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Beethoven’s only piano-and-wind Quintet (1796) is often said to have been modeled on Mozart’s Quintet, K. 452, which is scored for the same ensemble (oboe, clarinet, bassoon, and horn, plus piano), but there are as many differences as similarities between the two scores. Mozart was already an acknowledged master in 1784 when his Quintet appeared (contemporaneous works include the six(!) Piano Concertos – K. 449, 450, 451, 453, 456, and 459 – he wrote that same year). The 26-year-old Beethoven had published piano trios and sonatas by this time, but his fame had come primarily from his dazzling displays of improvisational skill and keyboard virtuosity. He was still exploring instrumental sonorities before setting out on his voyage of symphonic composition. Opus 16 offered a chance for him to showcase his composing and his performing prowess.

It may surprise some to learn that Beethoven’s youthful works include a set of three Piano Quartets (piano plus violin, viola, and cello) written when he was just 15; these, too, shared their instrumentation with a pair of works by Mozart that easily eclipse Beethoven’s 1785 efforts, which were never published during his lifetime. Beethoven was certainly not copying Mozart in these works, however, since the first of Mozart’s Piano Quartets (K. 478) was just being composed that same year, and the second (K. 493) did not appear until 1786. When Beethoven’s Opus 16 was published in 1801, it included an alternative version for piano and strings.

The first movement shows Beethoven making a serious attempt to be serious. The extended slow introduction, marked Grave, produces an opening movement that is as long as the two following movements combined. The winds start the proceedings, after which the piano quickly makes itself known with a solo flourish. Thereafter, for the most part, the forces trade thematic materials in democratic fashion, until another cadenza-like flourish from the piano leads into the Allegro proper. An invigorating and sprightly theme is stated and developed in a refreshingly non-dramatic way. After an exposition repeat, things become more agitated and the dynamic level also rises as the development begins. A striding passage reminds us briefly that E-flat is the same key Beethoven will use for his “Eroica” Symphony, still seven years in the future. Might we even hear a few pre-echoes of the “Emperor” Concerto, another work in E-flat? The coda gives the horn an arpeggiated figure, heard earlier in the piano; what is idiomatic for the keyboard is treacherous for the horn, and it is as thrilling to hear as it must be chilling to play.

The Andante cantabile offers opportunities for each instrument to sing, both solo and as a member of the ensemble. The delicate theme introduced by the piano returns to separate the episodes and initiate a new wave of rhapsodic dialogue among the conversationalists.

The evening ends with a game. The Rondo’s nonchalant theme soon picks up speed as it is embellished and embroidered by the piano and the winds in a whirl of activity. As in a piano concerto, Beethoven leaves room for a solo cadenza in the first half of the finale. It is reported that the composer (who played the piano part himself when the work was new) would indulge in some extra improvisational activity, fooling the wind players, who – at first amused and then disgruntled – were waiting to come back in.

— Dennis Bade