Beethoven 250 In The Round

Music in the Round planned to celebrate the 250th anniversary of the great composer’s birth with a weekend of concerts and participatory events in March 2020, continuing with concerts and events over the course of the year.  

In collaboration with Music in the Round, the string players of Ensemble 360 also planned a series of concerts performing Beethoven’s complete string quartets for audiences in Sheffield. 

When the pandemic forced the country into lockdown, disappointingly the events had to be cancelled. Online films, conversations and podcasts were created in their place, to provide some light relief and musical inspiration while many were confined to their homes.  

Here, we have drawn together these materials for you to explore once more at home. 

Happily, the string players were able to continue to pursue their ambitions to perform the complete set of Beethoven’s string quartets in 2021, and the series will continue with performances in Sheffield during Sheffield Chamber Music Festival and autumn 2022. 

Videos

Beethoven Grosse Fuge

Ensemble 360

BEETHOVEN String Quartet No.5

Ensemble 360

FOUR BY FOUR Beethoven’s String Quartets discussion

Ensemble 360 & Martin Cropper

Events

Come and Play!

20 March 2022, 2:00 pm
25-31 March 2022

Cadman Room - Millennium Gallery, Sheffield

BEETHOVEN 250: COME AND PLAY

Ensemble 360 & Hallam Sinfonia

Sold Out – Find Out More

18 May 2022, 2:00 pm

Crucible Studio Theatre, Sheffield

BEETHOVEN STRING QUARTETS

Ensemble 360

More Info & Book

20 May 2022, 7:15 pm

Crucible Studio Theatre, Sheffield

LATE BEETHOVEN: PIANO & STRINGS

Ensemble 360

More Info & Book

10 September 2022, 7:00 pm

Upper Chapel, Sheffield

BEETHOVEN STRING QUARTETS

Ensemble 360

More Info & Book

16 September 2022, 7:00 pm

Channing Hall, Sheffield

HARMONIEMUSIK

Ensemble 360 & Guests

More Info & Book

17 September 2022, 7:00 pm

Upper Chapel, Sheffield

MUSIC FOR PIANO AND WIND

Ensemble 360

More Info & Book

About The Music

BEETHOVEN Ludwig van, Piano Sonata No.30 in E Op.109

Vivace ma non troppo – Adagio espressivo
Prestissimo
Gesangvoll, mit innigster Empfindung. Andante molto cantabile ed espressivo

In February 1820, Beethoven’s friend Friedrich Starke asked him for a ‘little piece’ for a piano tutor he was writing, with contributions from leading composers. Beethoven wrote the piece, but then received a commission from the Berlin publisher Schlesinger for a set of three sonatas – and Beethoven conceived the last three sonatas as a trilogy. He quickly decided that his ‘little piece’ would work very well as the first movement of the E major Sonata (and Starke was instead given five of the Bagatelles Op.119). The structure is certainly unconventional for the first movement of a sonata, alternating between fast and slow sections, in different time signatures and with sharply contrasted moods. In a way, this procedure recalls Mozart’s keyboard fantasias, except that the three sections of fast music in this movement could run continuously were they not interrupted by the Adagios, explaining why some Beethoven scholars have described the form as ‘parenthetical’. The second movement, in E minor, is fast and stormy, while the finale is a spacious and exalted set of variations on a theme in triple time that has been likened to a Sarabande – indeed Carl Czerny wrote that ‘the whole movement [is] in the style of Handel and Seb. Bach.’ At the end of June 1820 Beethoven told Schlesinger that the new work was ‘ready’, though in September he was still making revisions, and wrote again to say it was ‘almost ready’. It was completed soon afterwards and published by Schlesinger in 1821, with a dedication to Maximiliane Brentano. In a letter to her dated 6 December 1821, Beethoven wrote to her: ‘A dedication!!! – and not one that is misused as so often’. He recalled his love and admiration for her family, noting that ‘While I am thinking of the excellent qualities of your parents, there are no doubts in my mind that you have been striving to emulate these noble people. … May heaven always bless you in everything you do. Sincerely, and always your friend, Beethoven.’

Nigel Simeone © 2015

BEETHOVEN Ludwig van, Piano Sonata No.31 in A flat Op.110

Moderato cantabile molto espressivo
Allegro molto
Adagio ma non troppo – Arioso dolente – Fuga: Allegro ma non troppo

During the first few months of 1821, Beethoven was laid low by illness, and was unable to do any composing for weeks on end. It was not until September that he was able to make a serious start on the Piano Sonata Op.110, and even in November he was grumbling to friends that he was still suffering from constant bouts of illness. However, the work was finished on Christmas Day 1821, and quickly sent to Schlesinger. The firm published it in 1822 and unusually, it appeared without dedication, though Thayer speculated that Beethoven intended to dedicate it to Antonie Brentano.

