Category Archives: Programmes

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.

Lionel Lewis

September 5, 2018


They are The Six, or Les Six or Le Groupe de Six but who were they and what were they and how did they come about?

I will refer to them as Les Six. You know how to say it. Un, deux trois – quatre, cinq, Cease. They had begun to gather informally to start with as early as 1917 and were soon after to be unionised into a band of brothers – or more correctly five brothers and a sister – by the writer Jean Cocteau who was looking for a vehicle for French music as a counterpart to such artists as Picasso, Matisse, Léger and Modigliani. It was these four amongst others who had canvasses which bedecked the studio of Eric Léjeune where a concert got mounted with music by Erik Satie and three of the composers who would later re-form as part of Les Six. Satie first ran the idea of assembling a group of composers around himself calling them Les Nouveaux Jeunes. That was 1917 and here we are now a hundred years on. Les Nouveaux Jeunes would be the forerunner of Les Six. And, question for the Eggheads, the names of Les Six?

Darius Milhaud  (1892-1974)

Francis Poulenc (1899-1963)

Arthur Honegger (1892-1955)

Georges Auric (1899-1983)

Germaine Tailleferre (1892-1983)

Louis Durey (1888-1979)


Their names are not exactly earth shaking. They may not have been The Rolling Stones exactly but it is through the group label “Les Six” , that posterity would bestow on each a celebrity of a kind, not as individuals nor as Les Nouveaux Jeunes  and it is only because of that label that half their number manage to cling on to their identity. In 1917, the end of the First World War was still a year away with no armistice in sight.  In fact, the Americans were only just joining the fray.  It was but a few months before Debussy would die of cancer and the impressionist movement led by him which had dominated the pre-war years was losing its momentum.  This is easy to see from our present vantage point but a hundred years ago there was felt the need for a new music which would be an expression of French joie de vivre and a reaction both against impressionism which had run its course as well as against nineteenth century romanticism which impressionism had itself set out to dislodge. With Debussy soon to move house into Passy Cemetery and Ravel’s change of direction since the pre-war sumptuousness of Daphnis and Chloe, Paris found itself again led by the be-whiskered old guard of Saint-Saens and Fauré, d’Indy and Widor seemingly still in power. During these straitened times, those pre-war-horses, Diaghileff and Stravinsky, were no longer to be seen around.


Satie himself was one of the greatest of humourists and eccentrics there ever had been. He had met Jean Cocteau in 1915 and in 1917 the two had collaborated on a ballet, Parade, the instrumentation of which included, shot guns, vacuum cleaner and a manual typewriter.  For reasons no-one seems to know. Satie decided to drop Les Nouveaux Jeunes within a year and the surreal hole was filled by Cocteau  in 1920 adding two new members, Milhaud who had returned from cultural duties in Brazil and Poulenc who had been doing his post war national service. What Satie had managed to inject was an ethos based on French popular culture of sorts, centred on all the fun of the fair, setting up Emanuel Chabrier as a model but  seeking its inspiration from the bal-musette and vaudeville of the 1880’s.


The name, Les Six, did not come from Cocteau. It was a baptism by the journalist/music critic Henri Collet who likened the French six to the five Russians nationalists, the Five, known also as the Mighty Handful.  We have been there already not that long ago with a series by Matthew.  Like the Russian Five, the French Six shared a common outlook but were less precise in aims and ability.  One similarity is best reflected in there being in each one of their number one who was not so much unsung as unheard of. In the case of the five it was César Cui.  In the case of Les Six it was Louis Durey who was out of his depth to the rest of the company and soon was to immerse himself in left wing politics and sink from view in the world of composition.


Milhaud put it succinctly thus: “Collet chose six names absolutely arbitrarily, those of Auric, Durey, Honegger, Poulenc, Tailleferre and me simply because we knew each other and we were pals and appeared on the same musical programmes, no matter if our temperaments and personalities weren’t at all the same! Auric and Poulenc followed ideas of Cocteau, Honegger followed German Romanticism, and myself, Mediterranean lyricism!


Jean Cocteau and Les Six first appeared at a bar known as La Gaya. They soon needed to move into larger premises which they renamed Le Bœuf sur le Toit (The Ox on the Roof), after the title of Milhaud’s successful ballet, written originally with Charlie Chaplin in mind and a must for any lover of the samba.  Amongst the audience on the opening night for Les Six were Diaghilev (now back in post-war circulation), Picasso, René Clair, then at the very start of his career as an actor, and Maurice Chevalier.


