7-8-9: Chamber Music for Winds and Strings

Ludwig van Beethoven – Septet in E flat major, Op. 20
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – Octet in E flat major after KV 452
Louis Spohr – Nonet in F major, Op. 31

Beethoven’s Septet op.20 was first performed in April 1800 at the composer’s first benefit concert at Vienna’s Burgtheater, and his charming piece was immediately popular with audiences. Despite his misgivings about its popular appeal, Beethoven’s Septet remains an engaging work due to its bright conversational style, melodic richness, and rustic charm.

Beethoven wrote his Septet in a deliberately old-fashioned style, recalling the eighteenth-century tradition of cassations, divertimentos, serenades and nocturnes scored for winds and strings. Beethoven glorifies this aristocratic garden party idiom by expanding it to symphonic proportions from the beginning of the opening Adagio.

Scored for a mixture of winds and strings, each member has an essential role in this conversation. Beethoven’s original instructions were ‘violin, viola, violoncello, double bass, clarinet, horn, bassoon – tutti obbligati.’ Beethoven welcomes each voice personally and develops the characters in various permutations throughout the Septet.

Mozart’s Concertante in E flat major is an arrangement of his quintet for piano and winds KV 452 which was published after his death in 1799 in Augsburg. Shortly after the premiere of his original quintet, Mozart wrote to his father about this piece: “I myself consider it to be the best thing I have written in my life.”

In the Classical period, arrangements of popular works for diverse combinations of instruments were plentiful and enhanced the versatility of the work. Typically, large scale pieces were made into arrangements, allowing music lovers to enjoy these works in domestic environments, but occasionally, smaller works were expanded. This reworking by an anonymous arranger is particularly idiomatic and sensitive.

Louis Spohr composed his Nonet in Vienna in 1813 on a commission from the wealthy textile merchant and former Eszterháza violinist, Johann Tost. The requirements of Tost’s commission included stipulations that all of Spohr’s works were the private property of Tost’s for a period of three years (at which time he would return the scores) and that no copies of these works could be made during this time, ensuring that Tost alone could present Spohr’s novel chamber works at the best of Vienna’s salons and chamber music soirées. Spohr was not the only composer to have agreed to Tost’s odd terms. Haydn dedicated 12 string quartets to Tost, and it’s plausible that Tost was the amatore ongarese for whom Mozart wrote his two string quintets. When he commissioned the Nonet from Spohr, Tost requested a work that was “suitable for performance in private circles” and also that the Nonet be “written in such a way that each instrument should appear in its own character.