Fifteen years after this septet’s premiere, following yet another celebrated performance, Beethoven is said to have declared “That damn work; I wish it could be burned”. Although the septet significantly boosted Beethoven’s reputation as a composer and increased his standing with publishers, he eventually came to resent its enormous popularity, feeling that it took attention away from his later, more deserving works.
At the time it was written, the work broke new ground with its original scoring and unconventional exploration of the relationship between the winds and strings. Rather than the customary pairing of wind instruments used in chamber music at the time, Beethoven wrote for clarinet, horn and bassoon, violin, viola, cello and double bass: a combination that was adopted as standard instrumentation by the next generation of composers.
The six-movement work is neatly symmetrical, with slow introductions to both the first and last movements. The clarinet and violin share the exquisite melodies of the second movement, arching over a steadily pulsing accompaniment. Two dance movements – a minuet and a scherzo – frame the fourth movement, a set of variations on a Rhenish folk song that showcases each instrument in turn. The final movement, with its mock solemn opening, quickly dissolves into a sparkling, playful celebration of the virtuosic skills of both the composer and the performers.
With its light-hearted energy, abundant musical jokes and scintillating instrumental dialogues, it is not hard to see why the septet so charmed audiences in Vienna in the 1800s, and remains a firm favourite today.