Author Archives: Lionel Lewis

Beethoven Chamber Music – Bonn to Heilingenstadt





This series of lectures is by no means the first which Matthew has given on Beethoven.  Since I first came fifteen years ago we have had a series on the piano music (solo and with orchestra);  the first of a series devoted to the string quartet from Haydn to Schubert. Later we were given a series on the symphonies and there followed a survey of the concertos. There is no doubt that Beethoven remains the most popular composer and few complain. They are not in any event repeats but all different in subject. On also has to take into account that there are always newcomers who have become since become who by popular demand would like their chance also. So, here we are again with Beethoven and a new aspect, that of his chamber music. My role is very ancillary, intended mainly to deal with the biographical side of the composer whilst just touching on the music. It is Matthew who explores and illustrates the music deep down. Before I get down to tracing the events of Beethoven’s life I thought it might help to set out what musical forms will be included as being chamber music and set out a chronologically an approach to the myriad of chamber music that Beethoven produced.

I should imagine that most of us would have first encountered Beethoven’s orchestral works, symphonies and concertos, and have developed an interest in his chamber music at a later stage in our lives. It always seems to me that we may be more likely to be familiar with the order and chronology of his orchestral works and that our knowledge of the chamber works is more haphazard.  That of course is a sweeping assumption. So, before I take off on the Beethoven Story and how he got from Bonn to Vienna to begin with, I thought it would help to identify certain aspects of the series, classify the various breeds of chamber music and to identify the three main periods which cover Beethoven’s output.

First of all, the terminology.  “Chamber Music” is generally seen as music to be played by a small group in a small or not so small  house or room. To be technically precise chamber music does not include a solo piano or solo any other instrument. The solo whatever is classified in “The Gramophone” and other record magazines as “Instrumental”.  Wikipedia states “by convention, it (chamber music) usually does not include solo instrument performances”.  Britannica seems to concur but then adds “In its original sense chamber music referred to music composed for the home, as opposed to that written for the theatre or church. Since the “home”—whether it be drawing room, reception hall, or palace chamber—may be assumed to be of limited size, chamber music most often permits no more than one player to a part.”  As it happens Matthew applies the conventional view and in any case, there will be more than enough varying combinations with a minimum of two instruments to go round, as it is. We will not therefore be including any of the 32 piano sonatas this time round. Nevertheless, there will be plenty of opportunity to witness Matthew’s celebrated demonstration skills.

The formats from which Matthew has had to select consist of (1) violin and (2) cello sonatas (effectively sonatas for the named instrument and piano;(3) string trios (for violin, viola and cello) as well as (4) piano trios (violin, cello and piano).  These will be followed by (5) string quartets (two violins, viola and cello). These quartets form the backbone of the series. We may also find a (6) quintet for piano and wind instruments and/or (7) a sextet for four strings and two horns. In terms of size the largest will be (8) the septet which contains some string and some wind instruments.

Matthew has decided to present his programme chronological sequence, from cradle to grave.  Approaching it this may prove helpful towards identifying the chamber the whens of the music. Beethoven’s output is divided into three periods, early, middle and late.  The early period is considered to start from 1792, the year when he finally left Bonn for Vienna and through the decade to 1802 culminating with his second symphony and the writing of his will, the Heilingenstadt testament written in a near suicidal state when having to confront his deafness.  This period still shows the influence of Haydn and Mozart although their grip begins to dwindle.  Beethoven did not however get out of bed one morning and declare that to-day  he was then in his second period.  The distinctions become blurred and a perfect example is the third  piano concerto. It is the most perfectly classical of concerti in the mould (just) of Haydn or Mozart and yet it begins to look forward to the big boned Beethoven.  It could be said to be a more mature early work or an early work of the middle period under way

This middle period could be said to run from 1802 to about 1814. It contains much of the great orchestral works and concertos starting with the 3rd (Eroica) symphony and through to the 7th and 8th symphonies.  Equally it returns to chamber music,  the Archduke trio as well as the three Opus 59 (Rasumovsky)  quartets,  the Harp quartet Op. 74 and the Serioso Op 95. There are also piano sonatas, notably the Waldstein and the Appasionata. How easily those with names come more easily to mind.

From then he became very much embroiled in litigation with his late brother’s widow over the adoption of his nephew – very good for the solicitor  – and there was a fallow period before he cranked up again, slowly with Napoleon following his Waterloo, into what would become known as his late period.  This was during a period of total deafness and includes the hammerklavier sonata, the Missa Solemnis, the ninth (choral) symphony and those late quartets.

No matter what the medium, all his works reflected his transition from each of the three periods. I think most of us might find ourselves a little lost in pin pointing when any work was written except for the few who know their Beethoven backwards and know their opus numbers for mastermind.  I openly confess that I can walk into the Wigmore Hall without knowing how the work goes until I hear it. That is why we are better equipped when it has a handle, Moonlight, Kreutzer, Grosse Fuge.  Waldstein and Archduke. To get the feel of time it would help to know that works from the Early Period are numbered from Opus 1 to the mid 50’s.  The Eroica is Opus 55 when Beethoven was in his mid-thirties.  The middle period takes us to approximately Opus 100 by which stage Beethoven was on the verge of the late period even though he would not have known that at the time.

Here, also to help is a layout of the chamber works and the periods covered:

Violin Sonatas (10)

Early period. No 1 to No 9. (9)

No 10 Op 96

None in late period

Cello Sonatas  (5)

Nos 1 and 2 Op 5

No 3 Op 68 (1808)

Nos 4 and 5 Op 102 (1815)

Piano Trios (7)

3 op 1’s and Op 11

(2) Op 70’s (Ghost) Op 96 (Archduke)

(There are piano trio variations in last period)

String Trios (3)

Op 3, Op 8, Op 9

No string trios

No string trios

Like the String trios, the music combining wind with piano or strings all comes from just the early period. Some even come from his earlier Bonn period which is regarded almost as if pre-history but there is a tradition in Germany of wind music, called Harmonie Musik, in which Beethoven was well practised. The opus numbers of some of the wind music can mislead as they were accorded much later when these works got published long after their time of composition.

