by Robert Percival
Wind ensembles, or Harmonien, were widespread across much of Europe between about 1760 and 1830, employed by almost anyone with money or who aspired to a certain class as a status symbol or as a cheaper alternative to an orchestra. Harmonien had a wide variety of scorings, but in Vienna an octet of pairs of oboes, clarinets, horns and bassoons (with an optional 16-foot instrument) became standard around 1780 after Emperor Joseph II formed his Harmonie with this line-up. Initially, players created Harmoniemusik for their own ensembles, but as the fashion for Harmonien grew and evolved, commercial publishers began to make arrangements available. The repertoire consisted of a mix of original compositions and arrangements of string chamber music, orchestral works and particularly opera extracts.
In May 1810 the Viennese publisher S. A. Steiner’a Viennese publishing house Chemische Druckerei announced a new Journal for Harmonie, consisting of arrangements of works of “recognised and famous” masters, who he claimed would be correcting their own compositions. Steiner issued eight titles in this series over the next four years, including operas by Weigl, Seyfried, Spontini and Hummel. Boieldieu’s Jean de Paris (or Johann von Paris, as Steiner has it) was the sixth volume, comprising the overture and nine movements, totalling more than forty minutes of music. A measure of the popularity of this largely now-forgotten repertoire is that several other different arrangements of Jean de Paris also exist, including by both Triebensee and another leading arranger, Wenzel Sedlak. Whilst we do not know who made the arrangement of Jean de Paris, it is done with some skill, generally using the instruments with sensitivity to create a range of effective textures and colours. It is notable that the clarinet is expected to contend with the same level of technical complexity as the other instruments, a notable increase in difficulty compared to arrangements from only five years earlier.
Steiner also published the arrangement of Beethoven’s seventh symphony, but not as part of his Journal series. Arrangements of symphonies were unusual, but not unprecedented. Triebensee made versions of Haydn’s ‘Oxford’ symphony, Franz Krommer’s First, and the first movement of Mozart’s 39th. This is the earliest extant Beethoven: a version of the Fifth was advertised in 1809, and Steiner listed the Seventh (in six parts) and the Eighth (in six and nine parts), but if these were issued, they haven’t survived. A version of the First (an altogether more straightforward proposition) by Georg Schmitt, not intended for publication and using a larger ensemble with flutes, dates from 1817.
Like Jean de Paris, the arranger of the Seventh is unknown, but seems to be someone with rather less experience. The writing for the woodwind is relentless with very few rests, and the horn parts are very close to the orchestral original. C clarinets, appropriate for the tonality of G major, are an unusual choice for an arrangement of an instrumental piece, and their parts make few of the traditional concessions to the instrument’s supposed limitations in remote keys. The arranger also forgets the range of Viennese contrabassoon. There are cuts to Beethoven’s original, and some significant departures from the original in the dynamics and articulation, suggesting the arranger felt no obligation to faithfully replicate the original work. This does raise the question of what this arrangement and others like it were for. The complexity of the music, and the difficulty of the individual parts surely demanded practise and rehearsal, and it seems unlikely that such arrangements could have been used as “mere” background music.