About the Music
For Walt Whitman, who devoted an essay to it, Beethoven’s Septet was ‘Nature laughing on a hillside in sunshine’. For Beethoven himself, not so much.
Late in life, he could be relied upon to explode if anybody praised his earlier works, with particular fury reserved for the Septet.
It’s alleged that he said ‘I wish it were burned’, and although the quote may be spurious it’s quite plausible. In 1823 a Johann Reinhold Schultz met Beethoven in the company of mutual friends, subsequently writing an account of his visit. Schultz was from London (the Septet, by the way, was the first music by Beethoven heard in that city), and congratulated Beethoven on how widely loved the Septet was in England. Cue pyrotechnics.
It has been widely loved, in fact, since its first performance, in a gigantic concert which also included the premiere of Beethoven’s Symphony No.1 and either his first or second piano concerto (it’s not known for certain which one). Why Beethoven chose this eccentric combination of instruments is a mystery, but the unusual combo made future performances less easy to put together, and so almost immediately it began appearing in numerous different arrangements. Beethoven himself rewrote it for clarinet (or violin), cello, and piano.
This was in direct response to public demand, and it’s easy to see why that demand existed. It’s amiable, relaxed music, approaching profundity only in the first of the two slow movements. This isn’t a criticism. Really the Septet is a typical late eighteenth-century divertimento, like Mozart’s Eine kleine Nachtmusik. Whitman calls it ‘spontaneous, easy, careless’. Exactly the aim of such a piece, and the Septet is right on target. By 1823, however, Beethoven must have been absolutely exasperated that such a light work still overshadowed his frequently misunderstood masterworks – 23 years after the premiere! Hence the volcanic reaction. Poor Mr Schultz.
Program Notes Copyright © Alastair McKean 2020. All rights reserved.