The string quartets which dominate each period are as follows

Early period  –  6 Opus 18’s


Middle period  –  3 Rasumovsky’s  – Opus 59 (Rasumovsky) ;  No. 10 in E♭ major, Op. 74 (Harp) · No. 11 in F minor, Op. 95 (Serioso)

Late quartets  –  Six in all; No. 12 in E♭, Op. 127 · No. 13 in B♭, Op. 130 · No. 14 in C sharp minor, Op. 131 · No. 15 in A minor, Op. 132 · Grosse Fuge, Op. 133 · No. 16 in F, Op. 135


I now turn to his life and examine how Beethoven came to leave Bonn where he was born in 1770 and settled in Vienna in 1792. His father was the  kappelmeister of the court orchestra of the Elector of Cologne which was based in Bonn. Beethoven first started playing in the orchestra as a violist at the age of 12 at which time he wrote three sonatas dedicated to the Elector. The instruction he received from his father, who was no Leopold Mozart, was rigorous.  He did not encourage Beethoven’s emerging compositional ability but his instrumental skills.  As a young adolescent he took lessons from and was mentored by the court organist, Neefe. If his compositional skills were unrecognized by his father, they were sufficiently recognized by the Elector himself who allowed Beethoven, at 18, leave of absence to travel to Vienna in 1788.  There he would meet Mozart and actually played to him.  The stay was short, indeed cut short, as Beethoven needed to return to Bonn on learning of his mother becoming ill. She was to die soon after his return.  His father just could not cope and went to completely to pieces with drunkenness. The young Beethoven found himself having to take charge and look after his younger siblings. He even needed to take his father to court to have his salary attached. Beethoven’s early compositions come from this period and in particular two cantatas, one on the death in 1790 of the Joseph II and the other for the coronation of Leopold II.  They were not in the event played for reasons we know not.  These two works only became discovered nearly a hundred years on.  They and some others from the early Vienna years would not be  accorded an opus numbers.  However they have separate numbering with the letters WoO., (werke ohne opus) (work without opus). In looking down the listing of Beethoven compositions from his time in Bonn it is surprising how many chamber works, piano works and songs there were.

In December 1790 Haydn, following his release by the Esterhazy family and then approaching 60, accompanied by Salomon, passed through Bonn on their way to London for the first Haydn visit.  Haydn was feted by the Elector but it is not known if Beethoven, being one of the very junior members of the orchestra, would have been introduced. If Beethoven had hoped to return to Vienna his plans appeared thwarted with the death of Mozart the following year, 1791.  

One other influence on events was Count Waldstein who persuaded the Elector to finance Beethoven for a second trip to Vienna even though Mozart had gone. By 1792 the west bank of the Rhine was occupied by the Napoleonic forces and Bonn was in turmoil and overrun by refugees. Beethoven left for Vienna in November with a letter from Waldstein stating “Through your diligence receive Mozart’s spirit from the hands of Haydn”. Thus did Beethoven arrive in Vienna.  Beethoven’s father died just a month later but  this time round Beethoven did not return to Bonn, nor ever was to.

Beethoven’s principal aim was to learn more of the basics of those areas of composition where he knew himself to be lacking,  and in this respect Haydn turned out to be just  too  easy going as a teacher.  Beethoven revered Haydn but later admitted to his own pupil, Ferdinand Ries, that though he had received instruction from Haydn he had never learned anything from him.  The fact was that Beethoven was a self disciplinarian who knew what he needed and Haydn was not the teacher he needed for the purpose.  Some commentators say the two men did not get on but that does not appear to be the case.  Whilst they did breath the same Vienna air, they inhabited different universes.  Haydn was a man of the ancien régime and for instance wore a perruque all his life.  Mozart, although younger than Haydn, had shared the same social world and values.  Beethoven was making his entrance against the background of revolution in France and spreading republican values. He was prepared to accept patronage but not to be someone else’s skivvy.

Beethoven decided to take lessons elsewhere without telling Haydn.  First he went to one Johann Schenk for guidance in counterpoint and theory; then his notebooks show him taking lessons from Ignaz Schuppanzigh, famed for the string quartet which gave the first performances of the great string quartets of the day.  More assiduously Beethoven took lessons in counterpoint from Albrechstsberger, the “most famous teacher of that science”.  He may be long forgotten but every time we hear the Grosse Fuge or the Hammerklavier sonata  we owe Albrechtsberger a vote of thanks.   One other teacher to whom Beethoven turned was none other than Antonio Salieri, known to give free instructions to musicians of small means and who went on giving lessons to Beethoven till as late as 1802 by which time Beethoven had his own pupil.  Salieri later gave lessons to Schubert and deserves more meritorious recognition than the libel perpetuated by Peter Schaffer in Amadeus.

During these years Beethoven should not be seen as just a composer awaiting a commission.  He did not sit there composing whatever form took his fancy until someone decided to play it.  He needed commissions and wrote for whatever combination was required.  Doubtless he had ideas which he would save to his sketchbooks.  He did have a modest annuity to help him pro tem from Count Lichnowsky but he needed to earn his living. For this he possessed one great skill which had all the appearances of being a better earner, playing the piano.  His reputation grew as one of the great pianists of his day.  The growing attraction of an audience for the piano, which had emerged from the more restrictive capabilities of the harpsichord, gave rise to the virtuoso and the appetite of the listener was fed not simply by concert performance but also by rivalries and concourses as to who could give the best or the fastest of displays and who was number one in extemporising. It became a virtual Vienna Has Talent competition with Beethoven very much the star in demand.

