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.