So now we have the group but what was their aim, their aesthetic? It broadly followed that of Satie and reinforced according to Auric and Milhaud to reproduce the sounds of Paris through circus music and country fairs and to evoke a French mood by musical references to the 1880s.  Even music when written abroad, such as Milhaud’s Le Boeuf Sur Le Toit and his Saudades de Brasil (Streets of Brasil) were made to sound like Gay Paree. This was music to suit the post war mood to welcome in the twenties.  It has its musical roots dating back to La Grande Epoque with all the artificial trappings of the cancan and the  Moulin Rouge that your every day tourist would expect but not as seen by the father of victory, Paul Clemenceau let alone the returning poilus from the front.


What one does not know for sure is to what extent this disparate group imposed any shackles on themselves or simply that each was following the fashion in his/her own separate way.  The Russian Five had a declared aim of promoting Russian culture and would be critical of each other in overseeing what each was doing. Les Six had their own objective of promoting all the fun of the fair.  Theirs was something of comic strip humour, so more akin to Hergé and Tin Tin, than back to Zola or forward to Sartre.


What does mark them as different is their collaborations. They were not the first composers to collaborate – remember the Diabelli Variations.  There were a number of collabs over the years but only one contained contributions by all six. L’Album des Six was put together under Cocteau in 1920, piano pieces written by each of them.  In 1921 there followed the surrealist ballet, Les Mariés de la tour Eiffel.  It was commissioned from Georges Auric by the Ballet Suedois. Auric was running out of time or inspiration and asked the others to contribute but Louis Durey  the first drop out was away from Paris, much to the annoyance of Cocteau. It is a story of a surreal wedding party taking place on one of the floors of the Eiffel Tower on 14 July.  Someone takes a photo snap and a trap door opens and a lion chases an ostrich and kills a guest, followed by a child of the future then killing everyone else except perhaps the bride and groom as the story ends with the close of the party.  Each of the five participants from Les Six has one or more contributions to make, three by Milhaud, and from La Baigneuse de Trouville by Poulenc to a funeral march by Honegger who was clearly already showing his more austere colours.


There were other collaborations but these were in some cases consisting of a smaller number from Les Six and joined by other composers who were not group founders but who were closely associated. It shows that Les Six was by no means a finite unit. The original members were chosen by chance and each gradually went their own way.  Others were around at the beginning or joined in later on, a kind of subs’ bench.  So, if you like, there were the founder members of the club; then there were fully accepted members but without the right to use the “Les Six” name tag and then there were plenty of hangers on. It was easy come, easy go. Not like the Garrick Club. There were those excluded however, Ravel in particular, but then he had made it to the top already and in any event his music towards the end of the twenties had developed a jazzy touch with much in common with Les Six, particularly his two piano concertos. What the group did leave was a legacy of gaiety which infected other contemporaries, Walton with Façade; Martinu, the new migrant to Paris, with La Revue de Cuisine with its tango and charleston and Gershwin with his American in Paris.  It all reminds one of the popular song of the day “How we goin’ to keep them down on the farm, after they’ve seen Paree?”


The group did not last long as a group if it ever got going at all in the first place.  Its formation was a provocative sales pitch by Cocteau.  They would later meet at irregular intervals and there would be a further photo call showing the same faces but somewhat more aged on each occasion.  They had briefly collaborated but each went his/her individual path. The party had long come to an end by the Crash of 1929 but the melody lingered on.  All they had in common was a briefly shared past. They all did their own things through the 1930’s and went on bravely to suffer the privations of the occupation and did their bit for the Resistance.


I propose only to set out some thumbnail sketches.  Here is the line up:-


Francis Poulenc:  I need write very little as I have previously devoted an article on him.  He is the most lovable of the six and the most melodic composer of the twentieth century.  He came from a wealthy industrialist family, Rhone-Poulenc and came to fame with his ballet, Les Biches, a neo-classical mélange, written for Diaghileff in 1924.  It out stravinkies Stravinsky in its quotations of older composers which includes a quotation from Stravinsky’s Soldier’s Tale.  In the 1930’s he produced three concertos, not your orthodox, piano, violin or cello but harpsichord, double piano and organ.  It was in the thirties he became a born again Catholic and alternated between devotional works on the one hand and music hall on the other.