Soon however the commissions began to come from the odd count or prince that one tends to bump into from time to time.  This was more likely to be in the field of chamber music as a look down the early opus numbers shows. In fact Beethoven did not rush to publication until he felt the occasion was right to do so.  To begin with his Opus 1 was a set of three piano trios, one of which Haydn advised against publication;  various piano sonatas, ten before the opus 18 quartets; string trios worth more outings than we hear; a string quintet, two cello sonatas, the first of his violin sonatas, a horn sonata and a wind quintet.  Orchestral music on the other hand would have to be mounted in a suitable venue and needed an audience.  The only possibility was for Beethoven to write his own piano concertos and to play them himself.  He began composition of the first two piano concertos as early as 1795 and the second which was the earlier was opus 17 with the premier of the first taking place in 1800.  All was beginning to go well but?

As early as 1796 Beethoven first encountered the tinnitus which would have frustrated his playing and composition.  He noticed his hearing gradually deteriorating but kept it to himself as best he could.  It would drive him to anguish and despair. Over the years he would visit Harley Strasse and  spend a fortune on ear trumpets to little effect.  It is against this background that the six opus 18 quartets were written between 1798 and 1800. These six quartets are wonderful but might sound a little immature if one first hears them after having first head his later quartets.  One should remember that Haydn was very much alive and kicking and it was at this time that he was writing his six opus 76 quartets including the Emperor quartet.  Thus these two sets of quartets stand shoulder to shoulder with Haydn at the peak of his greatness and Beethoven pushing the boundaries further.

Some commentaries suggest that Beethoven had held back from writing quartets until being more sure of himself and had contented himself with string trios. I question the rationale of this.  Beethoven had copied out quartets of Haydn and Mozart and knew the medium.  The opus 18 quartets themselves were dedicated to and, it must be assumed, commissioned by Prince Lobkowitz.  Had he asked for a quintet, a sextet or a septet Beethoven would undoubtedly have delivered whenever on the basis of he who pays the piper.  One writer, Bernard Jacobson, in an EMI booklet mentions that the true order was 3, 1, 2, 5, 4 and 6 and suggests that one should listen to them in that order to obtain a much clearer and exciting view. He points out that re-arranging the sequence would have been decided on commercial, and not musicological, considerations.  What tosh!  The practice of dedicating a compilation of quartets reflected first the generosity of the composer; secondly the opportunity for the dedicatee to play the whole shebang to an audience whose musical appetite was voracious and who had no chance of going out to buy the compact disc.  As to the order, the compositional process can start and finish anywhere.  On this spurious argument it would mean that if a composer started with the third movement and then wrote the first one, one should listen in that order.  I think that Mr Jacobson should at least accept Beethoven’s artistic integrity in knowing the best order to present them as a set.

Soon afterwards there were to follow the first two symphonies before this early period comes to an end.  The second symphony is one of the happiest Beethoven was to write as was the Kreutzer violin sonata written at that time.  Beethoven enjoyed going into the countryside, particularly to Heilingenstadt, a small country village near Vienna.  One could never know it from the music but Beethoven was by then, in 1802,  in torment as to his loss of hearing and it was there in Heilingenstadt that he would write a will, the Heilingenstadt testament, proclaiming his despair and thoughts of suicide. This document, which was not discovered until after Beethoven died, was the testimony of a courageous man.  Beethoven was then facing the likelihood that his affliction would end all he had so far achieved. He had reached the point of contemplating ending it all. He had confronted his own demise and the world can only be thankful that Heilingenstadt was the turning point.  All wills have a beneficiary. That of Heilingenstadt was posterity itself. To follow very soon there was the Eroica, originally to be dedicated to Napoleon, but the real emergent hero was Beethoven himself who had confronted his demons…. and won.

Beethoven Chamber Music – Middle Period







Despite the title let us just sum up where we had got to with the early period, Vienna from 1992 to 1802, a whole decade.  Immersed in the period great changes are taking place. Beethoven is usually perceived as learning his craft in the footsteps of Mozart and Haydn particularly when looking back from what was to follow. In fact we have seen that this was a decade when Beethoven was moving forward all the time and producing a mass of great works.  Peter Cropper, the late founder and leader of the Lindsay String Quartet put matters into perspective when he pinpointed what Beethoven’s standing  would have been had he died at 31, the age Schubert was when he died.  In such a case it would have been in the year 1801 just when he was nearing the culmination of his early period and a year before Heilingenstadt. Had that been so history would still have regarded Beethoven as a great talented composer with a legacy of some fifty opuses. Three piano concertos and a brilliant first symphony, two violin romances, a ballet but mainly a considerable output of chamber music. Because of his pianistic prowess a significant number of his piano sonatas were written including the Moonlight; eight of his ten violin sonatas were under his belt and his string trios and of course his Opus 18 quartets. Why so much chamber music? One has to consider who the works were intended for, apart from himself. Just look at the dedications, largely to aristocrats, Tsar Nicholas, Count Lichnowski, Count Moritz von Frier, Prince Razumovsky, not forgetting a set of three violin sonatas to Salieri who was not an aristocrat but hobnobbed with them at the Vienna court. Beethoven was a freelancer who may not have known that word but knew on which side his brot was gebuttert . Hence the reason for the plethora of chamber music encountered during the period.

The Heilingenstadt testament written in 1802 was a turning point with Beethoven having come to terms to deal with his difficulties. It came at a time when Haydn at the grand old age of 70 put down his pen in mid-quartet too tired to go on. For Beethoven he was at the springboard ready to plunge into stylistic waters never before dreamed of let alone entered.  At the time of Heiligenstadt his second symphony was in the making but it gives no evidence of the mental torment and suffering he had been through. One tends to treat this early period at the turn of the century as some early apprenticeship as if Beethoven was still struggling to find his own voice.  As Matthew has stated already, this is a misconception. Both his first two concertos and both first two symphonies are not juvenilia but were the product in fact of an avant garde maturing composer who had already held back until he gauged himself ready. How one perceives the early Beethoven period depends on how we first encounter it.  Most of us have been likely to have first discovered orchestral Beethoven by having already heard one or more of  the well loved later symphonies from the ensuing period.  Coming to the first symphony or the second piano concerto for the first time after being already well acquainted with say, the Eroica or the fifth symphony or the Emperor piano concerto, might understandably result in disappointment at not hearing the more dramatic sounds that one had already come to expect.  In many ways it is a pity that one is not compelled to listen to Beethoven’s symphonies and concertos for the first time in strict chronological order as the audiences of his day were more likely to have done.  To them those first two symphonies and two concertos were modern music. They were hearing sounds which were breaking the rules of engagement. By 1800 Beethoven was known well beyond Vienna and his reputation had reached cities as far away as Edinburgh and Moscow.

