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Malcolm Arnold (from Walton and his Friends)

SIR MALCOLM ARNOLD (1921-2006)

It was following the passing of my intermediate solicitors’ examination in 1955 that I first saw and heard Malcolm Arnold. My father had rewarded me by buying for me a half season (four weeks) for the proms then in their Malcolm Sargent era. It was in August that I went one evening with my brother to a prom which contained the first performance of a concert overture, Tam o’ Shanter composed and conducted that evening by the composer. I knew not what to expect but the second half opened with a roly poly figure bounding on to the rostrum and conducting with arms flailing like windmill sails. The work was based on the poem of that name by Burns with the drunken Tam and his mare, Meg, being chased by the cutty sarks as Tam tried to reach the old bridge crossing the Doon but poor Meg losing her tail in the process. The music started quietly and then drunken bassoons intoned Coming Through The Rye before the music gained momentum, a bit like Shostakovich perhaps. An even drunker trombone slithered all over the place. Already we were laughing at conductor and music but not nearly as much as when the orchestra launched into a reproduction of the sound of bagpipes, no resemblance to Shostakovich, and the horns whooping as in a Scottish country dance. My brother was literally rolling on the floor of the arena, the audience was hysterical at the site of this arm waving mad conductor and at the music which brought the house down. Just over a year later, I was sent to South Wales to gather evidence on a divorce case. On a very wet December Saturday in Swansea I saw in the window of a record shop a Phillips LP of Tam o’Shanter coupled with Beckus the Dandipratt and Arnold’s second symphony conducted by the talented assistant prom conductor, John Hollingsworth, who died tragically young. I bought that disc there and then. Thus did I begin my recording acquaintance of a great multi faceted composer. Not known but definitely heard. That is, if you were a keen cinema goer of the 1950’s and 60’s. Whilst one watched intently The Bridge on the River Kwai, The Sound Barrier, the Inn of the Sixth Happiness, and about another 112 or so, one heard the distinctive sounds of Malcolm Arnold, turning it out, never churning it out, with the ease of Mozart and with a brilliance not always recognized.
Malcolm Henry Arnold was born in 1921 at Northampton into a family of prosperous shoe manufacturers. Northampton boasts many of the world’s finest shoemakers, leather merchants, designers, tanneries and other related businesses. His parents were musical. Malcolm did not go to school but had lessons from an aunt who also taught him the violin. Another aunt taught him the piano and he learned counterpoint from the organist of St Matthew’s church, Northampton. Co-incidentally, St Matthews was the church of Father Walter Hussey, a great patron of the arts who later commissioned works from both Walton and Britten. Malcolm was also one of a threesome of Northampton composers, Edmund Rubbra, William Alwyn and Malcolm following a generation behind.
The next we know is that by the age of 12 – we are now in 1933 – Malcolm had developed a passion for jazz. He started teaching himself to play the trumpet and when his family stayed in Bournemouth he heard the king of jazz himself, Louis Armstrong which inspired him further. When he was 15 he came to London for lessons with Ernest Hall, the leading trumpeter of the day and principal trumpet with the BBC Symphony Orchestra. That same year he won an open scholarship to the
Royal College of Music where he continued tuition with Hall and studied composition with Gordon Jacob and William Lloyd Webber. He did not however complete these studies despite winning second prize with a composition of a string quartet. After some contretemps with the authorities he eloped with a Welsh redhead and was “discovered” playing in a dance band in Plymouth. He then left to join the London Philharmonic as second trumpet in 1942. Just think about it. At some time before he was fifteen he only then first began learning the trumpet, took lessons, went to the RCM but did not finish and by 21 is good enough to become chosen as a regular with the LPO. He could be said to have been to the trumpet what James Galway would later become to the flute. We also know that he was soon to be promoted to be first trumpet in the orchestra.
In January 1942, following a courtship of only a few months, Malcolm married Sheila Nicholson, a gifted violinist in the final year of her studies at the Royal Academy of Music. The marriage was stormy and lasted 21 years. Many other close and important friendships were forged during this period of his life, notably with William Walton, twenty years his senior, whom he first met in 1941. Despite their age difference the two composers had much in common and shared an irreverent, even anarchic, sense of humour that remained with them throughout their lives. They also shared their homophobic dislike towards Michael Tippett and Benjamin Britten.
