Beethoven Chamber Music – Bonn to Heilingenstadt





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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Violin Sonatas (10)

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

No 10 Op 96

None in late period

Cello Sonatas  (5)

Nos 1 and 2 Op 5

No 3 Op 68 (1808)

Nos 4 and 5 Op 102 (1815)

Piano Trios (7)

3 op 1’s and Op 11

(2) Op 70’s (Ghost) Op 96 (Archduke)

(There are piano trio variations in last period)

String Trios (3)

Op 3, Op 8, Op 9

No string trios

No string trios

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

The string quartets which dominate each period are as follows

Early period  –  6 Opus 18’s


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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