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The Wind Chamber Music Of Beethoven

From a lecture given in the RNCM Beethovenfest

By Tim Reynish

Revised 18th August 2004

I must confess I do not have much affection for Beethoven, partially because his horn parts are so difficult, and he is extremely difficult to conduct. I do not have the love for him that I have for the wit of Haydn, or for the tragic lyricism of Schubert, or for the all-encompassing Mozart whose music for me runs the gamut of emotion. The first scores in my library are the collected works of Mozart in the new edition, ready for my desert island, and while I might add in symphonies and quartets of Haydn and songs and chamber music of Schubert, I don't think that I would pack any Beethoven; I really am too scared.

My big problem is that when listening to, and especially when conducting, Beethoven I have this very strong feeling that he is probably the giant of composers, the Titan of the Quartet, the God of the Symphony. Can any other composer approach that extraordinary energy of the fast movements, or the serenity of the slow, or his use of quite unpromising material as the basis for superb developments and expansions.

Certainly he is the one composer whose music I feel that I must attempt with all my being to get everything right, speeds, phrasing, balance, articulation, sound-world, I must try to get as near his scores as I can. There is no room here for interpretation or for changing the text.

The composer Carl Czerny got into enormous trouble from Beethoven for doing this:

When I played the Quintet with instruments (in Eb op 16 for oboe, clarinet, bassoon horn and piano) at Schuppanzigh's concert, I allowed myself in my youthful frivolity, many changes - increasing the difficult of passages, using the higher octaves. Beethoven very properly and severely upbraided me for it in the presence of Schuppanzigh, Linke and several other players.

Perhaps Beethoven was being oversensitive - he was after all only a viola player...and of course a virtuoso keyboard player.

That same quintet was nicely compared with the Mozart Quintet by the great Donald Tovey, in his book Beethoven, published by Oxford University Press in 1944:

The majority of Beethoven's early works show a nervous abruptness which is as different from the humour of Haydn as it is from the Olympic suavity of Mozart. There are indeed early works which are Mozartean, notably the most brilliant success of Beethoven's first period, the Septet, which is perhaps the only work of Beethoven 's which earned Haydn's unqualified and enthusiastic praise; but the Mozartean Beethoven imitates only the lighter side of Mozart. In the Quintet for pianoforte and wind instruments, op 16, Beethoven is, indeed, obviously setting himself in rivalry with Mozart's Quintet for the same combination; but if you want to realise the difference between the highest art of classical composition and the easy-going safety-first product of a silver age, you cannot find a better illustration than these two works, and here it is Mozart who is the classic and Beethoven who is something less.

How obviously Beethoven set himself in rivalry against Mozart has been called into question by Barry Cooper in his book published last year by Oxford University Press, also entitled, simply, Beethoven. He writes:

Although in only three movements. the quintet can be regarded as further preparation for a fullscale symphony, its first movement in particular having symphonic aspirations... Like his other wind music of the 1790s, it shows a strong Mozartean influence. Mozart's piano-and-wind quintet (K.452), also in E flat, has even been described as a model for Beethoven's, but how well he knew this work is uncertain since it was still unpublished (though probably not unknown in Vienna) and he surely did not need a model for his own quintet.

Be that as it may, a short exploration of the two works might help in appreciating Tovey's analysis of the situation. Robin Golding points out that Tovey was writing in the first part of the last century; Mozart's music still needed championing, Beethoven's did not.

The Mozart Quintet was written in 1784, first performed on April Fools day. Mozart wrote to his father: I have composed two concertos and a quintet, which called forth the very greatest applause; I consider it to be the best work I have ever composed.

In the last movement, both composers treat the form like a concerto; Mozart brings proceedings to a cadential halt, just before the coda, but then generously he writes out a full cadenza for the quintet, followed by a brief reprise of the opening theme and then one of those operatic disappearances.

Beethoven also has a cadential point but nearer the start of the movement. His own interpretation caused some consternation at the premiere on April 6 1797. Ferdinand Ries in his Biographisches Notizen uber Ludwig van Beethoven writes:

On the same evening he played his Quintet for Pianoforte and Wind Instruments with Ramm as soloist. In the last Allegro there are several holds before the theme is resumed. At one of these, Beethoven suddenly began to improvise, took the Rondo for a theme and entertained himself and the others for a considerable time, but not the other players. They were displeased and Ramm even very angry. It was really very comical to see them, momentarily expecting the performance to be resumed, put their instruments to their mouths, only to put them down again. At length Beethoven was satisfied and dropped into the rondo. The whole company was transported with delight.

