In January 2019, we are embarking on the culmination of a project that we’ve been building towards almost since the group was formed: a recording of Carl Czerny’s extraordinary wind sextet arrangement of Beethoven’s much-loved Septet op. 20, originally for violin, viola, cello, bass, clarinet, horn and bassoon. Here, Robert Percival talks about the origins of the arrangement and some of the discoveries and decisions he’s made in turning Czerny’s manuscript into a critical edition for our performances and recordings. You can hear the arrangement in our upcoming performance listed here.
Composition of the Septet seems to have occupied Beethoven for a couple of years before the first public performances late in 1799 and in April 1800. Beethoven began the process of publication soon afterwards but this took longer than usual, perhaps because of the work’s unusual form and length. Aware of how immensely popular the piece had immediately become and in an effort to prevent unauthorised copying, he was also very cautious with security surrounding the manuscript. Even so, Beethoven had to hurry the publisher Hoffmeister along, writing “Send my Septet into the world a little more quickly – for the herd is waiting for it.”
The piece was eventually published in 1802, and many arrangements quickly followed. The concept of copyright was in its infancy and composers had little control over reproductions of their music, so publishers would produce versions for piano two- and four-hands, string quartet and quintet, piano trio etc. as a means of recouping their costs. In this case Beethoven himself suggested to Hoffmeister how the work might be re-worked for flute and strings, and made his own arrangement as his op.38 for clarinet, ‘cello and piano. Despite this, Beethoven’s earliest biographers claimed that he grew to hate the work, angry about the general success it received which detracted attention from other ‘more serious’ works. These claims may however be symptomatic of the desire to establish Beethoven’s reputation as a ‘serious’ composer of more ‘difficult’ music.
Quite how Carl Czerny’s version fits into this picture is far from clear. Beethoven recognised Czerny as a fine young pianist and taught him through 1802 and 1803. The two met again the following year, and as Czerny himself put it in one of his later memoires:
“From that time on Beethoven was well disposed towards me and until his last days he treated me like a friend. I had to proofread all his newly published works, and when in 1805 his opera Leonore was produced he let me make the piano reduction of the score. It is owing to the suggestions he made while I was working on this project that I acquired my skill as an arranger, which became very useful to me in later years.”
Czerny’s manuscript of his arrangement is also dated 1805, when, although still only 14, he was already busy as a piano teacher. It is clear comparing various sources that Czerny prepared his version using Beethoven’s original composing draft of the Septet, which at some point was given to the clarinetist Joseph Beer, who had played in the early performances. The two scores have almost exactly the same layout and Czerny duplicated many of the composer’s errors.
Czerny also preserves a number of important features that were later changed during publication process, including tempo indications and some melodic ideas, including in the last movement’s cadenza. Given the links between Beethoven and Czerny and the fact that Czerny used the composer’s own manuscript, it is possible that Czerny was working to a commission from Beethoven, as he had done with Leonore, and as he would do many times in the future. Another possibility is that the arrangement was made at the request of Beer.
Manuscript scores for Harmonie arrangements are very rare, but this one shares many similarities with others in that it seems to be a first draft: many additional details would have been added as the parts were prepared, and which themselves would have been ‘improved’ by the players. However, as there are no surviving parts and no known performances, it seems that the arrangement was never played. The arrangement is complete, but to make it performable it has been necessary to redistribute some of the material around the ensemble: in particular, Czerny doesn’t always consider that clarinets need to breathe occasionally! It was also necessary to add many dynamics and marks of articulation, but as far as possible I have avoided transforming Czerny’s arrangement back into the version of the Septet that is known today, but to allow it stand on its own merits as a rather different piece of music.
© Robert Percival 2018