Beethoven Quintet in E-flat for Piano and Winds, op. 16

performed by the Czech Philharmonic Wind Ensemble & Zdenek Jilek, or below with Daniel Hoexter (piano) with members of the Concertgebouw Orchestra

(cover image by Aaron Burden)

Listening to this work, it just doesn’t surprise me that there aren’t very many works in this form. Besides Beethoven, there’s most notably Mozart, but then also Rimsky-Korsakov, Spohr, Rubinstein, and even a few sextets, but overall, really very little for winds and piano.

Beethoven’s effort in the form came to the world in 1796 and was dedicated to Prince Joseph Johann zu Schwarzenberg. It premiered on April 7, 1797. There’s a piano quartet version of this work, and you may see words like ‘adaptation’ or ‘arrangement’ or whatever, but the two versions share the same opus number and were composed at more or less the same time, the piano quartet (piano + violin, viola, cello) being created in an effort to boost sales.

Speaking of Mozart’s quintet, John Palmer writes at AllMusic that Beethoven is drawing an “unfortunate” comparison to the elder composer’s work in the same key. He says it’s “one of Beethoven’s earliest attempts at symphonic composition in a non-symphonic idiom. The result is a rather extravagant work for a small ensemble…” I won’t disagree, but none of the movements here are as expansive as some of what we’ll see next week.

Richard Wigmore, writing for Hyperion, gives us what is perhaps a more insightful viewpoint:

Beethoven was understandably cautious about tackling the elevated genres of the string quartet and the symphony, in which Haydn, then still at the height of his powers, particularly excelled. But he was confident enough to risk head-on comparison with the recently dead Mozart…

We’ve discussed this issue of Beethoven’s tactful approach with regard to the more hallowed forms of music, and how he did approach them carefully. He took a wide berth around the forms where Haydn made his name. Beethoven’s op. 1 was not a quartet or piano sonata, certainly not a symphony, but a humble piano trio, but he does amazing things with it. At the time of this work, the string quartets hadn’t yet been published, so the struggle was real for Beethoven to make his name without stepping on toes that could kick him very swiftly.

The work is in three movements, with a total playing time of about 25 minutes:

  1. Grave – Allegro ma non troppo
  2. Andante cantabile
  3. Rondo: Allegro ma non troppo

Wigmore continues the contrast with Mozart, stating:

Mozart had subtly interwoven the piano and the wind quartet. Beethoven, working on a more expansive scale, sets them in opposition, so that the outer movements at times resemble a chamber concerto for piano and wind.

I agree with that.

What I feel we run the risk of doing in covering so much Beethoven in one go, even if the forms themselves are entirely different (piano sonatas, chamber music, then [spoiler alert] sonatas for cello and violin), is being a bit repetitive in the discussion of Beethoven’s favorite models and structures. What I’d rather you focus on in listening to this piece is the specific color and texture of the music. Since we’re no longer dealing with just piano and strings, there’s an abundance of color and texture to appreciate.

It’s obviously more challenging to achieve a homogenous, or blended, or cohesive sound with four different timbres than with strings. When I say homogenous, I don’t mean boring, but listen to how these different instruments work together, or not. Listen for the clarinet’s role in the opening movement, and the appearance of Beethoven’s favorite Cm key in the development. Listen for how the piano is pitted against the winds, or with them. There are passages in the development where each wind instrument takes its turn to respond to or interact with the piano, and this is more effective in this setting than it would be for strings alone.

We get a little bit more of this idea in the central movement, a rondo. As I have written in for a future post, a rondo is a form with the same theme (the refrain) punctuated with contrasting themes. Wigmore says:

The Andante cantabile is a simple rondo design in which increasingly florid appearances of the main theme (introduced, as usual, by the piano alone) enfold two contrasting episodes.

The first of these is presented with oboe and bassoon, the next with horn. This is a relatively straightforward movement, but we can appreciate not only the structure and beauty, but how the composer writes for individual instruments. Aside from being a beautiful piece, I do get the sense that this is the composer trying out some stuff for later pieces, even if the opus number that precedes this one was a piano concerto.

The finale is for me hands down the most enjoyable movement. It’s cheerful and sunny, and sounds the most like an actual piano concerto. This movement too is a rondo, but in 6/8 time, what Wigmore calls “a bouncy ‘hunting’ Rondo.” We have some pleasing minor-key passages, and while the ‘hunting’ label may lead you to expect something aggressive or heart-pounding, it isn’t. It’s stately and charming, but has a gallop to it.

Maybe this is a half-hearted article. Maybe I shouldn’t write so much about one composer in such long stretches. But honestly, this is a charming piece, and it’s exciting because we can hear the things that would come to the fore in later, greater works. This might not be a work I’ll return to regularly, but it is a real joy to have every single work of Beethoven’s that we have, and while this one is a little bit more obscure, there’s plenty to glean and enjoy from it.

There are four more Beethoven articles coming up next week, so stay tuned for those, and thanks so much for reading.

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