Beethoven's early life in Bonn must have been quite agreeable. A youthful friend, Dr Wegeler, wrote:

Altogether it was a wonderful and in many ways an exciting time in Bonn as long as it was under the rule of the personally brilliant Elector Maximilian Franz, Maria Theresa's youngest and favorite son.

Beethoven's earliest professional ensemble experience was in the orchestra of the court at Bonn, and he was lucky enough to get the job of assistant organist at the age of thirteen. Later he played the viola; his colleagues included the horn player, Nicholas Simrock who was to found the publishing firm, and flautist Anton Reicha, who later was to establish the wind quintet as an important form. The orchestra was excellent. Carl Junker wrote on November 23, 1791

The opinion already expressed as to the performance of this orchestra was confirmed. It was not possible to attain a higher degree of exactness. Such perfection in the pianos, fortes, rinforzandos - such a swelling and gradual increase of tone and then such an almost imperceptible dying away, from the most powerful to the lightest accents - all this was formerly only to be heard in Mannheim.

One of the first acts by Maximilian was to strengthen the Harmonie. The term Harmonie is a generic term for Wind Ensemble music, generally for pairs of wind, often but not exclusively for oboes, clarinets, bassoons and horns, again generally but not exclusively written in the latter half, or even the last quarter of the 18th century. The Imperial Harmonie in Vienna was founded in 1772, and 25 years later we hear of a concert at the Schwarzenburg Palace being cancelled, three days after the French armies entered Styria. It is salutary to think that Haydn and other colleagues were travelling to London across a Europe ravaged by war and revolution, a revolution which was to spell the virtual end of the cosy little world of the Austro Hungarian Empire. The courts of Europe were never to be the same, the short-lived heyday of the wind octet was ended by the revolution in Paris, both social and later technological.

Beethoven's major work for wind is the Parthie or Partita one of a number of generic interchangeable terms. The works written for the Harmonie stem from the tradition of the Suite, the Baroque Sonata da Camera, a multi-movement work, often with one or more dance forms. The terms used for this, roughly in order of preference by the 18th century composers, are:

  • Parthia or Partita (or Feldparthie or Partita da campagna)
  • Divertimento
  • Harmonie
  • Sinfonia
  • Cassation
  • Serenade

In formal terms, the earlier works were usually little more than a series of dance movements in simple binary form, but just as with the symphony, quartet and sonata, gradually the first movements developed into sonata form, the slow movements into a lyrical triple time aria, often also in sonata form, minuets sometimes had two or even three trios, finales were often sets of variations or rondos. This lighter form of classical music developed into symphonic works such as Mozart's Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, or more extensive works such as Schubert's Octet or Beethoven's Septet. Works such as these were in any number of movements; the Gran Partita in Bb of Mozart is in seven movements:

  1. 1. Sonata form with slow introduction
  2. 2. Minuet and two trios
  3. 3. Adagio
  4. 4. Minuet and 2 trios
  5. 5. Romance
  6. 6. Theme and variations
  7. 7. Rondo

There are a number of solved and unsolved mysteries surrounding aspects of the Beethoven's early music for wind:

  • Why is Beethoven's early Octet for wind given the opus number 103?
  • What are the grounds for suggesting that it was written in Bonn?
  • If it was really written before 1792, why are there sketches on "Viennese" paper?
  • Why did he write a one movement work for Octet, the Rondino?

Beethoven was extremely cavalier with his opus numbers. A work would be written, sent to a patron or performer, and not published for some time so that the performing rights for that period would rest with whoever the colleague was. Often Beethoven would resurrect an earlier work, and give it to a new publisher with a late opus number to heighten public interest in the music. As Jon Gillaspie puts it:

The high opus numbers attest to the invention of his publishers, to temporary financial embarrassment or to both.

The String Quintet version of the Octet was arranged in about 1795 and published as Opus 4, at the same time that he wrote the Sextet for two horns and Quartet, given the misleading opus number of 81b.

There is apparent clear documentary evidence that supports the composition of the Octet as being in Bonn at the early date of 1792. Thayer wrote that it was improbable that Beethoven would have found either incentive or occasion soon after reaching Vienna to write pieces of this character.

