Program Notes

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Quintet in E-Flat Major, Op. 16 for Piano and Winds (1796)

Notes for: July 17, 2012

In 1801 Beethoven published this work simultaneously in two versions – as a quintet for piano and winds (oboe, clarinet, horn and bassoon) and as a quartet for piano and strings (violin, viola and cello).

This evening we hear the former. Beethoven had composed the quintet version in 1796, four years after moving from Bonn to Vienna to pursue his career as a pianist and composer. In submitting it for publication in 1801, he arranged it as well for the more customary ensemble of piano and strings to exploit the expanding sheet-music market. In those days, string instruments were preferred over winds for salon music-making.

In its initial form, Beethoven modeled its unusual instrumentation – piano and winds – after a quintet for the same instruments by Mozart (K. 452). In Bonn, Beethoven had composed a number of works for wind instruments, mainly as background music for social events, and he took that experience with him to the metropolis. The Mozart quintet grouping of four winds plus piano suggested to Beethoven a way for him to participate at the keyboard, and at its first performance he exploited the short written cadenzas to demonstrate his skill at improvisation.

In the original quintet version, Beethoven cast the piano and winds in contrasting roles, with these two elements alternating with one other. In converting the work into a quartet with strings, he was apparently dissatisfied with such a rigid balancing act, and he added a number of string passages to sound simultaneously with the piano. Even so, the work falls short of the integrated texture of the great Beethoven piano trios still to come, and its musical interest lies mainly in its Mozartean grace and fluency.

Incidentally, the commercially-minded Beethoven made a number of arrangements of his music for other instruments or groups of instruments. Thus, in addition to this work, he redid his Septet, Op. 20, both as a violin quintet and a piano trio, his Violin Concerto as a piano concerto, and his Piano Sonata, Op. 14, No. 1, as a string quintet. But he strongly disapproved of anyone else’s transcribing his music.

In the piano quintet, the first movement, grave; allegro ma non troppo, opens with a fanfare in unison on the tonic chord followed by an introductory dialog between the piano and the strings in the pompous style and dotted rhythm of an early 18th century French overture. The movement then moves into a sonata form, with three themes, all marked by a simple, relaxed charm. There is an extended development, in which Beethoven playfully inserts a “false” recapitulation in the wrong key. The “true” recapitulation is restored, but only to be interrupted by a short, written-out cadenza.

The melodious slow movement is in rondo form, andante cantabile, with the main theme introduced by the piano and then taken up by the other instruments. After contrasting episodes, this theme returns twice as a refrain, each time with increasing ornamentation.

The finale, allegro ma non troppo – there is no minuet or scherzo – is also in rondo form, but the mood now is one of rollicking good humor. Again the main theme returns twice as a refrain, and the second intervening episode is really a development of the main theme. There is a short piano cadenza just before the first return of the refrain. At one performance, Beethoven jestingly extended the cadenza to his great delight and the discomfort of the other performers, but he frowned on other musicians taking such liberties with his music.

Copyright © 2012 by Willard J. Hertz

Notes for: August 8, 2017

Beethoven’s ingenuity comes face to face with Mozart’s classical style in this delectable Quintet, which “possesses in its melodies and effects, a charm which will never grow old,” as Beethoven’s pupil Carl Czerny wrote. Beethoven was riding a wave of public acclaim when he wrote it. He had taken Vienna’s salons by storm as a brilliant improviser and keyboard virtuoso, he had demonstrated his mastery of Viennese classical form, and he had launched a major career as a composer. Mozart remained a fundamental influence, particularly in Beethoven’s chamber music for winds. At the same time, Beethoven increasingly was asserting his own strong musical personality.

Beethoven most likely modeled the Opus 16 Wind Quintet on Mozart’s Quintet for Piano and Winds, K. 452, written a dozen years earlier: Beethoven’s Quintet is written in the same key of E-flat major, scored for the same instruments, and given the same three-movement structure. You can hear external similarities throughout the Quintet, from the first movement’s long, stately introduction to the last-movement rondo with its hunting theme. This being Beethoven, though, it’s no surprise that he didn’t stick faithfully to the classical script. With all of Opus 16’s surface nods to the Mozart Quintet, there are noteworthy substantive differences – in the way, for instance, that Beethoven focuses on thematic development, and especially in the prominent role assigned to the piano.

The appeal of the Opus 16 Quintet lies in its freshness and affability. The first movement charms with its genial themes, its engaging dialogue between piano and winds, a briefly stormy development section that ends, playfully, with a return in a classically incorrect key, and a graceful coda. The Andante cantabile is striking for the beautiful melody with which the piano opens the movement, and for the increasingly elaborate embellishments and rich instrumental textures as the movement progresses. High spirits reign in the good-natured last movement, a rondo in which, as in the other movements, the piano glitters.

An impish Beethoven enlivened the premiere of the Quintet. According to Ferdinand Ries, in the finale “Beethoven suddenly started improvising, taking the Rondo subject as his theme and entertaining himself and those listening for quite some time. This was not the case with the accompanists, however; they were very annoyed…. It did indeed look very droll to see these gentlemen, expecting to begin at any moment, raising their instruments to their mouths incessantly and then quietly putting them down again.”

When the Quintet was published in 1801, Beethoven included a Quartet arrangement for Piano and Strings, also designated Opus 16, probably in an effort to appeal to as wide an audience as possible.

Copyright © 2017 by Barbara Leish