Post Heilingenstadt would bring about a completely new phase, a Beethoven who was the top composer of his day, one whose revolutionary output was to bring about a complete change with an even more avant garde sound world which was shattering to the audiences of the day. Mozart had died ten years before.  Haydn had stopped although he would live on till 1809.  He was still the revered master, the model for others still to follow but it was now Beethoven who had inherited the earth.  Within five years he would make the eighteenth century drawing room about as obsolete as the steam locomotive would the horse and carriage.

To follow Beethoven’s development in the next five years, the first half of the middle period, would be better understood by listing some of his principal better known works, particularly the orchestral ones.  I mention these because this sketch is on Beethoven’s life and not just commentary on the chamber music. These works are not in exact chronological order of composition as opus numbers reflect the date of publication and not that of composition.  I have refrained from referring to opuses or opi and opera sounds misleading. If I remember correctly is not opus fourth declension Latin and not second declension?




Piano Concerto No 3 Op 37  (in production)

Piano Sonata 21 op 53 (The Waldstein)

Kreutzer violin sonata (an Eroica for two!)


Symphony No 3 Op 55 (Eroica)


Triple Concerto Op 56


Fidelio (original version: Leonora)


Piano Sonata Opus 57 (Appassionata)


Piano Concerto No 4 Opus 58


The Three Rasumovsky quartets Opus 59


Symphony No 4 Opus 60


Violin Concerto Opus 61


Coriolan Overture


Symphony No 5 Opus 67


Symphony No 6  (Pastoral) Op 68


Cello Sonata No 3 (op 69)

What is immediately apparent to begin with is that this list contains between 1803 and 1808 a package of three great string quartets, four symphonies, three piano concertos, the violin and triple concertos, an opera (which under its original title of Leonora turned out to be a failure and was revised as Fidelio in 1814) and several of the mighty classic sonatas. And there were plenty more where those came from.  In that time Beethoven had been to the top of the mountain and came back with tablets of stone which have formed the backbone of every concert season since. What is virtually unbelievable is that they contain what are, one after another, simply great quintessential masterpieces – I don’t use the word “iconic” after its  hi-jacking by the media.    Bearing in mind Beethoven’s methods when composing  of subjecting each idea to minute exploratory dissection –  Matthew has illustrated  in his lectures the numerous ways Beethoven recorded in his sketchbooks just  the opening phrase of the first Opus 18 quartet – and bearing in mind the length of these works compared to those of Haydn or Mozart, Beethoven would have  finished up writing four or five times as much as we actually hear in the final product in what was an outpouring of unstoppable creativity. In five years the sound world has changed out of recognition and his contemporaries left to play catch up. The Mo Farrah effect.

Another aspect is the change in character of these works from those of his earlier period.  They are longer, more powerful, more dramatic, more fortissimo, more monumental.  The orchestra has grown, extra horn in the Eroica, trombones, contra bassoon and piccolo in the fifth symphony, with extra strings to balance, and it is interesting to pursue the reason for this.  Is it simply because Beethoven had already had the sound locked up within his system and it simply waiting to come out? In pragmatic terms, a composer has to have a suitable venue for performance of his compositions.  Haydn’s London symphonies were far more powerful than their predecessors because with available a larger orchestra recruited by Salomon they could be played at the Hanover Rooms, far larger than any salon that Prince Esterhazy provided.  Beethoven’s first two symphonies were commenced in the late 1790’s and performed in 1801 at the Theater an der Wien.   This theatre was rebuilt in 1801 following a fire. My own theory is that Beethoven must have realized that here was the potential for the performance of an orchestral sound he could only have dreamed about earlier.  Cometh the concert hall, cometh the composer for it.

One also needs to see Beethoven in a background of fast changing social and political times.  He had arrived in Vienna only three years after the French revolution of 1789. 1792 was the beginning of the Terror in France.  Beethoven remained all his life a republican sympathizer despite the exalted aristocratic circles in which he moved.  He viewed Napoleon as the great liberator bringing republicanism with him. Little wonder therefore that he had been working on a massive symphony said to be suggested to him by Count Bernadotte intended to be named the Gran Sinfonia Buonaparte.  It was turning out to be twice as long as anything written before. It was first played at a private concert.  One member of that privileged audience was heard to have exclaimed “I’ll give another kreutzer if the thing will but stop”. Little wonder that Beethoven was gutted on hearing that that the once great First Consul had declared himself emperor and that Beethoven angrily scratched out the inscription from the title page of the score and renamed it “Sinfonia Eroica, to celebrate the Memory of a Great Man”. The Eroica was a statement of monumental heroism with its links to the earlier ballet, Prometheus, as well as to its original intended dedicatee. Napoleon himself created a political earthquake. With the Eroica Beethoven had created a musical one. In chamber music also his music became more ennobled. The Kreutzer could be described as an eroica of violin sonatas.

Soon to follow would be his fourth symphony and the triple concerto in which Beethoven expressed a mood of virtually unrestrained joy; generally untroubled in mood and unaffected it seems by war and increasing deafness.  The fourth symphony has all the happy-go-luckiness of the second but with the power of that of the Eroica and of that about to be unleashed by his fifth.  Beethoven also realized that with the growing length of the symphony it needed a longer scherzo.  Thus it was he introduced the double decker scherzo into the fourth symphony –  three reprises of the scherzo and two of the trio acting as the filling of the double decker sandwich.   We know what Beethoven’s piano trios sound like, particularly the Archduke or the Ghost.  The triple concerto was not so much a concerto for three soloists as a concerto for piano trio and orchestra.  We have experienced the sound of the piano trio many times in our own recital room. Now I am not one for beating the drum of period performance, but I would say that a piano trio with forte piano fits the bill and achieves a more even balance as between the three soloists and quite a different sound to the grand romantic interpretation we are prone to hear when produced by the big-nob virtuosi.