Furthermore, the Elector of Bonn, Maximilian, himself seemed to support this, in a letter to Haydn. Haydn had first met the Elector in 1790, when he arrived in Bonn on a Saturday and proposed to rest on the Sunday before continuing his journey to London. His colleague the violinist and impresario Salomon, took him to the court chapel, where he was surprised to hear the orchestra and choir performing one of his own works. The historian Dies writes:

Towards the end of the Mass, someone approached and invited him to go into the oratory, where he was awaited. Haydn went and was no little astonished to see that the Elector Maximilian had summoned him, took him at once by the hand, and presented him to his musicians with the words "Now may I present to you the Haydn you admire so much".

We do not know whether Beethoven was one of the musicians present, but he certainly knew Haydn by reputation, he met him either then or in 1792 when Haydn was returning, and shortly afterwards, at the age of 21, he went to study.

As so often happens with young students, Beethoven ran out of money, even though he kept meticulous account.

Like any student was not averse to a party; we read in his notebook

16 1/2 guilders, meal with wine

Even though he found difficulty in spelling Haydn's name, he seemed to stand treat quite often when they met:

24th October 22 kreuzer for chocolate for Haidn and me

29th October Coffee 6 Kreuzer for Haidn and me

But his salary from Bonn did not cover all the expenses, and in fact eventually dried up. We have to remember that this was the height of the French Revolution; in 1793 the French Army moved in to Bonn, and the Elector Maximilian moved out to Vienna.

In November 1793 Haydn wrote to the Elector

I humbly take the liberty of sending Your Serene Electoral Highness some musical works, viz a Quintet, and Eight-part Parthie, an oboe concerto, Variations for the fortepiano and a Fugue, compositions of my dear pupil Beethoven, with whose care I have been graciously entrusted.

While we are on the subject of Beethoven, Your Serene Electoral Highness will perhaps permit me to say a few words concerning his financial status. 100 ducats were allotted to him in the past year. Your Serene Electoral Highness is no doubt yourself convinced that this sum was insufficient, and not even enough to live from; undoubtedly Your Highness also had your own reasons for choosing to send him into the great world with such a paltry sum... he owes me 500 guilders... I think that if Your Serene Electoral Highness were to send him 1,000 florins for the coming year, your Highness would earn his eternal gratitude.

The ploy did not work at all, and the Elector wrote back to Haydn rather curtly:

I received the music of the young Beethoven which you sent me, together with your letter. Since however, with the exception of the fugue, he composed and performed this music here in Bonn long before he undertook his second journey to Vienna, I cannot see that it indicates any evidence of his progress...

I am wondering if he would not do better to begin his return journey here, in order that he might once again take up his post in my service, for I very much doubt whether he will have made any important progress in composition and taste during his present sojourn, and I fear he will only bring back debts from his journey, just as he did from his first trip to Vienna.

One of these works which did not impress the Elector of Cologne is the Quintet for oboe, 3 horns and bassoon, which only exists in sketches It started life as a sextet, but Beethoven only wrote the clef for the clarinet part and then wrote for quintet. The work was completed by Zellner and published in 1954 by Schotts as Hess 19, and it is full of wonderful music.

This is an odd episode. Haydn had obviously asked Beethoven for some recent works, and it looks as if Beethoven had not bothered and fobbed him off with a few old pieces from early days in Bonn. But if he knew they were for the Elector, surely he would not have run the risk of his displeasure, for Maximilian was a knowledgeable musician and would have seen through the deception. Furthermore, we have a letter from Beethoven to Simrock, the 1st horn in Bonn, asking if they had played through the Partita yet.

Sketches of these works are in a collection called the Fischof Miscellany, in Berlin, and these are on paper purchased in Vienna so the most likely explanation is that Beethoven had tried the pieces through with his colleagues in Bonn, and then had taken them to Vienna where he had at least re-worked them.

What Beethoven's complete plan for the Parthie or Octet we shall never know. The autograph of the Parthie reveals that after the Minuet Beethoven began to sketch a Rondo, but only got as far as writing the clefs and the opening theme of the horn, before abandoning it and writing the Presto Finale. From the sketches, it would seem that the Rondino was intended as a slow movement for the Octet. Beethoven however took the movement out.

What is particularly interesting is his use of hand stopped horns in the minor episode and of muted horns at the end of the work.

