Beethoven the arranger: exploring the countryside

Beethoven in 1815 by Johann Peter Theodor Lyser

Continuing our celebrations of the Beethoven 250 anniversary, I thought we might take a little look at one of the, perhaps, dustier corners of his output – that of his arrangements of some of his own works (not to be confused with his arrangements of folk songs, etc). Happily, the text is already largely written for me by Hans Keller, whose programme notes I am currently going through. Here he is, on this very topic in an extract from his note, written as a single essay, for a South Bank Summer Music concert of 6 August 1970 which presented works by Beethoven and Webern…a fascinating juxtaposition! Included were Beethoven’s arrangements of his Piano Sonata, Op. 14 no. 1 in E major for string quartet [M320.d.95.15] and the Grosse Fuge, Op. 133 arranged for two pianos [M200.a.15.47, item 13] (only on this occasion it was given on one piano, four hands). The performers were the Guarneri String Quartet and pianists Daniel Barenboim and Alfred Brendel. We pick up Keller’s note a little way in:

“Beethoven: ‘The unnatural passion to transplant even piano pieces to bowed instruments, so very much the opposite in every respect, ought to be stopped. I firmly maintain that It was only Mozart who was able to transfer his music from the piano to other instruments, and Haydn too.’ (My translation.) He goes on to say that without wanting to compare himself to these ‘great men’, he could do the job as well, and points out that what is needed is not mere transcriptions, but re-composition.

Beethoven wrote his E major Sonata, Op. 14 No. 1, in 1799, and his string quartet arrangement of it in 1802 – in F, in order to use the cello’s C-string. Meanwhile, in 1801, he had published the six quartets of Op. 18; he had thoroughly written himself into the medium which, in view of Haydn and Mozart, he had approached with awe. The quartet arrangement emerges not only as a fascinating, and fascinatingly new piece of music, but as a master’s lesson, for composers, players and listeners alike, on what one might describe as a creative differential diagnosis between piano and strings. Those who know the piano sonata well may like to be warned that one of the most interesting and indeed radical feats of re-composition occurs in the development section of the finale.

The Wihan Quartet

The piano arrangement of the Grosse Fuge shows the re-creative process in reverse. Tonight, the arrangement will be heard on one piano, played by four hands – though there is textural reason to suppose that it was meant for two pianos. But this is more a technical than a musical controversy, and there are, undoubtedly, advantages in the single-piano version too. From the moment go – the emphatic open fifth on G and D instead of the quartet’s octave unison on G – to the highly original and glaringly characteristic piano-writing near the end, Beethoven reminds us of the continual need for instrumental re-thinking which, inevitably, is more than instrumental.

Jörg Demus and Norman Shetler play Beethoven, arranged by Beethoven.

Beethoven rearranged quite a number of works in the course of his development. The fact that he returned again and again to this preoccupation, the manifest reasons varying widely, where they were given at all, suggests, perhaps, a single underlying motive. At their very root, his thoughts, as opposed to Mozart’s, were very often trans-instrumental. While conceived in terms of instrumental colour, or perhaps of changing instrumental colours, they might often have felt imprisoned when finally committed to one particular instrument or combination of instruments. At the same time, the prison governor was, after all, Beethoven himself – so why should he not occasionally place his thoughts into an open prison, considering that they hadn’t done much wrong? From there, they could make excursions into the surrounding countryside, expressing themselves more fully. Or, to put the case more musically, if there is a need for variations on a theme, might there not be an equally realistic need for at least one variation on a work?”

Don’t you just love the ‘prison governor/open prison’ analogy? Only Keller could have thought that one up. I’ll leave you with that thought, whilst you explore the surrounding countryside as you listen to this arrangement of his violin concerto for piano played here by Olli Mustonen. Written at the request of Muzio Clementi, Beethoven went out on a limb for the cadenza in the first movement which includes the timps (which, of course, open the work with those four heart-stopping beats before the orchestra comes in with the first subject) and what an extraordinary change of gear it is! I confess, I’d never heard the arrangement – I have now!


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