The fifth symphony has been hailed as a statement of personal triumph against the fate which had knocked at Beethoven’s door. (Incidentally that expression may have been a figment of Ferdinand Ries’s imagination and not of Beethoven’s vocabulary).  Czerny is said to have attributed the famous Dot-Dot-Dot-Dash motto at the start as that of the sound of the yellow hammer heard (by whom?) in the Vienna woods.  (Any ornithologists amongst you may wish to comment but don’t take that as an invitation to tweet). For many, despite their large musical appetites, the fifth symphony, coming near the end of a four hour concert, had gone right over the top; for some, the work of a madman, a symphonic Big Bertha.   Heard on period instruments it evidences more its classical origins. By the way the Beethoven orchestra never contained anything like 70 players or more – his Battle Symphony being an exception. The Beethoven sound is as much wind led as string led with a different balance but we have been weaned for over a hundred years in late 19th century concert hall sounds such as Beethoven’s contemporaries would not have heard. 

Of course most standard new music of the day was not going to change overnight.  There were still those who, like today’s audiences, would not go in for all this modern stuff and were happier to stay with the likes of Dussek and Dittersdorf. Berlioz in his memoires relates going to the first Paris performance of Beethoven’s fifth symphony which was as late as 1823. He took with him his tutor, Le Sueur, whose white faced response was that people should not write music like that and that he needed to keep hold of his hat to make sure his head was still there. It took a long time for others to follow. Most contemporary composers, now almost forgotten, were still trying to play catch up with Haydn. Beethoven was absolutely beyond their focus. Yet his music was always approachable to the masses.  The seventh symphony was first played at a concert for soldiers wounded at the battle of Hanau.

 Another important aspect was the changing world. The general strata of Austrian society was, a bit similar to Britain, largely unaffected by the French revolution. Yet, these works of Beethoven were written to the backdrop of war spreading like a bushfire throughout Europe.  Austria had already been invaded in 1803 and large parts were under French occupation. The new emperor of Austria, Francis I, and his court had packed up and scuttled off leaving Vienna to the tender mercies of the French.  In 1806, following Austerlitz, an uneasy truce was signed with Vienna remaining occupied by the French.  They weren’t very popular, least of all by Beethoven. Maybe there is something of the blitz spirit about some of the music. Conversely, there can be found sometimes a sense of intense sorrow, of keeping the home fires burning as in the slow movement of the second Rasumovsky quartet.

In 1806 Beethoven, following the failure of the opera, Leonora, was in something of a depressed state when he was invited by Count Lichnowsky to accompany him to Tropau near Gratz.  He had first met Lichnowsky  when he had arrived back in 1792 after a letter of introduction to him from Waldstein. Lichnowsky gave Beethoven his first accommodation and was a faithful patron.  It was he who gave Beethoven an annuity which was now about to end after a quarrel which was never repaired.  At Gratz there were guest French officers anxious to meet Beethoven, although Beethoven was not anxious to meet them, and when one of them innocently asked Beethoven if he could play the violin he got back an answer worthy of Donald Trump.  Lichnowsky tried to repair the damage but Beethoven left, having written a note for Lichnowsky “Prince, what you are, you are by circumstance and birth. What I am, I am through myself. Of princes there have been and will be thousands. Of Beethovens, there is only one”.  Proof, if ever it were needed, that nobody was too mighty for him.  The result of all this was that Beethoven, who had taken with him his appassionata sonata (opus 57) just off his assembly line, left in a storm, both literal and metaphorical, his manuscript smudged by the rain, and then having to make his way back to Vienna, an experience which was damaging to his worsening hearing and temper.

Lichnowsky’s brother in law was Count Rasumovsky who was the Tsar’s ambassador in Vienna.  He was what one describes as stinking rich.  He had built the most extravagant palace at Vienna, later burnt down, an example of money to burn.  He was a man with a reputation for the ladies. One tome states that his diplomacy did not match up to his love affairs with the ladies of society who were said to include the Queen of Naples.  He was accomplished enough to play with the Schuppanzigh quartet and Schuppanzigh himself described him as “an enemy of the revolution but a friend of the fair sex”. 

Rasumovsky commissioned a set of three quartets from Beethoven with a request that each might include a Russian or a Russian sounding tune.  Like their orchestral fellows the sound has become bigger and louder. Mind you there are still only four players.  So for the first time since the Opus 18’s we have in 1806 the first of Beethoven’s middle period quartets, his opus 59’s.  One thing is certain. These three quartets taken together are about as long as the six opus 18’s. That they sound bigger and louder raises a question I cannot answer but Matthew can.  An orchestra becomes bigger and louder by adding more instruments. Simple. With a quartet you cannot add an extra instrument without it ceasing to be a quartet.  So how does he manage this effect?   This music contains qualities of being attentively silent; more serious; more spiritual; more reverential.  This is Beethoven big time and sublime.

You sense a new world for the string quartet right from the opening of No 1 which has been described by Robert Simpson as chamber music’s equivalent to the Eroica and he went on to describe its second movement as a dark Adagio, a kind of private funeral march as opposed to the public one in the “Eroica”.

The Russian themes which Rasumovsky asked for are found in the last movement of No 1, not a particularly well known Russian tune as is that in the middle section of the double decker scherzo in No 2. The tune was used by Mussorgsky in the coronation scene in Boris Godunov. Number three is particularly notable for its mysterious introduction which seems to owe something to the strange tonalities at the beginning of Mozart’s K465 quartet, “the Dissonance”. The lugubrious pizzicato of the slow movement of the third Razumovsky is totally original.

