. His friend Schuppanzigh, a well-known violinist in Vienna, loved to play it and kept programming it on concerts for the next 25 years or so. Beethoven hated that the Septet was so popular, as he saw it as rather old-fashioned. There is a story that an audience member once complimented him on it, and he replied, “Mozart wrote the Septet!” (Beethoven didn’t always have the best manners.) Some say that the Septet was Haydn’s favorite Beethoven composition. In yet another example of its popularity, when Beethoven’s manuscripts were being auctioned off after his death, the Septet fetched a much higher price than his Missa Solemnis.

 

The format of the Septet is what links it to the Serenades and Divertimenti. It is in six movements:

 

Adagio-Allegro con Brio

Adagio cantabile

Minuet

Theme and Variations

Scherzo

Andante con moto alla Marcia-Presto

 

While the layout looks very similar to Divertimenti by Mozart or Haydn, the music has some beautifully crafted development sections, a fun Scherzo that highlights the horn, and a charming theme and variations. Since Beethoven waited until rather late in his life to start composing symphonies (Mozart began at 8, Beethoven at 29) many see the Septet as a warm-up to prepare him for the larger symphonic works that he is so famous for today. All that being said, it is easy to imagine a crowd at Jahn’s enjoying their beer and schnitzel while listening to this lovely work by a great master.

3 Responses to “Program Notes to Beethoven’s Septet, Op. 20”

  1. […] Melissa Mackey returns to perform with us for a second season. Melissa suggested we play the Beethoven Septet, it’s one of her favorite pieces to play.  Melissa is the Associate Professor of Bassoon and Music History at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. She wrote a short blog post about the Beethoven Septet on her own blog – check it out! […]

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