SEPTET, OPUS 20
FIFTH MOVEMENT – SCHERZO
I know—a strange juxtaposition of pictures: Schroeder and Lucy with the young Empress Maria Theresa….
Any Peanuts fans out there? I can’t say I’ve always been big on reading comics in the newspaper. There have been a few that I liked, but mostly the comics section of the paper has always seemed like a vast and humorless wasteland. But, like a lot of other PEANUTS fans, I found Charles Schultz’s daily comic—and especially his longer Sunday comics—to usually be not only funny, but also thought-provoking and even warm and tender, all at the same time.
And of course, within the Peanuts world, I personally identified with Schroeder, the little boy character who played piano and was always oblivious of the love Lucy was sending his way. She could never get his attention, so attuned was he to Beethoven.
When I was in my late teens and early twenties, I worked every summer at Monsanto Research Corporation. I worked in what is called a pilot plant, where huge guys—all well over six feet tall with huge biceps, a requirement for even working there–moved 55-gallon drums around all day long. I worked as the pilot plant “secretary” to the manager of the plant. I could type fast and had my organizational OCD, and of course, my shining personality. I became kind of a mascot for all these huge guys—they dubbed me “Schroeder,” and even gave me a hard hat—which I had to wear every day, of course—with SCHROEDER emblazoned on it.
Anyway…Peanuts lovers will remember that for Schroeder, the most important holiday of the year was BEETHOVEN’S BIRTHDAY—December 16. Schroeder was always wishing everyone, on that most important of days, “happy Beethoven’s birthday.” He really loved his Beethoven.
So…happy Beethoven’s birthday, everyone!
Beethoven composed a Septet in 1799, when he was 29 years old. It was an unusual and innovative work because of its instrumentation—one each of clarinet, horn, bassoon, violin, viola, cello, and double bass. It is a major work of chamber music, comprised of six movements and running 40 minutes in length. In Beethoven’s day, it was one of his most popular and ingratiating works.
I can’t remember, actually, the first time I heard this work. I believe it was in high school. I loved the whole work—it IS Beethoven, after all—but most especially, I loved the fifth movement, a gem of happiness in E-flat Major and the shortest movement of all six. If you remember having LPs, you may remember that when you had an LP on which you liked a particular track more than others—and played it the most often—eventually you could see that track was changing color, becoming less shiny and more worn—the stylus would be wearing the vinyl down. I remember that when I looked down at my Septet LP as it was playing, I could see that this fifth movement track was becoming less and less shiny as time went by.
It is a happy piece, and I hope you will enjoy it as you celebrate Beethoven’s birthday.
One interesting non-musical aside about the work, one that we sometimes overlook when looking at the scores of so many composers, and that has to do with the dedication. Dedications give us biographical clues about composers’ lives. In this case, Beethoven dedicated the Septet to the Empress Maria Theresa. Maria Theresa, who died in 1780, had been the ruler of the Hapsburg Empire and the Empress of the Holy Roman Empire. She had been a patroness of the arts, particularly of music. When she wasn’t pregnant—she gave birth to sixteen children—she was hosting musical soirees at Schonbrunn. She was said to be especially fond of Haydn’s music.
Aside from being the primary music patrons in Vienna, Maria Theresa and her emperor husband Francis are probably best remembered in music history as having hosted the Mozarts in their very first tour in 1762. Mozart was just six years old, and he became so enamored with the seven year old Marie Antoinette that he proposed marriage to her on the spot. Maria Theresa was very fond of the young Mozart.
Beethoven’s dedication of the Septet to her was probably meant to be observed by her son, Maximilian Francis, who was in fact Beethoven’s enthusiastic patron at the time he wrote the Septet.
What Beethoven’s dedication to Maria Theresa—actually, all of his dedications—points out is that he knew he had to “play the game.” Life as a composer in Beethoven’s time was impossible without patronage. So Beethoven—who would ultimately, once he was older and more established, become the archetype of independent composers—knew, at this stage of his life, where his bread would be buttered. Hence, all the dedications in his music.
It is sad that Maria Theresa did not live to hear this most bubbly and happy of works.