1806 also saw the light of day for Beethoven’s violin concerto first played at a benefit concert by its dedicatee, Clement on 23 December 1806 in the Theater an der Wien. The composition was rattled off by Beethoven in a remarkably short space of time. He took just a few weeks to compose it in the winter of 1806, and it was first performed within days of its completion. Clement hadn’t had time to learn his part, so he had to do a good deal of sight-reading. He also interrupted the concerto between the first and second movements to perform a solo composition of his own, played on one string of the violin held upside down. Actually, it was not unknown at the time for movements to be treated as separate entities and for other works to be interposed in between. The premiere was not a great success.  Again it is large scale compared to its precursors.  It is now of course the great violin concerto of the century upon which others were to be modelled but  in the 1810’s Beethoven rearranged it as his sixth piano concerto.. 

Now, I am going to ask you something.  How would you like to go to a concert of works by a contemporary composer, let’s say Adès, and comprising only his new works?  And suppose the concert consisted of two new symphonies, a new concerto, a work for piano, chorus and orchestra, an aria, two sections of a mass and some solo piano improvisations, all lasting over four hours?  Go on, be honest, would you go?  Well that is what the ravenous public of 1808 did.  Only the composer was not Thomas Adès but one Ludwig van  Beethoven, and here is the programme:-

Symphony No 6 (The Pastoral)

Aria: “Ah, perfido”, Op. 65

The Gloria movement of the Mass in C

The Fourth Piano Concerto (played by Beethoven himself)

The Fifth Symphony

The Sanctus and Benedictus movements of the C major Mass

A solo piano improvisation played by Beethoven

The Choral Fantasia

It is incredible enough to think of these two symphonies and the concerto getting their first performances in the same programme.  The fourth concerto of course is the first concerto to make its lonesome start just on the solo piano, just a few chords.  Let’s face it, it wasn’t the done thing.  It was the last time Beethoven was to be the soloist in one of his own concertos.

The choral fantasia is a strange concoction, a mish mash of piano concerto, choral singing, chamber music, variations and a portent of the theme of the Ode to Joy in the choral symphony written 15 years later. Its nearest relative could be said to be Constant Lambert’s Rio Grande.

His last concerto, the fifth piano concerto, is the well known and loved “Emperor” and was first performed in 1809. I group it with the previous list for completeness.  First of all, the name “Emperor” was not as one might suppose referring to the Emperor Francis I who had abdicated.  The name was not even suggested by Beethoven but from Johann Baptist Cramer who was a piano manufacturer resident in London from 1800 and who published it in England.  He is credited to have acclaimed the work as an emperor of concertos.   It is in E flat, the same key as the Eroica, and it displays all the same heroic, majestic atmosphere as that work.

Here we are now in 1809. In some half dozen years Beethoven has frenetically produced work after work after work.  We are still only half way through what we call his middle period.  There will be more to come but not at the rate of output we have just seen.  During this time Beethoven has also managed to move house several times, about 25 times in his 25 years in Vienna and has found time also for maybe a similar number of affairs. And why not?  This side of Beethoven’s life has never been properly fathomed but he fell romantically in love on several occasions but also had the propensity to tire and it is thought that he was not prepared to go all the way. That could be said of many of the ladies but the problem was often that Beethoven was mixing in high society aristocratic circles and teaching their daughters.  But however venerated he was as a composer he was not right for marriage, was not one of us so to speak. As he grew older, more deaf, more angry and more and more impossible, marriage became less and less a viable proposition.

And now in 1809, after six years of occupation and War and Peace or perhaps War and Truce, it all broke out again and Vienna was heavily bombarded by the French. Elsewhere in Vienna, Haydn who had not written for some seven years, breathed his last, challenging the din of guns by playing his Emperor’s hymn at his piano, or so I have understood from first reading Arthur Mee’s Children’s Encyclopaedia (1935 Edition).  Beethoven was at that time living close to the city walls which were breached by heavy cannon and shell fire.  The noise was intense.  He sat in his cellar covering his ears which were being more and more damaged.  Against this background took place the composition not only of his last and greatest of his concertos but also the beginnings of two more string quartets.





Beethoven Chamber Music – The late Period





My last note ended with Beethoven writing his Emperor piano concerto in 1809, still in his middle period. We should not forget to take into account the background picture affecting the lives of all artists. War had broken out again and Vienna seized after heavy bombardment by Napoleon’s forces with the Austrians withdrawing over the Danube.  A peace treaty in October restored some of the Hapsburg position. This had been stage managed by Metternich and sealed by the marriage of the Emperor’s 18 year old daughter, Marie Louise, to the 40 year old balding Napoleon.  Doubtless she was counselled to close her eyes and think of Austria.  Alas, poor Josephine. This period from 1809 was nevertheless grim on the home front, not that one would think so from The Emperor concerto.  The walls surrounding Vienna had been flattened and it was now an open city.  To top it all the currency had toppled overnight losing 80% of its value, very much hitting the poor rich, some of whom stopped making their payments to Beethoven. He was big enough not to take it from anyone and was fast becoming a compulsive litigant, keeping his lawyers busy anyway.  Thus it was that he even took Prince Lobkowitz to court, the man who had financed the Eroica and who had now commissioned the Harp quartet.

Beethoven’s rate of production had slowed (comparatively) and he was now into what one might describe as his late middle period during which he produced five great piano sonatas, the best known of which is the “Les Adieux”.  He also returned again to the string quartet with two, the Harp Op 74 and the Serioso, opus 95.

The Harp had obtained its moniker from the pizzicato writing in the first movement. Its use was quite unusual for its time and we have to wait till Debussy and Ravel for pizzicato to be more greatly exploited.  The Harp abounds in reproducing  ideas and motives taken from his 5th symphony which Beethoven could not resist repeating.

The Serioso’s opus number is misleading.  It actually was written in early 1810 but only published later. It is out of the same stable as the Harp but they are by no means identical twins. If the Harp harps back to fifth symphony, the Serioso seems a foretaste of things to come.  Its opening sounds Freudian and best to be played in the waiting room of a psychoanalyst.  It is the shortest of his quartets and looks towards the late quartets to be written more than ten years ahead.  More of them anon.

In 1810 came the last piano trio, the Archduke, dedicated as was the Emperor piano concerto, to Archduke Rudolf.  That same year, Beethoven met Goethe for the first time and composed incidental music for his play, Egmont, based on a Flemish hero.