During these exceptionally exhausting and demanding early years as an orchestral musician, Malcolm had composed prolifically, often maniacally. The orchestra was frequently playing away, as was Malcolm for that matter. In 1943, the year he wrote Beckus, he suffered the first of many breakdowns that were to dog him later in life. In January 1944, Malcolm and Sheila Arnold’s first baby died soon after birth. Yet only days later, Malcolm was back once again on yet another frantic touring schedule with the LPO.
At the beginning of the war Malcolm registered as a conscientious objector and was directed into the National Fire Service as an alternative to call up although, once he had joined the LPO, this itself exempted him from other war work. Then in 1943 he changed his mind and volunteered to join the Army. I should imagine that his outlook might have changed over three years and with the blitz, his brother, a pilot, shot down, and seeing his contemporaries die he felt perhaps he should be doing his bit. He might as it turned out have stayed with the LPO as he was posted to the band of the East Kent Regiment (the Buffs). He loathed the army and at the end of the war his demob got held up and in order to obtain his discharge, he shot himself in the foot resulting in his spending four weeks in hospital. Early signs perhaps of the bizarre behaviour he was later to exhibit.
It could be said that his orchestral skills were learned whilst on the job and honed whilst watching from within the orchestra. He played under many famous conductors and learned the orchestral repertory. He wrote a tone-poem, Larch Trees, played by the orchestra in June 1943, but better known was his comedy overture Beckus the Dandipratt written the same year although not performed until 1947. Overture, yes but also a wonderful scherzo with such an enticing name. The newly married Arnolds had been on holiday in Cornwall and were befriended by a beach urchin who cadged a lift on Matthew’s shoulders. He called Malcolm “Beckus”, the name for a grey
mare. Dandipratt was an obsolete English name both for an old coin and also an urchin. It is represented here not by a trumpet but by a cornet.
On leaving the army in 1945 he joined the BBC Symphony Orchestra as second trumpet to Ernest Hall but leaving four months later to rejoin his friends at the LPO as principal. He remained there until 1948 when he won the Mendelssohn Scholarship for composition. In those five years he had composed nearly 20 works.
His first symphony was completed the following year and his second in 1952 in Bournemouth conducted by Charles Groves, who went on to champion his music. In 1953 he received a commission from Sadler’s Wells Ballet to write a ballet for the Coronation season. Entitled “Homage to the Queen” it was first performed at Covent Garden at a gala on the night of the Queen’s coronation. Margot Fonteyn was among the dancers, choreography was by Frederick Ashton and designs by Oliver Messel. Dame Ninette de Valois described it as “the best ballet music since Tchaikovsky”. He followed this up with other ballet scores which include Rinaldo and Armida (Frederick Ashton, 1954), Solitaire (Kenneth MacMillan, 1956) and Sweeney Todd (John Cranko, 1959). Later, in 1963, there was Elektra (Robert Helpman)
The postwar – post LPO period was a time of new beginnings for Malcolm, in both his personal and his professional life. In 1948 Sheila gave birth to their daughter Katherine, and then, in 1950, their son Robert was born. He clearly made a big choice after winning the Mendelssohn Prize between that of orchestral musician and that of composing. He embarked on a course of study in Italy, which resulted the following year in the start of a full-time composing career and abandoning his orchestral career. During his time with the LPO, Malcolm had been encouraged by Eduard van Beinum, the orchestra’s principal conductor, who also held the same post with the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam. In 1948, van Beinum included the first performance of Beckus the Dandipratt in a concert programme and, then, following a recording session and there being a little spare time left over, also made a 78 recording of it, the first recording of a Malcolm Arnold work.
It was during this period that Malcolm participated in setting up of the National Youth Orchestra and was present at the 1948 Bath Festival for its inaugural concert. A close friend of its founder, Ruth Railton, he helped establish the orchestra by fundraising, conducting, composing, and teaching. Music and youth was always important to him throughout his life and his orchestral suite Little Suite No. 1, was one of the earliest works to be written for the NYO and remains a staple repertoire piece with youth orchestras around the world.
