History is littered with posthumous success stories. Vincent van Gogh became a commercial and critical success only after his death. Most of Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales” were published after his death, so he too did not live to see the enduring success of his pathbreaking work.
However, sometimes there are success stories during a person’s lifetime that do not please the creator. Beethoven considered himself something of a victim this way when it comes to his Septet in E-flat, Op. 20. The composer was frustrated because this work — pleasing, joyful, full of fun, and stuffed with diverting melodies — became more famous and more loved than his other works, and the composer was disappointed that it seemed to be diverting listeners in the wrong way: it kept them from appreciating his more innovative works and his great masterpieces.
Yet the composer contributed to this, in a way, by dedicating the Septet to Archduke Rudolph’s sister-in-law, Empress Maria Theresa, second wife of Franz II. This is a move by someone trying to draw attention to the work. Moreover, Beethoven approved of an arrangement of the work for string quartet and flute and he himself created an arrangement of the piece for piano, clarinet, and cello. If he was a victim of any Septet Popularity Scheme, he was also one of that plot’s conspirators.
Beethoven’s immense success means that listeners of today have access to all his works, the light and frothy as well as the most deeply considered masterworks.
Members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO) made Beethoven’s Septet the cornerstone of a recent “CSO Sessions” online concert. Horn player David Cooper introduced the piece, describing it as essentially a serenade or divertimento. But, he said, “Beethoven changes this up.” Cooper said the Septet is like “a violin concerto with a string quartet and a supporting wind section.” He specifically noted that the Septet overshadowed many of Beethoven’s other works specifically because it was so popular.
Cooper was joined for the performance by fellow CSO members Stephen Williamson (clarinet), Miles Maner (bassoon), Yuan-Qing Yu (violin), Weijing Wang (viola), Kenneth Olsen (cello), and Alexander Hanna (bass).
The seven players, performing in masks with large spatial separation on the Symphony Center stage, opened the work with refined playing that gave the music the mood of a gentle ramble until the violin began to take flight. This airy string melody was answered cheerfully by the clarinet and other winds. The movement was characterized by jaunty playing alternating with lacey melodic lines sinuously moving through the ensemble.
From the beginning you knew you were in for a treat. The high strings were sweet and clear and the violin had great articulation in the rapid passages. All the players offered a warm and round sound. The winds were charming with a creamy sound from the clarinet, great bounce from the bassoon, and good brightness from the horn.
The second movement Adagio opened with robust work from the violin and clarinet, and this pair worked well together throughout. The slow breathing of this movement gave it an expansive and calm sense, and Cooper’s patient horn work, which burned slowly throughout, was marvelous.
The Minuet was stately and had a marvelous flowing effect, particularly from the strings. There were charming muted calls from the horn, as if beckoning to us from afar.
The Andante variations were given an understated performance, letting the music speak for itself as it wound its way through the seven players. The horn was marvelous in the Scherzo, which opens with hearty hunting-like phrase. There was good bounce and lilt as the ensemble offered a gallop here and a firm trot there, always propelling the music forward. Olsen shined in this movement, with stylish solo playing.
The final movement was solemn in the opening, quickly giving way to a Presto marking and an almost frenzied section full of oomph and fireworks. Yu’s violin cadenza had flair and there were all the frills and thrills you could ask for as the seven players made their way to the decisive conclusion.
This streaming concert is about 55 minutes, most of which was taken up by the Beethoven Septet. The only other work on the program was the short piece that opened the concert, “Strum” by Jessie Montgomery. The composer herself offered a brief spoken introduction, noting that she has revised the work a few times since its first version in 2006, including adding in 2012 what she calls a “flashy and driving” conclusion.
“Strum” is written for string quartet plus bass and was performed by many of the same musicians as the Beethoven Septet: Yuan-Qing Yu (violin), Simon Michal (violin), Weijing Wang (viola), Kenneth Olsen (cello), and Alexander Hanna (bass).
This eight-minute work was a splendid choice to pair with the Beethoven, as it is similarly entertaining and accessible. Montgomery has previously written about “Strum” saying, “the voicing is often spread wide over the ensemble, giving the music an expansive quality of sound” and the CSO players understood this. Montgomery’s sense of Americana in her music puts me in mind of Aaron Copland and William Grant Still. She has Copland’s ability to spin little folk-like melodies into gold, and Still’s ability to infuse that American sound with subtle influences of genre music (jazz, for example) in wise, judicious ways that enhance the classical canon’s big bag of tricks.
This video is available for purchase from until this Friday. The CSO has a wide range of music videos, including many performances that are available at no charge. Among these free offerings are, “Tribute to Veterans: Trumpeting the Power of Music”, “The Symphony of Rhythm: Solti Conducts Beethoven’s Seventh”, as well as an historic performance featuring Désiré Defauw. The CSO also has concerts specifically created for kids, and has a series of Civic Orchestra of Chicago concerts.
For more information on how to view the concert reviewed here, or how to obtain tickets to other CSO premium offerings (later this month the CSO will release a video of Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time”), visit CSO.tv.