Septet in E-flat Major, Op. 20
Ludwig van Beethoven
Composed mostly in 1799 and completed early the following year, Beethoven’s Septet had its premiere in April 1800, on the same program as the premiere of his Symphony No. 1. It — and the program generally — was quite successful and pleased the composer greatly.
In later years, however, Beethoven came to grumble about the Septet’s continuing popularity, even as he fed it himself. He approved his publisher’s arrangement of the work for flute and string quartet, and in 1803 created his own arrangement of it for piano, clarinet, and cello. Numerous other adaptations of the work were made and published, testifying not only to its enduring attractions, but to both the market for domestic music making and the level of common music training required to support it.
In spirit and form the Septet follows the model of 18th-century divertimentos, a lighter entertainment in a range of short movements. It opens, however, with an almost symphonic movement, complete with slow introduction and a substantial coda, followed by an Adagio offering lyrical solo opportunities.
The sparkling minuet is based on a theme from Beethoven’s piano sonata Op. 42, No. 2, which, higher opus number notwithstanding, had been composed in 1796. Beethoven uses all of the instrumental variety available to him in the theme and variations (five, plus coda) that follow. The horn introduces the lusty rustic Scherzo, and the contrasting trio section features a lovely floating tune for the cello.
A solemn march introduces the finale, a bright and dashing Presto with a cadenza for the violin, a feature not uncommon in earlier divertimentos.