Monday, August 18, 2008

Beethoven's Deceptive Opus Numbers

One lesson that comes from "ascending" the Brilliant Classics collection of the complete works of Ludwig van Beethoven involves just how deceptive his opus numbers can be. Thus, the four works on the first Music for Wind Ensemble CD all (most likely) date from 1792 Bonn. However, they are listed as follows:

  • Octet for 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons and 2 horns in E flat major Op. 103
  • Rondino for 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons and 2 horns in E flat major WoO 25
  • Sextet for 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons and 2 horns in E flat major Op. 71
  • Three Duos for clarinet and bassoon, WoO 27

Thayer does not provide a date for the last of these entries but lists it between entries labeled "1790-92" and those labeled "1792;" so, presumably, he figured that 1792 would be an educated guess for when those duos were composed. These are all relatively lightweight works, but there is still ample opportunity for Beethoven to exercise his wit. Indeed, the wit of the Opus 10 piano sonatas does not begin to surface until 1796; and the Opus 2 sonatas have more to do with Joseph Haydn's lightness of touch than with the sort of wit that is more evident in Opus 10. So it may have been the combination of agility and sound color that prompted Beethoven to "play" with his sense of wit in these earlier works, meaning that they may be his earliest experiments with wit.

I also realize that I have not really written about all-wind ensembles, the closest approximation being the recent performance of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's K. 361 serenade in B flat Major, which includes a solo string bass. When, in the past, I have written about a sextet, it has either been one of operatic voices or strings. It is almost as if there is a cultural bias that wind soloists need to be reinforced by more "legitimate" instruments (even if just a keyboard), the most notable exception being the unaccompanied flute, which has a repertoire that ranges from Johann Sebastian Bach to the twentieth century (if not beyond); but even a solo flute is not a wind ensemble. I know from my experiences with hearing the Philadelphia Woodwind Quintet that there is certainly an abundant repertoire; why does it not surface in the San Francisco concert scene?

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