Five Under-the-Radar Beethoven Works
Beethoven is arguably the face of Western classical music. Many of his sonatas, chamber works, concertos, and symphonies are familiar to us. But what about the music we don’t hear as often? While some of his earlier works were well-received in his day, critics and audiences of his time regarded Beethoven’s later works as too avant-garde. While that’s not the case these days, there are still some pieces that don’t get much play.
Horn Sonata in F Major, Op. 17
Did you know Beethoven wrote a sonata for horn and piano? This early work—composed in 1800—was inspired by the legendary horn virtuoso Giovanni Punto. According to Beethoven’s friend, composer Ferdinand Ries, the sonata was written the day before Beethoven and Punto premiered it! The work was first performed at Carnegie Hall in 1970 with cellist Leonard Rose and pianist Eugene Istomin in what must have been an interesting arrangement.
String Quintet in C Major, Op. 29
It’s puzzling why this innovative gem, the only piece Beethoven specifically wrote for five stringed instruments, isn’t more widely known. Like Mozart, he added an additional viola to the string quartet and the result is stunning. Rich string sonorities dominate in this bold step toward a more mature style.
Septet in E-flat Major, Op. 20
A wildly popular work in Beethoven’s day, the Septet looks back to the light and genial wind serenades of Haydn and Mozart. Scored for clarinet, horn, bassoon, and strings, it’s irresistible. Beethoven resisted though. Annoyed by the accolades for this piece at the expense of his other music, he snarled to an admirer, “It was written by Mozart!” Legendary conductor Arturo Toscanini was fond of the work, arranged it for a large body of strings plus the three winds, and recorded it in Carnegie Hall.
Christus am Ölberge
Yes, Beethoven did write a sacred oratorio (a large-scale dramatic vocal work). Christus am Ölberge (Christ on the Mount of Olives) recounts Jesus’s final night. Completed in 1803, there are beautiful solos for tenor and soprano, and dramatic choral passages. Its triumphant final chorus is popular and frequently appears as a stand-alone in choral concerts—not so much for the rest of the oratorio.
Beethoven’s Wellington’s Victory takes musical martial excitement to new levels. He collaborated with his friend Johann Maelzel—the inventor of the panharmonicon, a mechanical organ that imitated military band instruments, gunfire, and other sounds—on a piece celebrating Wellington’s 1813 victory over Napoleon at Vittoria in Spain. Gunfire, snippets of “Rule Britannia,” marches, and a climatic “God Save the King” are woven together into the piece that’s more about excitement than art. It premiered to delirious acclaim on a program that also featured the Symphony No. 7. Wellington’s Victory was last performed at Carnegie Hall in 1989 by The New York Pops conducted by the legendary Skitch Henderson.