Darius Milhaud: (pronounced “Mee – Yo”)  Born in Marseille of a Provencal Jewish family but Jewish with a difference.  His was a Sephardic family and not an Ashkenazy.  In short he was not from the German/Eastern Europe branch of the diaspora but from  the Spanish/ North African stream. His autobiography starts with his relating how the Sephardis in Provence at one time in their history appealed to the pope for help to keep the Ashkenazies out of Southern France. Strict border controls are nothing new. After learning the violin he switched to composition and studied under D’Indy and Widor at which time he met Honegger. In 1917 he obtained a posting to Rio where the poet, Paul Claudel was cultural attaché. The two collaborated on a ballet and later on  Milhaud would set a number of Claudel’s poems to music. Brazilian music had an influence upon him and on his return to France he composed the music for what became the ballet, “Le Boeuf Sur Le Toit” which contained tangoes, maxixes, sambas, a Portuguese fado and a recurring reprise between each pair. Having no story line, Cocteau turned it into a ballet, first performed on what was the first day following Prohibition. Its setting was a Manhattan Bar appropriately metamorphosed into a milk bar. Whilst Paris was the centre of activity for most of Les Six, it was Aix en Provence for Milhaud with the Carnaval d’Aix and his Suite Provençal. Milhaud played about with bitonality, writing in two keys simultaneously. In the early twenties he went to the USA and discovered jazz which he used to portray primeval man in his ballet La Création du Monde. His output was considerable. In 1940 and with  German occupation  he left France for the USA and settled in California returning to France after the war.


Right from the beginning Arthur Honegger stands apart from his co-six. He was born the son of an émigré Swiss couple at Le Havre where he grew up. He did however claim to be Swiss and held a Swiss passport. During the first world war he served just for a few months in the Swiss army, defending its borders, what one might describe as a sinecure. He also differed from the others in that he was a protestant, both religiously and culturally.  One in fact wonders what he was doing in Les Six as he was the most serious minded of composers and claimed straight away “I do not worship the fair, or the music-hall, but chamber music and symphony music for its essence of solemness and austerity.”  He was the first of them to achieve notable success with his Pastorale d’Eté, a beautiful idyll, written in 1917.  In 1923 he wrote the accompanying music for the silent film La Roue directed by Abel Gance.  It is four and a half hours long after editing and set against the background of railway trains and funiculars.  It inspired him further to write a symphonic movement which became his most famous work, Pacific 231, a locomotive, said not to be a pictorial description so much as a rhythmic inspiration. Honegger and Michael Portillo might not have shared the same era or have been in the same boat but they could be said to have shared the same compartment.  Honegger

nt on to write a second symphonic movement called “Rugby”. If you enjoy the heavy heaving of the pack you might be up for it. In 1926 he married, Andrée Vaurqbourg, a concert pianist.  It has been described as a happy relationship but to my mind a little odd in that they did not, at his insistence, live together. This was to allow him to concentrate on composition.  They managed to have a daughter , somehow somewhere, and he also had a son with someone else, somehow somewhere.  He wrote his first symphony in 1930 for the fiftieth anniversary of the Boston Symphony orchestra. At this time he wrote a cello concerto which has a bluesy background, a little sad. Buddy can you spare a dime?  In the thirties he was more involved with opera and ballet, notably Joan of Arc at the Stake.  The second world war saddened him but his two greatest symphonies came from the period. The second symphony was commissioned by Paul Sacher in 1937 and was written for strings with a trumpet solo in the last movement. It was premiered in 1942 and, like the third, it was championed by Herbert von Karajan. The third, is entitled Symphonie Liturgique with movements with names taken from the Latin mass, Dies Irae, De profundis clamavi and Dona Nobis Pacem. The subject matter has much in common with the Sinfonia da Requiem of Benjamin Britten, written in America in 1940. Both works release an extraordinary amount of power. There is nothing here to associate Honegger with the naughty days of his old playmates, Les Six.  The sound world is of a different school, one which contains motoric, combustible and explosive energy owing something to Prokofiev or Roussel but without their humour. Honegger himself made explicit the music’s connection with the horrors of the war, and the desire for peace.  Honegger died of a heart attack in 1955 and if Poulenc is the most lovable of the six, Honegger emerges as the man of real power.


Georges Auric was a friend of Poulenc during their bookshop days and was possessed of a reputation of a prodigy. One of my best known and least reliable sources states that he gave his first public performance at the age of 2.  He came from  Herault, another member from the South of France. He was one of the first of Les Six to publish but somehow he never really seemed to belong.  The early collaborations by Les Six seem to have come about following Auric being unable to deliver commissions on time. He hit a blank patch in the late twenties and got drawn more to far left groups of artists and writers. However, he abandoned what he perceived as an elitist approach and found his metier in 1930 when he was recruited by Cocteau to write background music for the new talkie films.  From then on, he developed a populist approach and his list of films is enormous and successful.  Not only did he write for the best-known films from France but continued also with film music for Hollywood movies and Ealing comedies.  His name as a composer of film music, must be put alongside those of John Williams, Malcolm Arnold, William Alwyn and Shostakovich. His music for Moulin Rouge with José Ferrer is because of an obvious French connection but Ealing comedies?  I then cracked it.  Passport to Pimlico contains a hypothesis that Pimlico was an ancient fiefdom of Burgundy.  The Lavender Hill Mob contains a heist of gold bullion from the Bank of England moulded into model Eiffel Towers.  Always a French connection.  Well almost.  Whoever produced the Third Man and recruited Auric probably thought Vienna was in France.