George Bernard Shaw considered Op.110 the most beautiful of all Beethoven’s piano sonatas. The first movement is moderate and elegantly proportioned, leading Charles Rosen to describe it as ‘Haydnesque’. The pithy Scherzo (in F minor) has a slightly folksy roughness – it actually uses a couple of folk tunes – while the Trio is in D flat major and marked by an idea that seems to cascade down the instrument. The reprise of the Scherzo ends in F major and leads straight into the Adagio ma non troppo – initially a recitative that leads to a deeply profoundly expressive Arioso dolente. For many musicians, it is the concluding Fugue (based on a subject built on rising fourths) that places it at or near the summit of Beethoven’s achievements. A sudden interruption of the fugue brings a poignant and tender recollection of the Arioso before the Fugue begins again, the subject now inverted, working towards a climax that is both sublime and majestic. Tovey wrote that ‘this fugue absorbs and transcends the world’, while Stravinsky considered it ‘the climax of this sonata … its great miracle lies in the substance of the counterpoint and it escapes all description.’

© Nigel Simeone

BEETHOVEN Ludwig van, Piano Sonata No.32 in C minor Op.111

Maestoso – Allegro con brio ed appassionato
Arietta: Adagio molto, semplice e cantabile

The final sonata in Beethoven’s late trilogy was composed in 1821–2, straight after Op.110, and it was dedicated to his pupil and patron Archduke Rudolph, familiar as the dedicatee of the ‘Archduke’ Trio, and also the person to whom Beethoven inscribed the Missa solemnis, work on which was interrupted to compose the three late piano sonatas. Op.111 is in two movements, the first a turbulent and tempestuous Allegro preceded by a dramatic introduction notable for its extensive use of diminished seventh chords. The driving intensity of the main Allegro finds a moment of repose with the arrival of the second theme, in A flat major. At the end of the movement it is as if all rage has been spent as the music works towards a serene pianissimo conclusion in C major. The second movement is based on a hymn-like theme heard at the start of the movement and treated to an astoundingly diverse series of variations and a coda drenched in trills that seem to take the music to a strange and wonderful expressive world. Alfred Brendel has said of this movement that ‘perhaps nowhere else in piano literature does mystical experience feel so immediately close at hand’.

Nigel Simeone © 2015

BEETHOVEN Ludwig van, String Quartet in E flat Op.127

Maestoso–Allegro teneramente
Adagio ma non troppo e molto cantabile
Scherzando vivace
Finale. Alla breve

Beethoven had not written a string quartet for well over ten years when the Russian Prince Nicholas Galitzin – a talented amateur cellist – asked Beethoven to write three new quartets. That commission came at the end of 1822, but Beethoven was unable to make any serious progress as he needed to complete the Ninth Symphony first. This he did in February 1824, and after the score of the symphony had been sent to the Philharmonic Society in London (who performed it in March 1825), Beethoven was able to get down to his new commission for Prince Galitzin. The Quartet Op.127 was started in April 1824 and finished by February 1825, swiftly followed by Op.132 in July and Op.130 in November. The first performance of Op.127 was given on 6 March by the Schuppanzigh Quartet and was not a success, partly because Beethoven had only given the parts to Schuppanzigh two weeks before. Still, the composer was angry and for the next performance he asked Joseph Böhm (who was later to teach Joseph Joachim) to lead the quartet. It didn’t fare much better. At a concert on 23 March, where Böhm performed the work twice in the same concert, while there were passionate enthusiasts, others we unconvinced and one critic described the work as ‘an incomprehensible, incoherent, vague, over-extended series of fantasias – chaos, from which flashes of genius emerged from time to time like lightning bolts from a black thunder cloud.’

This may seem a bizarre judgement almost two centuries later, but from the very start, this is music of extraordinary boldness. The quartet opens with six bars of loud, sonorous chords that return twice more in the movement, each time in a different key (in E flat major at the beginning, then in G major, and finally in C major). What follows is in quick triple time, as is the music after each subsequent statement of the stirring chords, but Beethoven takes the music in different directions each time, inserting unexpected silent bars, fragmenting ideas, and producing effects that must have seemed beyond strange in the 1820s, since their sheer daring is still just as palpable now. The French composer Vincent d’Indy (a pupil of César Franck) described the theme on which the variations of the slow movement are based as ‘so radiant in splendour that on reading it one feels … at once transported with joy and bewildered with admiration.’ The Scherzo opens, like the first movement, with loud tonic–dominant–tonic chords, but what follows is a thematic idea in dotted rhythms that is passed from player to player until all four instruments play it together in a fortissimo climax, before the dotted rhythm and the trills which accompany it are further developed, fragmented, and transformed. The central section of the movement is quick and spooky, beginning in the key of E flat minor, growing through a series of long crescendos before leading back to a brilliantly varied reprise of the opening material. About the lilting but idiosyncratic tune that dominates the finale, d’Indy wrote that it ‘would reawake the pastoral impressions of [the Sixth Symphony] did not the development of the dream which ends it, elevating the almost trivial phrase of the beginning to incommensurable heights, remind us that this is … altogether in the poet’s soul.’

