Beethoven and the amateurs

Lockdown reminds us Beethoven’s chamber music isn’t only for professionals

4 minute read
Plenty of Philly Beethoven fans are disappointed to miss this spring’s special roster of birthday concerts. (Photo by Alaina Johns.)
Plenty of Philly Beethoven fans are disappointed to miss this spring’s special roster of birthday concerts. (Photo by Alaina Johns.)

The worldwide celebration this year of the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth has focused even more than customary attention on this most performed of composers. It is a rare concert schedule this season—from community orchestras to professional ensembles—that has not paid some special attention to the composer whom Carnegie Hall describes as “without challenge the face of Western music.” The pandemic keeping us at home is a blow to music lovers who looked forward to celebrating Beethoven this year.

No replacement

In the local chamber music world, the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society (PCMS) planned an ambitious Beethoven celebration—all 16 string quartets and 32 piano sonatas—to take place over roughly two months this spring, presented by four quartet ensembles and six pianists. No sooner did it start than this series was cancelled as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Although the PCMS YouTube channel provides video playlists of the performers and works previously scheduled, it is nevertheless heartbreaking to view the PCMS website, now with CANCELLED banners across so many concerts. Nothing can replace the experience of hearing these series of works performed live by such stellar performing artists.

The Philly amateurs

This PCMS series emphasizes Beethoven’s well-deserved reputation as a genius creator of works of extraordinary grandeur and profundity. The music of Beethoven, one might think, is the exclusive business of professional musicians in public concert venues—not amateurs, playing informally at home.

For me, as an amateur cellist, communal musical life ended not with one of PCMS’s Beethoven concerts, but instead with the Associated Chamber Music Players Worldwide Play-in Weekend, observed locally on Saturday, March 7. The site for the local play-in was Settlement Music School’s Queen Street location, where nearly 60 amateur musicians gathered in the late afternoon. The practice of “social distancing” was not yet the order of the day, but already there was a sense, with elbow bumps replacing handshakes, that we were quickly approaching a public-health precipice.

Mary Felley, the program coordinator for Settlement’s Adult Chamber Players program, describes Settlement’s hosting of the play-in as its way of “giving back to the community.”

For the Settlement play-in, Felley had the unenviable task of sorting the players—most of whom she had never met—into ensembles, all depending on what instruments had signed up; and finding music for them. I was assigned to an ensemble of clarinet, horn, violin, viola, cello, and piano. Beethoven, alas, did not write for such a combination. But a friend of Beethoven’s, Anton Eberl, did, and thus I was introduced to his well-crafted and immediately accessible Grand Sextet in E-flat Major, Op. 47. There’s no better way to get a sense of Beethoven’s genius than to play a work from one his lesser, but nevertheless accomplished, contemporaries.

A more approachable Beethoven, in artist Joseph Willibrord Mähler’s 1815 portrait. (Image via Wikimedia Commons.)
A more approachable Beethoven, in artist Joseph Willibrord Mähler’s 1815 portrait. (Image via Wikimedia Commons.)

Music with friends

Today, Beethoven may be “the face of Western music” whose works demand the interpretative skill of only the most accomplished professionals. But Beethoven’s musical world was populated by many amateurs, some of considerable skill. The pianist Archduke Rudolf, for example, gave the first performance of the Emperor Concerto, was a highly accomplished composer in his own right, and is the dedicatee for the Archduke Trio.

Among Beethoven’s closest friends was the amateur cellist Nikolaus Zmeskall von Domanovecz. Beethoven’s duet “for Two Obbligato Eyeglasses” is dedicated to Zmeskall and was written by Beethoven for them to play together, both in need of eyeglasses. It’s not a beginner piece, so Zmeskall must have been an accomplished cellist—or perhaps Beethoven chuckled as his friend struggled with some of the more challenging passages. A few years after this duet was written, Zmeskall was the cellist for the first reading of Beethoven’s Septet, opus 20, a work beloved of amateurs then and now. Zmeskall was sent his music in advance—did Beethoven know he’d need some practice time?

Count Andrey Kirillovich Razumovsky, an accomplished amateur violinist, often played the second violin part with professional string quartets. But as Beethoven’s quartets became more difficult, he was, according to the critic Eduard Hanslick, forced to give up “this last bit of amateurish egoism.” In the second set of quartets—ironically, the opus 59 quartets dedicated to Razumovsky—Beethoven pushed chamber music in the direction of public performance in concert venues by professional musicians, not private performance by amateurs at home.

When life feels miraculous

But we are all looking forward to making music again. My own string quartet has recently been exploring all the Beethoven quartets, and I know the first work we’ll want to play: the A minor quartet, opus 132 (commissioned by and dedicated to another amateur cellist). Its third movement, the famous “Heiliger Dankgesang,” was written by Beethoven soon after he recovered from a life-threatening illness. As lecturer Robert Kapilow has explained in his insightful presentation, what the composer himself called this “holy song of thanksgiving” expresses Beethoven’s gratitude for a return to life, that moment when the “basic facts of existence seem miraculous.” We won’t be on stage at the Kimmel Center, but in one of our living rooms. Could there be a more fitting way to celebrate Beethoven in these times?

Sign up for our newsletter

All of the week's new articles, all in one place. Sign up for the free weekly BSR newsletters, and don't miss a conversation.

Join the Conversation