The Kennedy Center

Septet in E-flat major, Op. 20

About the Work

Portrait of Ludwig van Beethoven when composing the Missa Solemnis Composer: Ludwig van Beethoven
© Richard Freed

Beethoven composed his Septet in 1799-1800, as he entered his thirtieth year. He had taken the Viennese by storm with his skill at keyboard improvisation, had produced his first two piano concertos, and was about to begin work on his First Symphony. The Septet brought to a conclusion his first big series of chamber music compositions, which by then included four piano trios, five works for string trio, and the pairs of compositions for wind octet and for two oboes and English horn, as well as the six string quartets of Op. 18. The Septet, dedicated to the Empress Maria Theresia (not the famous monarch, who had died twenty years earlier, but the wife of the Emperor Franz), became his most popular work in any form and so remained for some time. In later life Beethoven remarked that he wished it had been burned, and when a would-be patron, after the premiere of the Eighth Symphony, offered him a handsome fee to compose "something in the more agreeable style of the Septet" he expressed proper outrage. Spohr, Hummel and others did continue to compose works on this model, though, and without it we might not have had the masterly Octet of Schubert's maturity (in his case, about the same age as Beethoven at the time he composed his Septet), a work whose depth and proportions might be said to have kept pace with Beethoven's own progress after this last big gesture in the "more agreeable style" of the eighteenth century.

The six-movement layout here is more or less that of the classic divertimento, but, as Heinz Becker observed several decades ago, "the music seems to have left the superficial virtuosity of earlier divertimenti behind, and to have moved to the warmer region of symphonic thought." All six movements are too straightforward to require analysis, but it may be noted that the third movement, always the most popular section of the work, is an adaptation of the minuet in Beethoven's Piano Sonata in G major, Op. 49, No. 2 (a work composed much earlier than its misleading opus number might suggest), and that the theme of the splendid set of variations that constitutes the fourth movement became one of the several Beethoven melodies adapted for use as songs by other musicians.