If there was anybody who appreciated the ability of Malcolm Arnold it was his fellow members of the orchestra. They could see that his music took them into account in how he scored. They also observed the speed at which he composed . It was said he could complete a score whilst the ink was still wet. This led to a suggestion that he contact the film studios. Not only did he do so but in the five years between 1951 and 1956 alone he wrote scores for over eighty films. In 1957, he won an oscar for the film music for Bridge on the River Kwai. He didn’t actually write the Colonel Bogey tune and I am not sure if it was his idea or that of the director of having the soldiers whistling it. Malcolm would probably have preferred the army refrain, “B- – – -cks, and the same to you”. Other film score successes from that period
included The Inn of the Sixth Happiness, Hobson’s Choice and Whistle Down the Wind. Eventually, his total was over 130 films and television series – an enormous number. And that was his sideline. On top of this, he also conducted the recording sessions.
During the 1950s, Malcolm found a perfect musical soul-mate in the cartoonist, Gerard Hoffnung who had become riotously famous with his drawings of conductors and players, the prisoner behind the bars of the tubular bells; the flautist with his washing hanging from his flute. He was also on the original panel of “Just A Minute”. In 1956 the first Hoffnung Music Festival brought the cartoon world alive audibly. Malcolm wrote an overture to begin the concert. Grand, Grand Overture was scored for orchestra, organ, three rifles, three vacuum cleaners and electric floor polisher. He dedicated it to President Hoover. It was a great success with the audience and the tele viewers. Other features were a concerto for hosepipe and orchestra played by Dennis Brain, Concerto to End All Concertos by Franz Reisentstein when the orchestra started off with the orchestral opening of Tchaikovsky’s piano concerto No 1 interrupted by the soloist, the actress, Yvonne Arnaud, who entered playing the piano concerto by Grieg. William Walton was present at that first concert which had advertised his conducting “an excerpt” from Belshazzar’s Feast. The “excerpt” turned out to be just one note from the work, by the chorus, “SLAIN”. Hoffnung and Malcolm were temperamentally suited to each other and quickly became friends.
Throughout his life, Malcolm Arnold maintained a strong social conscience. In May 1957, as a guest of the Union of Czechoslovak Composers, he represented the British Musicians Union at the Prague Spring Festival. It was at this time that Arnold first met, and was befriended by, Dimitri Shostakovich. One social theme was his “Peterloo Overture commissioned by the TUC for its centenary in 1968. It commemorated the workers’ protest in 1819 at St Peters Fields in Manchester at which the Hussars were called out to quell the riot and people were shot. The last previous time the Hussars had fired a shot in anger had been at Waterloo. Hence the event being called the Peterloo Massacre.
The Arnold first symphony would be followed in fairly rapid succession by another four. The third, fourth and fifth Symphonies, all commissions, were composed between 1957 and 1961. The tragic tone of the fifth, especially in the elegiac slow movement has been ascribed as a memorial for several friends who had died, all of them young, among them the great horn player Dennis Brain – (Dennis the Menace), the clarinettist Frederick Thurston, and Gerard Hoffnung himself. This was a prolific period. There were other orchestral pieces, including Tam o’ Shanter, the two sets of English Dances, chamber works for wind instruments, string quartets, four books of piano pieces and especially concertos. In addition to the ballets there was also a one-act opera, The Dancing Master.
There also has to be a special place however for his concertos, not just the number of them but the variety of instruments for which they had been written. They were nearly always written for specific soloists who happened to be special friends. From 1945 to 1954 alone there were eight concertos: Clarinet Concerto No. 1 (for Frederick Thurston 1948); the first Horn Concerto (for Charles Gregory in 1945 and and No 2 for Dennis Brain (1956); Concerto for Piano Duet and Strings (for Helen Pyke and Paul Hamburger, 1951); Concerto for Oboe and Strings (for Leon
Goossens, 1952); Concerto for Flute and Strings (for Richard Adeney, 1954); Concerto for Organ and Orchestra (for Dennis Vaughan, 1954) and Concerto for Harmonica and Orchestra (for Larry Adler, 1954). By the end, Malcolm had written 20 concertos. This last one stood out as it had not been written for a friend as most of the others had. Larry Adler was an American, a world renowned virtuoso of the harmonica, better known as the mouth organ, a name claimed to be invented by Adler. His reputation had grown in the music halls and I remember seeing him at the London Palladium some time in the early fifties. Following his becoming one of the prime victims of the McCarthy Un-American Activities Committee he slipped away to England in 1951 where he remained till his death in 2001. In 1954, he was booked to appear in the Proms and the BBC commissioned Malcolm to write a concerto. Vaughan Williams had written one for him two years earlier. Malcolm set to work and quickly adapted himself to the unusual limitations of the solo instrument. Perhaps the most memorable legacy of Larry Adler was the accompanying music he himself wrote and played for the film Genevieve.