The scoring of the Harmonie sometimes then incorporated strings, but more often than not was for wind alone, but with a double bass, and it was the experience gathered in writing for this ensemble which was to help composers in writing wind parts for the symphonic works of the early and mid classical period. The ensemble of oboes, bassoons and horns developed perhaps from the oboe bands of Louis XIV, but there was also another very popular sextet scoring, with clarinets replacing oboes, a natural combination sicne in many of the courts the oboe players doubled on clarinets. It was for this ensemble that Beethoven wrote his sextet. Although written in 1796, it apparently received a first performance in 1805, and was sent to Breitkopf for publication in 1809 with a little note

The sextet was one of my earlier things, and, moreover, was written in a single night - nothing can be really said of it beyond that it was written by an author who at least has produced a few better works; yet for many people, such works are the best.

We may suspect that Beethoven was being unduly modest with his publisher, for the first performance attracted a rave review in the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung

Great pleasure was given by the beautiful Beethoven Sextet in E flat, a composition which shines resplendent by reason of its lively melodies, unconstrained harmonies, and a wealth of new, surprising ideas.

One work of Beethoven's has never yet been recorded, is rarely if ever played; this is a melodrama from The Ruins of Athens. In 1811, Beethoven was in poor health, with a headache for a fortnight in March, a violent fever in April, so he went to a spa town in Northern Bohemia to recover. While there, he was commissioned to write two Singspiel for the opening of a theatre in Pest. The text was written by August Kotzabue, who was eventually assasinated in 1819 on suspicion of being a Russian spy. His plot for The Ruins of Athens had the simplicity of a John Le Carré novel.

The Gods Mercury and Minerva appear in Athens, and are horrified to find the city of culture over-run by the barbarous Turks. After a chorus of Dervishes and a Turkish March, the Gods flee from Athens and land by the Danube to find a temple of culture in Pest. They are greeted by a Senile Old Man who welcomes them, speaking over the top of a wind octet playing offstage.

Beethoven's last march for wind is of course that in the Ninth Symphony of 1823. He had already written music with Turkish influence in the Ruins of Athens, earlier marches, and in particular the March in D of 1816, scored for multiple trumpets, horns and trombones and a big wind section.

It is strange to realise that the origins of this Turkish music, so beloved by Mozart, Beethoven and their contemporaries, lie in the crude Mehter or Jannisary Bands, the sort of music which must have struck terror into Western armies.

Beethoven undertook some strange commissions, none more odd than the marches of Zapfenstreich.

He wrote on February 18th, 1823, to his publisher C F Peters: I posted the two still missing Taps, and the fourth Grand March. I thought it better to let you have three Taps and one March, instead of four Marches, even though the former can be used in marches

What are Taps? In garrison towns in the evening, a tattoo or taptoo was sounded to warn inn-keepers to close up their bar, put the tap into the barrel and sell no more liquor that evening. In Germany, the bung or Zapfen was placed in the keg and a chalk mark or Streich drawn across so that it could not be tampered with, thus Zapfenstreich.

The March in F WoO 18 was originally intended for the Grand Master of the Teutonic Order, the Archduke Franz Anton, but a second score has the inscription "For the Bohemian Militia". It was certainly heard at a carousel in Laxembourg near Vienna in 1810, and Beethoven wrote

I see that your imperial Highness wishes to test the effect of my music on horses. All right, I will be interested to find out whether it will lead the riders to a skilful somersault or two... The Horse music you want will arrive at the fastest possible gallop.

The Beethoven sketches are a fruitful field of research for scholars and performers; more simply we can investigate his Octet Op 103 and compare it with the Quintet for Strings, opus 4.

Movement Octet - number of bars Quintet - number of bars
1st movt 194 287
2nd 127 160
Minuet 80 110
Trio 1 35 58
Trio 2 73
Finale 223 419

I think the biggest gain in the string quintet is in the development of material. Beethoven allows himself more far reaching modulations and of course wonderful violin decorations of themes. Each movement is extended, usually in the development or codetta sections, and there is a completely new second Trio. The work is often neglected by those who think that it is simply a re-working of the wind version, but clearly it will repay exploration by string players, and by those who want to look into Beethoven's methods of working.

Beethoven's works for wind are varied, and possibly more numerous than some of us expect. He does not reach the heights of inspiration of the three great Serenades of Mozart, there are many interesting features to be explored, questions still to be answered, and pieces to be played. One of his last ever works is not really part of the chamber music calendar, but which is his last piece for chamber winds,Bundeslied, a Drinking Song, written quite late, just before the Ninth Symphony, scored for wind sextet and a heavily drinking choir... well worth a performance after a few Steins of Bier.

