“Unmurderable Beethoven” : Hans Keller celebrates Beethoven 200

Beethoven by Joseph Willibrord Mähler, 1815.

No, we’ve not got our dates wrong, dear reader – read on to see why. This week, we thought it might be fun to present a little concert to celebrate the Beethoven 250 centenary. But what about the programme notes? I hear you ask. Happily Hans Keller has come to the rescue with several he provided for the August 1970 South Bank Summer Music series which celebrated the 200th anniversary of the composer’s birth. We’ve chosen three of the works performed during the series. But let’s take a step back first and allow Keller to set the scene:

In his “Slow Introduction” to an unfinished monograph on Beethoven’s String Quartet in B flat, Op. 130, Hans Keller sets out his stall on that year’s Beethoven bi-centenary celebrations:

To me, the Beethoven bicentenary revealed two facts, one half-expected, the other wholly unexpected – even though, on reflection, one realizes that one should have been aware of it.

The more obvious fact first – the one which every Beethoven-Knower (according to the latest count, there are 3.9 Beethoven-Knowers amongst 10 Beethoven Lovers) will find utterly unsurprising. Although that bicentenary heard more of its subject’s works (including all the favourites, constantly-played music) than any anniversary within dying memory; although, as every Beethoven-Knower knows, most performances would have been, for the listening Beethoven, worse than none; although, in fact, the very sight of yet another Beethoven concert increased the size of every Beethoven Lover’s gall-stones, when it came to the concert, when one had to be present, even though the 300th anniversary performance of the Fifth Symphony may have proved less comprehending than any of the savage executions one could remember, one suddenly became alive to the fact that once again, one was grateful for being allowed to be there, to listen to the unmurderable Beethoven, to marvel at the music’s toughness, at the survival of the fittest art, at the inexhaustible newness of music one knows from memory, yet still doesn’t know enough – and never will, at any rate on this side of life…

South Bank Summer Music was established in 1968 to provide programmes of ‘intimate music for everyone’ performed by leading artists of the time. Daniel Barenboim and his musician friends and colleagues were largely responsible for the works chosen in the early years and the festival ran until 1984.

We begin our concert with Beethoven’s Quintet in E flat, Op. 16 for piano and wind with Daniel Hoexter and members of the Concertgebouw.

Hans Keller writes: “The 26-year-old Beethoven wrote the piano-wind quintet for himself: listen to the piano part and its role in the subtly gauged texture. He performed it on April 6, 1797, at one of Schuppanzigh’s concerts in Vienna. Later, he arranged and re-composed it for piano quartet, no doubt also for himself. In fact, the arrangement is his only masterpiece in that medium.

Structurally, the slow introduction is indebted to Haydn: in character and mode, it is only indebted to its composer. The solo piano theme that opens the body of the movement is irreplaceable early Beethoven: as his genius developed, it had to shed the carefree, joyous melodiousness of his earlier years. But though the theme of the slow movement – a rondo form – is a wonderful melody too, the centre of emotional gravity lies in the ‘episodes’: never has a technical term been more misplaced. The finale is another rondo, this time of the sonata-rondo variety. The whole work, its outer movements in particular, shows that it is possible to remain unproblematic without getting shallow.”

On, now, to the Triple concerto, Op. 56 with Marta Argerich and the Capuçon brothers accompanied by the Simon Bolivar Orchestra and conducted by Gustav Dudamel at the 2008 Salzburg Festival.

Hans Keller writes: “‘Weak Beethoven’: this is what his Triple Concerto, Op. 56 (1804), his Choral Fantasy, Op. 80 (1808), and his Overture The Consecration of the House, Op. 124 (1822) – all in C – have been called for ages. But Beethoven is often at his most incisively original where he does not aim at perfection. The Triple Concerto contains strokes of inspiration – the very beginning, for instance – surpassed in none of the officially great concertos, and unequalled in the remaining history of the genre. The finale, a sonata rondo, is called Rondo alla Polacca, but an explosive polonaise out-polonaises its framework right in the middle – in the central episode, a life-size portrait of the exuberant side of Beethoven’s character. The section is worth many an entire work by a comparable genius: Beethoven was able to compress a whole work’s emotion into a few bars.”


Beethoven – String Quartet in C minor, Op. 18 No. 4. Here is the incomparable Alban Berg Quartet:

Keller writes a more extended note for this:

Beethoven started both the C minor and the A major Quartet (No. 5) from Op. 18 in 1800 (he loved working at several compositions at the same time); but neither seems to have been finished before 1801. The C minor Quartet, needless to say in view of its eminently Beethovenian key, is the most passionate of the six: it is indeed surprising that this is one of the home keys to which Beethoven did not return in any of his later quartets – as surprising as that Mozart never wrote a piano concerto or a string quartet in G minor.

If the first movement is the most passionate, the second is, simply, perfection – exceptional at this stage in Beethoven’s development as a quartet writer: on his own admission, he was still writing himself into the medium. In fact, at a later stage, he would never have conceived of the first movement’s rough alternation of tonic and dominant chords. Nevertheless, his invention and genius are overpoweringly obvious almost throughout the movement – the rich melodic flow of the young Beethoven on the one hand, and the close integration of strong thematic contrasts on the other; the first subject’s contrasting thematic units and the first and second subjects are all developed from the same motif.

But the miracle is the second movement – a scherzo instead of a slow movement, followed by a so-called minuet instead of a scherzo! The minuet is in fact weightier, more serious than the piece that replaces the slow movement: Beethoven’s structural originality, self-willedness before you understand it, accompanied him wherever he went – even into the, as yet, not so well charted area of the string quartet. However, if the Scherzo is light-hearted in mood, it is, at the same time, one of the subtlest pieces of string quartet writing ever, combining polyphony and sonata form with a mastery unheard of in this fragile medium (which ruthless counterpoint readily destroys) since the finale of Mozart’s G major Quartet, K387.

The stormy finale is a unique combination of rondo and sonata – not the usual sonata rondo. The first episode, that is to say, is indeed an episode rather than a second subject, both by virtue of its structural position and in view of its key – A flat major. But in due course, the second return of the theme does grow into a proper (if imaginatively modified) recapitulation, in which the first episode changes its mind and status and reappears as a second subject in the tonic major: as I said, Beethoven’s structural originality accompanies him everywhere, even into what normally is the most conventional of all formal fields – that of the rondo without sonata development.”

HK, with minor additions by SW

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