Back to Malcolm, his reputation with the public was that of musical humourist par excellence. He loved jokes in real life, verbal jokes, practical jokes, musical jokes. There is the jocular wittiness in his arrangements of sea-shanties. There are the boisterous rhythms of some of his orchestral dances. There are the affectionate take-offs of other styles, such as jazz, as in the ragtime finale of his Second Clarinet Concerto written for Benny Goodman. There are the sounds he had no difficulty in reproducing, the bagpipes in Tam o’Shanter or the calypso effect coupled with oil drums in his Commonwealth Christmas Overture which Prince Harry and Meghan Markel should get to know.
Every year the composer would devise some new piece for the Hoffnung concert such as “The United Nations” which involved amongst other things a number of military bands marching back and forth up and down the aisles of the Festival Hall playing the national anthems of the world, simultaneously. Then there is the Grand Concerto Gastronomique, opus 76 and written “for eater, waiter, food, and large orchestra”.
Jazz influenced Malcolm Arnold’s music in many guises, an enthusiasm he shared with Julian Bream who commissioned from Malcolm a guitar concerto and gave its first performance at the 1959 Aldeburgh Festival. It has become an Arnold classic. The two are to be seen on a photograph improvising jazz. Julian is playing his guitar, a wicked grin on his face whilst Malcolm sits at a clavichord, with a cigarette dangling from his mouth. A unique combination.
Against the background of his achievement there were alarm bells being rung. Malcolm was successful and wealthy but began to feel his popularity and film writing might detract from his compositional gift. Alongside his success came alcoholism, various embarrassing affairs and mental breakdown on more than one occasion. His wife, Sheila, had to call the police when he brandished a knife and Malcolm underwent electro therapy in hospital. A trip to conduct at a musical summer school in Austria, attended by his daughter Katherine, resulted in the sight of him falling off the podium drunk, while conducting a rehearsal. All of this took place on and off over several years during which there were clear signs of instability and his mental health questionable.
The 1960’s might have been swinging for some but for many a British composer they brought a black cloud with the arrival at the BBC of William Glock as Controller of Music. He set out to rid the BBC of its traditionalist school of English music which saw many a talented English composer not ready to undertake an oath of fealty to serialism become black listed. If Glock was the commander in chief and the ultra modernist composer, Pierre Boulez, was the field general put in charge of the BBC Symphony Orchestra. With his natural populist style, Malcolm Arnold seemed ripe for the chop but somehow he obtained a stay of execution. In fact his fourth symphony was commissioned by Glock. In 1962, Malcolm was still at the top of the tree professionally whilst at the same time domestically his marriage to Sheila had after 21 years fallen apart. From there his life became a succession of downward spirals, too frequent to detail in this short account.
Following the failure of his first marriage, he met Isobel Gray and the couple were married in 1963. In 1966, Malcolm decided he had had enough and needed to get away from London. The pressure of his career as a composer, endless films, work for radio and television, rehearsals and also as a conductor, were beginning to prove too much to cope with. Needing to escape, he chose to live in Cornwall. It was here that Isobel gave birth to his third child, Edward, who, to add to their problems, was eventually diagnosed autistic. Malcolm loved Cornwall and mixing with the local community in the local pub, raising money in writing for the Padstow lifeboat and adding his Cornish Dances to his repertoire of English and Scottish dances. A happy relaxed life but mixed with bouts of more alcoholism, depression and behavioural disorder. His income was equalled by his generosity that he had to be stopped from giving his money away as he did and steps were taken by his family to have his finances put under the control of the Court of Protection.
In 1972 the family moved to Dublin, a safe haven from the taxman at any rate. His daughter Kathryn lived there and applied her therapeutic skills to Edward’s problems. Sadly, Malcolm’s personal life began to deteriorate and there was an attempt at suicide. Isobel eventually had to get a plane to get away from Ireland and this was followed by enforced estrangement from his young son and his second divorce on his return to the UK and an almost complete breakdown.
Arthur Bliss, Master of the Queen’s Musick from 1963 died in 1975 and was succeeded by Malcolm Williamson. “The Wrong Malcolm” William Walton wrote. Our Malcolm was hurt. He could have written goodness knows how many “Welcome the Queens” in less time than it would take H.M to disembark from Britannia. His musical credentials were indisputable, but it must have been clear, except to William Walton, that Malcolm was a risk too far. This was a man who once played a piano in the lounge of a Bournemouth hotel and appeared one afternoon completely nude. Master of the Queen’s Music or not, he would have been dropping bricks all over the place and they would not have been purple ones,.