Nigel Simeone © 2010

BEETHOVEN Ludwig Van, String Quartet in E minor Op.59 No.2 ‘Rasumovsky’

Allegro
Molto Adagio. Si tratta questo pezzo con molto di sentimento
Allegretto – Maggiore (Thème russe)
Finale. Presto

“Demanding but dignified” was how the Allgemeine Musik-Zeitung described Beethoven’s new quartets dedicated to Count Rasumovsky when they were first heard in 1807. Composed in 1806, and including Russian melodies from a collection of folk tunes edited by Ivan Prach (published in 1790), these quartets were a major development in the quartet form; but though they were longer and more challenging than any earlier quartets, they were an immediate success. Before the Rasumovsky Quartets were played, Beethoven offered them to Breitkopf & Härtel in Leipzig – in a job lot with the Fourth Piano Concerto, the Fourth Symphony and Fidelio – but the deal fell through and the quartets were first published in Vienna by the Bureau des Arts et d’Industrie and in London by Clementi. While the first of the Rasumovsky Quartets is unusually expansive, the second is more concentrated. From the opening two-chord gesture establishing E minor as the home key, the first movement is tense and full of rhythmic ambiguity. The hymn-like slow movement has a combination of richness and apparent simplicity that blossoms into a kind of ecstatic aria: Beethoven himself is reported to have likened it to “a meditative contemplation of the stars”. The uneasy rhythms of the Scherzo are contrasted by a major-key Trio section in which Beethoven quotes a Russian tune that famously reappeared in the Coronation Scene of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov. The finale begins with a surprise: a strong emphasis on the note C that is tantalising and unexpected in a movement that moves firmly towards E minor.

© Nigel Simeone 2013

BEETHOVEN Ludwig van, String Quartet in F Op.135

Allegretto
Vivace
Lento assai, cantante e tranquillo
Der schwer gefaßte Entschluß [The difficult decision]. Grave, ma non troppo tanto (Muss es sein? [Must it be?]) – Allegro (Es muss sein! [It must be!]) – Grave, ma non troppo tratto – Allegro

Beethoven’s final string quartet (only the replacement finale of Op.130 is later) was completed in October 1826. After an awful summer during which his nephew Karl had attempted suicide and been imprisoned, Beethoven was able to escape to the tranquillity of Gneixendorf, a village near Krems about fifty miles from Vienna. He arrived at the end of September and his last masterpiece was finished in the following month, much of it composed outdoors (the locals were amused to observe Beethoven singing and waving his arms as he worked). It is dedicated to his friend and supporter Johann Nepomuk Wolfmayer, who was originally to have been the dedicatee of the C sharp minor Quartet Op.131. The F major Quartet Op.135 is much the shortest of the late quartets, and there’s a conciseness and simplicity that perhaps point forward to the direction Beethoven might have pursued in his music had he lived longer. Its less serious mood can also be explained by the circumstances in which it was written: at the end of his tether after his nephew’s problems in the summer, the composer could at last be refreshed. Op.135 seems to be imbued with this new sense of well-being, and within a relatively conventional movement structure (unlike several of the other late quartets), Beethoven expresses both humour and the deepest seriousness with amazing brevity. The expressive heart of the work was probably the first part to be composed: the Lento assai, barely fifty bars long, was originally intended for the Op.131 Quartet. The finale has the famous superscription “The difficult decision”, based on a question-and-answer motif: “Must it be? – It must be!” The origins of this are a canon jotted down at the end of July 1826, “half-humorous, half-philosophical” as Barry Cooper puts it, providing the ideal theme for a movement that seems to encapsulate the “difficult decisions” that marked out Beethoven as a timeless genius.

© Nigel Simeone 2013

Podcasts

Adrian Wilson (oboe)

UP CLOSE Episode 1

Adrian performs Tomasi; Matt and Naomi talk Age Better; Bernard Gregor Smith reads from A Quintessential Quartet; and Claudia from Beethoven's life; before Beethoven’s Ensemble 360 play his String Quartet Op18 No.5.

Duration: 1:04:41
Claudia Ajmone Marsan (violin)

UP CLOSE Episode 2

Ellen Sargen discusses 'Passau' with Tim and Laurène which we revisit from SMCF18; Claudia continues reading from Beethoven; Ellen, Lawrence Osborne and Emily Howard discuss composing for chamber ensemble.

Duration: 01:02:03
Raye Harvey (violin)

UP CLOSE Episode 3

Matt quizzed by Sheffield Music Hub and performing Reich. Raye Harvey and Elliot Bailey discuss their careers in chamber music; more from Bernard Gregor Smith, Claudia & Beethoven, and another 'Evocation' from Adrian.

Duration: 01:02:24
Ruth Gibson with viola

UP CLOSE Episode 5

Ruth plays Bach and talks about walking and Bach with author Horatio Clare. A behind the scenes look at making our brand new 360 videos of Beethoven, Britten and Bartok and the latest in our ongoing serialisations.

Duration: 01:04:53