Beethoven, Ludwig van: Op. 20, Septet

In terms of its tunes and structure, it may be hard to see a Beethoven-hero in Ludwig van Beethoven’s Septet, op. 20. It fits squarely in the tradition of the divertimento, a (generally) six-movement form without much in the way of metaphysical or political intentions, and with an implication that it could be light enough to play outside. Beethoven’s Septet comes in the expected six movements, and they come in the expected order: the first three, like those of a symphony or string quartet, are 1) Fast 2) Slow and 3) Minuet; the fourth is a set of variations on a popular theme (“Ach Schiffer, Lieber Schiffer”); the fifth is quick and scherzo-like; and the last is a quasi-symphonic finale.

Since Beethoven was Beethoven there is some envelope-pushing in the Septet, some stretching of boundaries. But the extension of convention is not really a matter of tone or form or abstraction. It’s more a simple matter of size: the piece is light but large, and the presence of a bass as fulcrum between opposing forces of winds and strings was unusal and is very successful.

The septet was extremely popular during Beethoven’s time. He even came to regard it as too popular, eclipsing other works he thought to be more important Ð though it’s hard to imagine there was too much complaining on that count. Both the popularity of the Septet and the way in which it was regarded as pushing boundaries are in part attested to by Schubert’s Octet, which takes most of its cues from the structure of Beethoven’s septet, and expands the ensemble still further, adding a second violin. So whereas Beethoven’s Septet doesn’t necessarily contain those metaphysical elements which established his present music-historical role, its popularity and influence certainly helped establish his reputation, both as a young composer and innovator, and it is as fine a divertimento as it ever was.

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