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During the second half of the 18th century, serenades and divertimentos represented the favorite pop music of the aristocracy and middle class. Kings, counts, wealthy merchants, and mayors provided ample examples of this Classical muzak as background ambiance for guests at teas, sit-down dinners, and garden parties. Everyone was writing this sort of music, from local hacks to the likes of Mozart and Haydn. Even that forward-looking titan with the furrowed brow had a go at the genre as the century came to a close.

Composed in 1799, before the composer had any inkling of his impending deafness, the Septet in E-flat summed up this frothiest of late-18th-century musical entertainments – the entire Classical serenade and divertimento tradition. Much to Beethoven’s chagrin, the relentless popularity of this divertimento tended to eclipse some of his greater achievements. He ranted and railed when the work continued to overshadow his truly great masterpieces until his dying day. The numerous reincarnations of the Septet bear eloquent witness to the work’s hit-parade status among amateur musicians of the time. Soon after its premiere, it appeared in transcriptions for solo piano, two guitars, piano four-hands, piano quartet, and Beethoven’s own trio arrangement for either clarinet or violin with cello and piano.

In its original form, the Septet made its public debut, along with the First Symphony, at the Royal Imperial Court Theatre on April 2, 1800 at Beethoven’s first Viennese Akademie, a benefit concert for the composer himself. The piece was dedicated to Archduke Rudolph’s sister-in-law, Empress Maria Theresia, second wife of Franz II – an astute political move for a young composer eager to gain a solid foothold among the elite of the empire’s musical capital.

Prefaced by a dignified Adagio, and starring violin and clarinet, the opening Allegro sparkles with Mozartean elegance and grace. Its colorful dialogues, thematic richness, skillful motivic development, and sonata-inspired form quickly establish this as music meant for the concert hall rather than mere background sound for an aristocratic garden party. The pastoral calm of the ensuing Adagio affords us a rare glimpse of Beethoven at his most relaxed, the characteristic demonic drive abandoned as clarinet and violin exchange the long-lined phrases of a quietly lilting melody. The Viennese-flavored Menuetto then dances along with a chipper spring to its step. One suspects that Beethoven composed its chirping Trio with tongue in cheek. Initiated by violin and viola, the fourth movement variations on a Rhenish folk tune (“Ach Schiffer, lieber Schiffer”) offer a wide range of ever-changing instrumental textures and color combinations – string trio, bassoon-clarinet duet, and horn abetted by violin triplets and double bass pizzicatos, among others.

The more restless side of Beethoven’s nature surfaces as the horn leads off the playful Scherzo. In the central Trio section, the cello shines, supported by bassoon and strings. The first truly solemn note emerges in the rather dark introduction to the last movement. Soon, however, this sullen march breaks into the high-spirited sonata-rondo finale theme to restore the carefree tone. Throughout the movement, Beethoven reminds the listener that the violin is the only true soprano in the entire ensemble. While exploiting the deep rich hues of the other instruments, he allows the violin to indulge in a few frilly turns – and even a cadenza – to conclude this classy divertimento.

Over the years, Beethoven never quite forgave the Septet for its enormous popularity. Yet, its sole crimes were its youthful charm and immediate appeal. Perhaps Beethoven’s public wasn’t quite as tasteless as the composer imagined. Even today, the Septet in E-flat remains, arguably, the finest septet ever written.

— Kathy Henkel