The end of the 1970s was a difficult time for Malcolm. Somehow he found his way back to Northampton and was confined to hospital for three months and at one time sectioned. Against the background of his difficulties he began to write a new series of late symphonies and his state of mind undoubtedly penetrates into his music of this period. We have come a long way from Beckus. It poses its difficulties but it
retains the fingerprints of the Malcolm Arnold of yore. Four years of silence would pass between his seventh symphony dedicated to his three children and his eighth.
His language had subtly changed. His music becomes more elusive, more compressed and at times more angry. No sign of Colonel Bogey here. The music is often for a solo instrument, pared to its essentials and austere. In the 1980’s the medics had given up on him, reckoning he would not live for more than two years. He lived for twenty more years, thanks to Anthony Day.
Family relationships were not easy. As a public figure, he had the reputation of the gregarious extrovert but to those closest to him he could seem cruel and distant. He then met Anthony Day, a former cruise ship hair dresser who had acted as a carer for a stock broker who died. Day was then asked if he would take on Malcolm and did so dutifully and lovingly over 20 years. They were just carer and cared, friends. Day was gay. Malcolm was straight. They eventually settled in Attleborough in Norfolk where they would visit Dunston Hall, a local hotel. Here Malcolm could often be found in the foyer playing the piano with his left hand and the trumpet with the right hand, much to the fascination of the guests, who had no idea who he was.
As to his music, I can leave this aspect to Matthew. Earlier he had been dubbed “one of the great hopes of British music”. Unconventional as he was, he produced music that was tonal, melodic, witty, high-spirited and always superbly crafted. He claimed Berlioz to be the greatest influence upon him and that, like Berlioz, “all of my music is biographical”.
He was commissioned to write a ninth symphony by the BBC but, with a change of Music controller, it was not played. Charles Groves eventually found an amateur orchestra to give its first performance. It was bleak and a swansong which is only now being understood. In 1985 he received a second Ivor Novello Award for Outstanding Services to British Music; in 1993 his knighthood; and in 2001 a Fellowship of the British Academy of Composers and Songwriters, bestowed at his 80th birthday concert.
Towards the end he no longer wrote or played, by then suffering from mild dementia and also wheelchair-bound. He expressed regret at having been ignored by the BBC Proms that year. “Doesn’t my 85th birthday justify something of mine being performed?” he asked. He died just before reaching that birthday in 2006.
I started off this sketch with my first seeing Malcolm Arnold conduct the premiere of his Tam o’Shanter overture. I will therefore end when I saw him once more at a concert, about 1995. I had gone to the Barbican to hear the LSO under Richard Hickox in which the programme included Malcolm Arnold’s Symphony No 5. I saw Malcolm led to a seat in the stalls by another man. He was not the burly figure of 40 years earlier but now thin, emaciated, with a heavily lined face. Everyone cheered vociferously at the end and his carer led him by the hand on to the stage. Malcolm seemed happy if not seeming to know quite where he was. Instead of leaving the stage when beckoned, he instead stepped up on to the rostrum and seized the baton and started swishing it at the orchestra who appeared bemused and uncertain what to do. Eventually he was very gently led back to his seat. It had been but one brief moment but one when Malcolm Arnold had at any rate found happiness.

Beethoven Chamber Music – Bonn to Heilingenstadt

 

LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)

CHAMBER MUSIC – AN OVERVIEW

 

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

FROM BONN TO HEILINGENSTADT

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

 

 

LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN (1770-1827) 

 

CHAMBER MUSIC –  BACKGROUND TO THE 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?

1800-03

1803

1803

Piano Concerto No 3 Op 37  (in production)

Piano Sonata 21 op 53 (The Waldstein)

Kreutzer violin sonata (an Eroica for two!)

1805

Symphony No 3 Op 55 (Eroica)

1805

Triple Concerto Op 56

1803/5

Fidelio (original version: Leonora)

1806

Piano Sonata Opus 57 (Appassionata)

1806

Piano Concerto No 4 Opus 58

1806

The Three Rasumovsky quartets Opus 59

1806

Symphony No 4 Opus 60

1806

Violin Concerto Opus 61

1806

Coriolan Overture

1807

Symphony No 5 Opus 67

1807/8

Symphony No 6  (Pastoral) Op 68

1807/8

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.