Germaine Tailleferre was the sole female member of Les Six and remained productive if somewhat underplayed long after the Groupe’s disintegration during the middle to late 1920s. She was 91 when she died in 1983 leaving behind an extensive body of work over almost 70 years of composing. She was born in the outskirts of Paris. Despite initial objections from her parents she began to pursue her studies at the Paris Conservatoire when she was 12.  She was a prize winner in harmony, and counterpoint, and went on to take lessons from Ravel. She met Auric, Milhaud and Honegger at the conservatoire and after the premiere of her string quartet in 1918, she was invited to join Satie’s Nouveaux Jeunes, leading to Les Six. She remained committed to progressive musical ideas during the early 1920s which earned her a measure of notoriety. Nevertheless, it has been said that her music never abandoned its allegiance to the traditional French “voice” as passed down from Fauré and Ravel. Another expression is the grace and charm of her work, and I would go along with that. I have only heard two works by Tailleferre which includes her contribution to Les Mariés de la Tour Eiffel. My one live experience was in late 1953 when I heard the LPO perform the Tailleferre harp concerto under Jean Martinon at a concert consisting of the Ravel piano concerto in G and Roussel’s Aeneas.  The Tailleferre was not only delightful but feminine. Now you could say “He would say that. Wouldn’t he?”  Yet it has such a delicate nature that Yes, I do say that.  There are female composers whose gender is not disclosed by their music.  No-one could say that the music of Elizabeth Lutyens or Doreen Carwithen is feminine.  One can say that Mendelssohn is delicate and if anyone had said its composer was feminine I might not have been surprised. Equally when I hear the opening of Mahler’s third symphony, I think that if Mahler had been a woman she would not have written like that.  Germaine Tailleferre’s harp concerto was rewritten as a duo or concertino for harp and piano.  You can find them on You Tube if you would like to give them a try.


One further matter as I now find I have further blank paper to fill up is another experience I had at that Martinon concert.  In those years of the fifties it was rare for a concert not to start with the national anthem.  A drum roll, everyone heaving themselves on to their feet, a ponderous performance and sit down again.  On that occasion there was mention in the programme that the concert was in the presence of H E, the French ambassador. So what?  We went through the usual procedure of God Save the Queen, only recently crowned, and no sooner were we on our derrières than back we were on our feet for an unexpected tumultuous performance of La Marseillaise which took us by surprise and storm.  God, did it liven us up before the actual concert got going!


Lastly I come to Louis Durey and, as to his music, I am speechless. He was born in Paris, and he was nineteen years old before he chose to pursue a musical career after hearing a wok by Debussy. He was virtually self-taught and choral music was intended to be his forte. His first work, L’Offrande Lyrique  from 1914 has been called the first piece of French twelve-tone music. Durey set the ball rolling for L’Album des Six when he asked Milhaud to contribute a piano piece which would bring together all six composers. Despite its acclaim Durey did not participate the next year in Les Mariés de la Tour Eiffel.  Effectively it was the beginning of Sixit. Durey continued with his career as a backroom composer, not feeling the need to belong to the musical establishment.  He voiced his growing left-wing outlook which left him artistically isolated and forgotten for the rest of his life.  He moved to St Tropez where he wrote some chamber music and an opera.


Following his marriage in 1929, he moved back to Paris where during the mid-thirties he joined the Communist Party and became active in Fédération Musicale Populaire. During the Nazi occupation of World War II, he was prominent with the French Resistance working as a musician and writing anti-Fascist songs. After the war his uncompromising political attitudes hindered his career. In 1950 he accepted the post of music critic for a communist newspaper in Paris. In the late 1950s and early 1960s he continued to compose but is said to have produced nothing of significance. He would write a work based on Vietnamese themes in the 1960s, brought about by the turmoil France had left in Indochina. With the Vietnam War which followed he set poems by Ho Chi Minh and Mao Tse Tung to music. I am not aware of their having been played in this country.


Clearly, with just one piano piece in a collaboration he was going to end up as the least remembered of Les Six. He returned eventually to Saint Tropez, where he died in 1979.