Beethoven - Wind Music
1786 WoO 37 Trio in G Flute, Bassson & Piano
1792 WoO 26 Duo in G 2 Flutes
1792 or 3 (1) Op 103 Octet 222:2
1793 WoO 25 Rondino 222:2
1793 (2) Hess 19 Quintet ob 3 horns bassoon
1795? Op 87 Trio in C 2 oboes and cor anglais
1795? WoO 28 Variations on La ci Darem 2 oboes and cor anglais
1795? Op 81b Sextet in Eb 2 horns and string quartet
1796 Op 71 Sextet in Eb 22:2
1796 (3) Op 16 Quintet in Eb piano ob cl hn bsn
1797 Op 11 Trio in Bb pf, cl vc
1798 or 1807 WoO 29 "Grenadiers" March 22:2
1799-1803 (4) Op 20 Septet in Eb cl bsn hn 1111
1800 Op 17 Sonata in F Horn and Piano
1801 Op 25 Serenade in D Flute, Violin & Viola
1809 (5) WoO 18 Zapfenstreich 1 picc2-32(1):22 perc
1809 (5) WoO 19 Zapfenstreich 3 picc2-32(1):22 perc
1809 (5) WoO 20 Zapfenstreich 2 picc222(1):22 perc
1810 WoO 21 Polonaise in D picc222(1):22 perc
1810 WoO 22 Ecossaise in D picc222(1):21 perc
1811 Op 113 Die Ruinen von Athen 222:2 (5th movement)
1812 WoO 30 3 Equali 4 Trombones
1816 WoO 24 March in D large military band
1818-1819 Op 105 6 National Airs Piano & optional flute or vln
1818 Op 107 Ten national Airs Flute/Violin & Piano
1822-24 Op 122 Bundeslied Voices and wind
  1. 1 Despite its late opus number, this is an early work as it was arranged for String Quintet in 1795, published 1796 as opus 4. There is controversy over whether the Octet, Rondino and Quintet were written in Bonn or later in Vienna.
  2. 2 completed by F A Zellner edited by Willy Hess, pub Schott 1956
  3. 3 Arranged for piano and strings , pub 1801 as opus 16
  4. 4 arr in 1803 as op 38 for clarinet, cello and piano
  5. 5 Trios added in 1822
  • Opus Numbers assigned by Beethoven or by his publishers
  • WoO Werke ohne Opuszahl (Works without opus number), catalogued in the 1950'S by Georg Kinsky, completed after his death by H Halm.
  • Hess Works catalogued independently by Willy Hess, and in some cases edited or completed by him; this catalogue includes fragments
  • There are two other catalogues, the Biamonti Catalogue and the Gardi Catalogue.

For further information on less well-known Beethoven, look at

Musical Examples

Work Recording
Op 122 1822-24 Bundeslied LSO/Ambrosian Singers CBS 76404
Hess 19 1793 Quintet Chamber Orchestra of Europe, CD COE 807
WoO 25 1793 Rondino Classical Winds Cassette CSAR 26
Op 71 1796 Sextet in Eb Chamber Orchestra of Europe, CD COE 807
Op 4 String Quintet Sux Quartet, Supraphon 3447-2 111
Op 16 1796 Quintet in Eb Nash Ensemble CRD 1067
Op 16Quintet in Eb Donohoe/Netherlands Wind CHAN 9470
K 452 1784 Mozart's Quintet in Eb Nash Ensemble CRD 1067
Op 125 1823-4Symphony no 9 Gewandhaus Leipzig/Masur 416-2714-6
Mehter March Ottoman Military Band Uzelli CD 208
WoO 24 1816 March in D US Marines, Marine Band Showcase


Title Author Publisher Year
Beethoven Donald Tovey OUP 1944
Beethoven , A Documentary Study H C Robbins Landon Thames & Hudson 1970
Haydn, Chronicle and Works H C Robbins Landon Thames & Hudson 1978
A New History of Wind Music David Whitwell Instrumentalist 1980
Beethoven Barry Cooper OUP 2000
Wind Ensemble Sourcebook & Biographical Guide Stoneham, Gillaspie & Marshall Greenwood Press 1997
The Wind Ensemble Guide Gillaspie, Stoneham & Marshall Greenwood Press 1998