There were other contemporary challengers around who have since been expunged from popular memory but, head and shoulders above as Beethoven was, the man of the moment was Rossini who had taken Vienna by storm. The Barber of Seville was top of the charts in the whistling stakes. It even received an accreditation from Beethoven at the end of the second movement of his eighth symphony where there is a miniature take off of a Rossini crescendo.

Meantime, back to Napoleon. His fortunes were somewhat dashed at Borodino in 1812, depicted in Tchaikovsky’s over the top 1812 overture but written in 1882.  The French were having to fight their way back.  The Austrians made an attempt to cut off the retreating Grande Armée at the battle of Hanau with the aim of bringing the wars to an early end there and then.  This cunning plan unfortunately failed and the French forces were able to slip across the Rhine back into France, a kind of Dunkirk in reverse. This was the background to Beethoven’s return to the symphony with his seventh completed in 1812, followed by the eighth just a few months later. It was now four years since his great akadamie (concert) of 1808 when he presented to the world the 5th and 6th symphonies as well as the fourth piano concerto.

The first performance of the seventh symphony took place in 1813 at a concert for soldiers wounded at the battle of Hanau.  I had previously imagined that this was attended by the battle victims themselves. Actually, it was a charity concert to raise money for the wounded, and the attendees more likely to have been the likes of the Presidents Club, with or without hostesses I cannot say. The allegretto (second movement) did go down well having to be repeated twice. An even bigger hit was his Battle Symphony played at the same concert.  In 1813 the Spanish were defeated at the Battle of Vittoria by a combined force of English and Portuguese under the newly ennobled Duke of Wellington. In tribute, Beethoven wrote a battle symphony. Here I again have to eat my words as to the limited size of the orchestra in Beethoven’s day.  The Battle Symphony was scored for an enormous orchestra which included contrabassoon, four horns, six trumpets, three trombones, timpani, a large percussion battery (including muskets and other artillery sound effects), and an enormous  string section pf nearly sixty.  It has “God Save the King” (first subject) and the French march, “Malbrouck”, which sounds like “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow” for its second.  You won’t often hear it now and it can best be described as “A top notcher’s rock bottom”.  Beethoven dedicated it to the Prince Regent whose boundless enthusiasm for it  remains typical of unchanging royal taste.


The eighth symphony which followed turned out to be a disappointment. Small in scale after the seventh, it appeared to return to being Haydnesque particularly as it included of all things a minuet.  The scherzoid second movement is best known for its tick tick accompaniment, much faster than that of Haydn’s clock symphony with which it has been compared.  It was a send up by Beethoven of the metronome, recently invented or more likely cloned by Johann Nepomuk Maelzel.  He also had invented the panharmonicon, a mechanical instrument that artificially reproduced the sounds of the full orchestra for which he is said to have written the themes of the Battle symphony.  He then claimed that he and Beethoven agreed to go 50/50 on the receipts from the Battle symphony and eventually the two finished with Beethoven in suing mood and taking Maelzel to court.  Maelzel also produced a state of the art ear trumpet in 1808 which Beethoven doubtless tried out without much success.  Today one would surely find Maelzel in the Dragon’s Den as an entrepreneur ready to offer 10% of his equity to those with money to burn.

1814 also saw the opening of the Congress of Vienna with the whole world gathered there, more for the dancing and the entertainment than the politics.  Amongst those participating, apart from Metternich and Talleyrand, would be familiar names such as Rasumovsky and Lichnowsky.  Many former patrons were however to lose their power and influence and Beethoven found himself needing to look elsewhere for commissions.  During the Congress a revival was mounted of Fidelio which had been considerably overhauled and with four overtures into the bargain.

1814 to 1817 was a fallow period with Beethoven in litigious dispute in adoption proceedings over his nephew, Karl.  As head of the family, Beethoven had earlier objected to his brother, Carl, marrying his five month pregnant housekeeper whom Beethoven regarded as a slut, wicked and vicious.   Carl however did marry her and made a will first giving joint custody of Karl to both his wife and Beethoven.  Carl then revoked Beethoven’s appointment and upon Carl’s death  bitter litigation was to ensue.  Beethoven considered the mother unfit and morally degenerate.  Poor Karl was shunted by the courts from one to the other following various appeals.  By this time Beethoven was becoming impossible to deal with, both in business and domestically, with servants coming and going and being sacked all over the place.  Karl, who did not find it fun living with grumpy deaf old uncle Ludwig, eventually attempted shooting himself – but managed to miss.  Beethoven ultimately did gain custody but the relationship between them was never easy. Beethoven had hoped Karl would inherit the musical genes. He didn’t and in the end was happy to enlist as a soldier.  All of this resulted in almost three years loss of productive output by Beethoven whose physical prowess and hearing were getting worse.

One cannot pinpoint when the third period could be said to begin exactly, even less so than that between his early and middle periods.  His last two cello sonatas could be claimed to start the late period and were written in 1815, the year of Waterloo as it happens. So if you don’t like referring to it as the third period or the late period, why not call it the Post Waterloo period. As for old Bony, he was sent off to St Helena where he lived till 1821. On learning of his death, the composer of the Eroica could only make one short  comment, “Well I have written his funeral march already”. Looking at a list of his output for this Post Waterloo period one perceives there are only a minimal few works in any year, sometimes just one single piano sonata. Over this time he was working on his ninth symphony on and off over a number of years before its appearance in 1823.  As far as composition is concerned the list is mainly of songs, Irish songs, Scottish songs, Vienna songs and, somewhat strangely, several canons. Many were not given an opus number.  Back in his early period he had been producing new compositions like a rabbit but also spending as much time as a competitive pianist; in the second (middle) period he was turning out masterpieces by the dozen with his attention aimed at the concert hall and its audiences.  Now in this lonely silent late period he was writing for himself and his own inner satisfaction. He was experimenting and soul searching.

