Beethoven's Chamber Music
When Beethoven wasn't making history writing roof-rattling symphonies, he provided equally compelling works for small combinations of instruments – some for professional ensembles, others for amateurs who found pleasure in making music at home. In this Active Minds program, we'll sample his mini-masterpieces, such as the beloved “Moonlight” Piano Sonata, the ground-breaking String Quartets and an early Septet – adored by the public but thoroughly detested by Beethoven.
Creative people don't work in a vacuum – they are very much a part of the real world. In fact, they can often function as barometers of current events and social trends. In the realm of classical music, Beethoven was perhaps the most “tuned-in” of all composers. At least, until total deafness caused him to retreat from society and enter a place of solitude. As a young man, he had aggressively sought to be the center of attention, and his arrival in the music capital of Vienna at age 22 soon catapulted him to prominence. Listeners of the younger generation were fascinated by his fearlessness and brilliance at the piano, yet Beethoven's skills as a composer would have to emerge much later. He was no fool, and he understood that the world was changing – a fact underscored by a glance at his early compositions. The list reveals a dizzying array of insignificant works: variations on popular opera arias or duets of the day, numerous minuets and German dances and a large number of sonatas, trios and other chamber pieces that receive little attention nowadays. The reason for this flood of intimate, often forgettable, music is clear: The rising tide of revolution in Europe, signaled by the fall of the French aristocracy and the ascent of Napoleon, sent aristocrats and heads of state into panic mode. Soon, the unsettled economy caused wealthy Viennese patrons to withdraw support from opera companies and orchestras, shutting many of them down. As the 18th Century ended in tumult, the well-to-do retreated to their country estates, bringing only a handful of musicians in tow. Meanwhile, cities such as Vienna saw an increase in private recitals and amateur readings of chamber-size pieces in various middle-class homes, coupled with a simultaneous slowing of public music-making (apart from balls and the occasional chamber concert). The city also witnessed the rise of secret police, out to protect the holdings of the upper class. For musicians, it was a dangerous, uncertain time. Anxious to make a living, Beethoven (and other composers) provided superficial pieces for dance orchestras and for Viennese amateurs as well as those royal ensembles-in-exile. Not that this music wasn't important to Beethoven personally. His work on small wind ensembles allowed him to polish his technique, revealing itself later in those grand symphonies with their unique sound in the winds. Though already a mature music-maker in the early 1800s, he was still developing his inimitable “sound,” as he fully admitted. At the same time, he realized how chamber music could speak with the same urgency, excitement and profundity as larger works for orchestra. Thus, as his remarkable career unfolded, we find a continual stream of music for his beloved piano, plus works for solo violin and cello with keyboard accompaniment, Trios and, of course, those earth-shaking String Quartets. Though the world is most familiar with Beethoven's magnificent symphonies and concertos, there are uncountable thrills and delights to be found in his chamber music – even those early works crafted for amateur players or royal ears. They may not all be masterpieces, but they are all, inescapably, Beethoven!
- Why did Beethoven and his contemporaries have such an attraction to writing variations on popular tunes, and what did they benefit from those compositions?
- For what sort of piano did he write his keyboard sonatas, and how did improvements in design and construction impact his music?
- Who was Ignaz Schuppanzigh and how did he influence Beethoven's music?
- Can you hear traces of the “Beethoven Sound” in his early chamber works?
- Do you prefer his piano sonatas or his string quartets for quiet listening?
- Are those early chamber pieces undeservedly neglected, or should they be left alone?
- What do you make of those amazing late string quartets?
More to Explore
Books for Further Reading
- Watson, Angus. Beethoven's Chamber Music in Context. Boydell Press. 2012. 318 pages. By far, this is the most significant book on the subject, one that is as authoritative as it is readable and endlessly fascinating, offering insights into the musical world of Vienna as well as the musicians and patrons who populated it.
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- Solomon, Maynard. Beethoven. Schirmer Books. 2001. 554 pages. Of the dozens of books on the composer, this one remains at or near the top of the list. It covers in vivid detail the life and times of Beethoven, focusing in engrossing fashion on those who were close to him (nearly 40 pages are devoted to the mystery of the Immortal Beloved). The music is examined in understandable ways, leading to important insights into the genius behind the notes.
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