BEETHOVEN Ludwig van, Octet in E flat Op.103
The high opus number of Beethoven’s Octet for two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons and two horns is misleading since it is one of the composer’s earliest pieces from his Vienna years: he started it while still in Bonn – and finished it in 1793, shortly after his arrival in the Austrian capital. It was reworked two years later as the String Quintet Op.4. Woodwind chamber music was all the rage in the late eighteenth century, nowhere more so than in Vienna, and it was usually written for performance outdoors. Like Haydn, Mozart and many others, the young Beethoven fulfilled the late eighteenth-century taste for Harmoniemusik (music for wind band) with cheerful, relatively undemanding works, of which his most substantial was this Octet.
Beethoven’s Octet was completed just when he started to take lessons from Haydn – and the wisdom and subtlety gained from those can be heard in his string quintet transcription (despite Beethoven’s far-fetched claim that he ‘learned nothing’ from his sessions with Haydn). But the Octet in its original version is one of Beethoven’s freshest early works. He clearly had good players in mind – the orchestras in Bonn and Vienna at the time evidently had wind sections with a taste for virtuosity, as can be heard especially in the delightful finale of this four-movement work. The first movement is engaging and straightforward, while the lyrical Andante has particularly prominent parts for oboe and bassoon. The Minuet is interesting: it’s already a long way from the courtly dance of its title, and an early example of what Beethoven would soon develop into the scherzos familiar from his symphonies.
© Nigel Simeone