london OHice Ien Soho Square

London, W.I


Edited by


rel.phon. Gerrard 2136, 2Jl7

TeJe,raml Parmaxto, Rath, London

Vol. XV


No. 173


The Beethoven Septet and Some Remarks on

Wind Instruments


" CHAMBER music, as we usually understand the expression, involves three things: the music must be suitable for performance under fairly intimate conditions; each part must be played by a soloist; and no note must be sounded beyond those actually written in the score. The first qualification excludes the loudest instruments-trumpets, trombones, drums: though the trumpet has been used for chamber music. The second excludes the doubling, or rather multiplication of the string parts which is normal in orchestral music. And the third rules out the continuo, or filling in on a keyboard instrument, which was customary up to the middle of the eighteenth century."

This quotation from Mr. Peter Latham's analytical note to Beethoven's Septet in E flat major, which has lately been published in an album of five discs by H ,M.V., offers such a clear definition of what chamber music is that I cannot resist reprinting it here.

The combination of instruments in this Septet are violin, viola, 'cello, double-bass, clarinet, bassoon and horn. When Schubert wrote his octet, which has also been recorded, he added (I think most pe~ple would say wisely) a second violin. This septet of Beethoven's, ahhough numbered Opus 20, was written before the String Quartet known as Opus 18, and the lack of the second violin may be due, as Mr. Latham points out, to his having composed already several trios for violin, viola and 'cello, but as yet no string quartets.

This septet is just the right piece of chamber music for somebody who has made some progress in the appreciation of orchestral music, but has hitherto fought shy of what he believes to be the complicacy and to his ear lack of tonal variety in the string quartet. The devotee of chamber music will probably decide that, except for an occasional exquisitely successful change such as is provided by Brahms's Clarinet Quintet, he prefers his chamber music to be varied only by the introduction of the piano among the strings. I t is true that the Germans, if one judges their taste by the wireless, greatly enjoy wind quintets and quartets. Speaking for myself (and I fancy for once in a way I


find myself with the majority), an hour oflistening to wind combinations puts a damper on my ears,

The clarinet when i t is standing up to four stringed instruments can sound delicious when a great player is performing the work of a great composer, but when i t is backed up by the horn and has no instrument to contend with except the oboe nobody can prevent its being dull. For so smooth-toned an instrument i t is curiously self-assertive. Nobody would accuse the average Englishman of being self-assertive in conversation, but if you listen to an Englishman talking to two or three Americans you will find his smooth, throaty voice asserting itself in the same way as a clarinet would assert itself against two or three oboes. In this septet of Beethoven, although the clarinet has no more singing to do than the violin, the effect on the listener at the end of i t is that all the best solos have been given to the clarinet. If you could imagine a sextet written for flute, clarinet, horn, violin, viola and 'cello, I wager the three wind instruments would completely dominate the strings. Yet, in an ordinary-sized room a solo on the violin would seem to fill it more richly than a solo on the clarinet. This would be an illusion, I suppose, for after all in a full orchestra the number of wood-wind , instruments is not a third of the strings. Quite apart from the pleasure to be derived from listening to the series of graceful little melodies which make up this septet, lovers of orchestral music would learn in listening to it a great deal about orchestral music, and I cannot help thinking that they would appreciate better after studying a work of chamber music like this why the devotee of chamber music derives such particular and peculiar pleasure from getting rid for a while of wind instruments. I mentioned that lack of a second violin. I am sure most listeners would understand why Schubert added a second violin to this combination of instruments and wrote an octet instead of a septet, and at the same time I think most devotees of string chamber music would agree that a sextet for strings, even when they remember such glorious exceptions as Brahms's two sextets , is liable to spoil the perfection achieved by the quartet or quintet of strings.

No doubt one of the reasons why the string quintet offers such a much smaller repertory to the chamber-