Two hundred years ago, in 1818, Beethoven was producing little but he did return to the piano and write his mighty Hammerklavier sonata, observed one morning by Nephew Karl watching Beethoven pounding away at his piano.  Here again he chooses to return to the mighty fugue.  Remember Albrechsberger, and the discipline he instilled back in the 1790’s?  We now have both the great muscular Beethoven and a slow movement, so quiet with Beethoven at peace with himself.

By 1819 Beethoven was working on the Missa Solemnis which yet again he dedicated to Archduke, now Archbishop, Rudolf.  It is an enormous work written alongside the choral symphony.  His only previous mass had been the Mass in C written for Esterhazy back in 1807.  This time, for the Missa Solemnis, Beethoven was not quite the unchallengeable top dog.  Yet, he wasn’t going to be second either. God was in pole position, but Beethoven shared the front grid with Him.

One large undertaking during the same period were the Diabelli Variations written for piano.  Diabelli, was known as a light music composer who invited several composers, including Beethoven, each to write a single variation on a simple theme.  At first Beethoven showed no interest for it but the idea took hold, so much that he interrupted composition of his Missa Solemnis and wrote 23 variations for starters.  He then returned to it in 1823 and wrote a further 9 variations and added a coda making a total of 33. Why such an odd number?  Two explanations have been proffered.  One is that Bach wrote 32 variations for his Goldberg Variations and that this was Beethoven’s idea of one-upmanship.  The other was that Diabelli had already collected 32 individual variations from others and this was Beethoven’s idea of 33-upmanship!

The ninth symphony, the Choral, was a project on which he had worked for almost ten years.  It had been commissioned some years before by the Philharmonic Society in London, but it was not to get its first performance there. Its immense power showed that Beethoven had lost none of his touch but there is a deep new maturity discernible.  Yes, there are the clean cut sculptured phrases with which one is already familiar but there has now crept in a sense of searching, motives weaving their way in and through the work’s progress and development. The first movement seeks to be searching some goal and only Beethoven knows the way.  Its success was illustrated in that at the end of its first performance of the music he had hardly heard, Beethoven was turned around so as to face the audience in order he might witness the applause and cheering that he could no longer hear.

We come to the late quartets.  There are five plus the Grosse Fuge.

These first three were commissioned in 1823 by Prince Galitzkin as follows

As with the Harp and the Serioso fifteen years earlier, these were all published separately.  I find it difficult to remember which is which from their opus numbers, although I have no such difficulty with the symphonies.  Perhaps they should have had been accorded individual name tags.  There are twenty eight different movements in all and as my descriptions will not enlighten you I will leave it to Matthew’s lectures and the music itself to do so.  Therefore, just a few thoughts.

Beethoven’s last quartets have always been presented as being difficult and abstruse.  The nineteenth century continued to view them as unlistenable. 

The late string quartets of Beethoven were written by a deaf man and should be listened to by a deaf man”.  (Sir Thomas Beecham)


Many of our generation revered Sir Thomas both for his interpretations and his waggery but this kind of remark was totally unacceptable as well as putting many like myself in total fear of these quartets for many years. Beecham’s musicality and dedication were unquestionable but political correctness was not his forte. If he did believe his own quip then it may be that he never did understand what the difference was between a string quartet and a lollipop.

Quartets 13 and 14 have respectively six and seven movements.  I have noticed that some commentators have described them as suites. There is nothing, other than convention and the precedent set by Haydn and Mozart which limits a quartet to four movements.  To add further movements, as Beethoven had done years before with his opus 9 trios, does not place them in the same category as the Nutcracker Suite.  These remain quartets where Beethoven was exploring a new sound world and, when he felt he needed more movements, it might just be because he had a lot more to say.  These extended quartets might be likened to the Mahler symphonies of eighty years later. They are, by reason of their varied nature and profundity symphonies. They happen to be written for the string quartet!

One cannot leave without mentioning the last movement of Number 13, opus 130.  The original intention was that this movement would be the grosse fuge .  It follows five earlier movements which are all in much more contented mood. The grosse fuge is in sharp contrast and takes nearly a further twenty minutes.  It is not a serene fugue as Bach would have written but it emits all the pain and agony that Beethoven seems to have suffered.  Beethoven’s publisher, Artaria, immediately suggested to Beethoven that it did not fit.  Normally Beethoven would have gone apoplectic at such a suggestion but quite nonchalantly he substituted it with the genial final movement we now know.  This movement was to be his last composition and has the innocence of Haydn.  There is a practice for some string quartets these days to re-substitute the grosse fuge instead on the basis that Beethoven’s first thoughts would reflect what was his pure unadulterated original thinking.  My own opinion is that it should remain to be played as a stand-alone piece. There is also an orchestration of it by Otto Klemperer for string orchestra, quite interesting. Stravinsky described the Grosse Fuge as “an absolutely contemporary piece of music that will be contemporary forever.” I would prescribe it as best not to be listened to whilst undergoing acupuncture.

The last string quartets clearly obsessed Beethoven well beyond his initial remit in exploring for new sounds and moods that together encompass all. They are not just modernist or futurist experiments but they scour also the past and are inspired by the likes of Haydn, Bach and even Palestrina.  If you are looking for solemnity, majesty, heroics, rustic dancing, spirituality, neo-baroque, pain, suffering, modern, traditional or modal, you name it – they are all there.

Beethoven would write no more. Yet the quartets are not valedictory statements as one might suppose. During this time, Beethoven was working on a tenth symphony; had plans for a horn concerto and a sixth piano concerto and was considering an opera based on the Faust legend. If only! His mental processes were still productive and sharp.  His physical health was, in contrast, failing him. He was regularly falling ill and in his last years was suffering from dropsy which eventually and painfully took him on 26 March 1827.  He had recently met Schubert who had been present at the first performance of the ninth symphony and who was one of the pall bearers three days after Beethoven’s death when over 20,000 people turned out in tribute for the funeral procession of Beethoven. 

Pace Muhamad Ali, the measure of greatness is but a matter of opinion,. For me there is no doubt. Beethoven was the greatest of them all. That is a fact.