The Harmonie in Beethoven’s Vienna

The Harmonie in Beethoven’s Vienna
Boxwood & Brass
St John’s, Smith Square. 20 February 2017

The words Harmonie, or Harmoniemusik (translatable as ‘windband music’), are little known in the UK, although they are important aspects of the late Classical and early Romantic musical eras in continental Europe. With arguable roots in earlier military bands, the formation of wind instrument consorts started to grow into prominence from about 1750, and reached its zenith in the 1780s in Vienna. It became the preserve of aristocratic households, and its decline around 1830 was a symptom of the decline in aristocratic resources in post-Napoleonic Europe. Emperor Joseph II formalised the line-up of his own court Harmonie to pairs of oboes, clarinets, bassoons, and horns together with a 16′, usually string, bass. This was the nine-strong line-up of Boxwood & Brass for this concert, although they also perform in the various other Harmonie formats.

It is the ambition of Boxwood & Brass to bring the extensive Harmonie repertoire to a wider UK audience. To that end, they combine their performing and musical skills with an impressive academic and musicological background. Several are linked to the University of Huddersfield Centre for Performance Research and many already have, or are approaching, doctorates in music. Their recent début CD, Franz Tausch: Music for a Prussian Salon (reviewed here) featured original compositions for Harmonie. This St John’s, Smith Square concert included one original composition together with two examples of the important genre of arrangements for Harmonie.

They opened with an arrangement of the Overture to what seems to have been a rather silly opera by Adrien Boieldieu, premièred in Paris in 1812. The initial popularity of Jean de Paris is evidenced by the fact that two competing Viennese theatres managed to get hold of the music from Paris and put on competing performance, in different translations, on successive days later in the same year. Less than a month after the joint Viennese premiere of what had become Johann von Paris, the enterprising publisher Sigmund Anton Steiner started issuing arrangements of numbers from the opera for several different combinations of domestic instruments, as well as two for Harmonie, one for six, the other for nine instruments, as performed here.

The opening few bars seemed aimed at encapsulating practically every possible operatic mood, the lugubrious start leading to horn calls, a little musical hiccup, a march, before a mysterious clarinet solo appears above a pulsating bass. The subsequent medley of melodies included a bassoon solo that was taken up by the other instruments before a brief hiatus led to a rousing coda.

Rather more musically substantial was the Partita in E flat by Josef Triebensee, son of the first oboe player in Joseph II’s Court Harmonie. He became director of the Harmonie ensemble of Prince Aloys Lichtenstein at his Viennese and Moravian palaces and, later, Kapellmeister of the Estates Theatre in Prague. He played oboe in the first performance of The Magic Flute, and in chamber music consorts alongside Beethoven. The four movement Partita was composed for the Lichtenstein ensemble, but was also published by Triebensee. It is a well-written essay in late Classical style, with an attractive Andante built on a chorale-like theme. A feature throughout the Partita was the distinctively colourful sound of the two horns, played by Anneke Scott and Kate Goldsmith, together with solos from clarinetist Emily Worthington, oboist Rachel Chaplin and bassoonist Robert Percival.

If listeners could be forgiven for not having heard of Boieldieu or Triebensee, the second half was more recognisable fare, with a transcription of Beethoven’s 7th Symphony for Harmonie. Composed in 1812, the original version was first performed towards the end of the following year at a benefit concert for Austrian and Bavarian veterans wounded in battle against Napoleon’s army. It remained his most popular symphony until his death. Steiner published the full score and various arrangements, including this Harmonie version. As was usual with such arrangements, there is no indication as to who the arranger was, or to what extent Beethoven might have been involved.

To makes life a little easier for the wind players, three of the four movements were transposed down a tone from A to G major and minor, but the arranger kept the Scherzo in the original key of F. An encouragement to applaud between movements (as in the original performance) and, for me at least, a well-practiced avoidance of perfect pitch, meant such key relationship oddities mattered little. What was far more noticeable was the amendments to Beethoven’s score, with reductions in the length of the final two movements. The ebullient concluding Allegro lost the repeat of the exposition and the entire development section, its reduced length more than compensated for by the intense timbres of the wind instruments – a sort of combination of Beethoven Lite and Dark. Throughout, the combination of evocative sounds produced by the wind instruments was glorious, and fitted the mood of Beethoven’s musical ideas perfectly. As a stand-alone piece, without prior knowledge of the original version, it can happily stand in its own right, the timbre of the wind instruments complimenting the occasionally military feel that underlies Beethoven’s score.

As an encore, Boxwood & Brass played another fascinating Beethoven arrangement, of the slow movement of the Sonata Pathétique again with many amendments to the original piano score. It worked surprisingly well, as the famous melody was passed from horn to clarinet and oboe. The complete version of this, plus the Beethoven symphony, would make an excellent choice for their next CD.

The nine players of Boxwood & Brass produced a wonderfully compelling sound, and one that most in the UK are not used to hearing. Their sense of consort was outstanding, in what must have been a difficult programme to prepare and rehearse. The technical difficulties are apparently enormous, although that was never evident from their performance. The Boxwood & Brass website has a vast amount of information about Harmoniemusik. And an essay by David Wyn Jones on the Beethoven symphony arrangement can be found here. And, as a observation, it reinforced the reason why woodwind players are usually hidden away in the midst of the orchestra, the various plumbing activites of the various instruments here becoming all too obvious, along with glasse of water for dipping reeds into, or for drinking.

This is a repertoire, and an exciting group, that is well worth following.

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