It’s strange to imagine the ‘Pastoral’ symphony’s storm without its thunderous timpani or the ‘Eroica’ symphony without its three-horn fanfare. With so many grand moments like these, transcribing Beethoven’s music for small ensembles must have been a particular challenge.
In any case, making alternative versions of compositions was not uncommon (and it’s a practice that is coming back into fashion in recent years, as a way for chamber orchestras to tackle major orchestral scores). They had the general function of popularising and spreading awareness of newly written music. And in putting this into the hands of the general population of musicians, they had a significant role to play in the development of people’s musical appreciation, much as we would listen to recordings today.
Even today they have a part to play – conducting students learn their trade working with two pianists playing two-piano arrangements of symphonic repertoire. So it’s not hard to see how arrangements for chamber ensemble could be used in the same way. Other uses spring to mind too: cut-down concertos give soloists an ensemble to practise with; reduced symphonies can encourage instrumentalists to think orchestrally when playing their part.
Now at the very core of our classical tradition, Beethoven’s music hardly needs popularising today. But performing these arrangements gives us an insight into the way music was made, learned and absorbed at a particular period in time. And it is in this spirit that I Musicanti’s Beethoven More or Less project aims to perform and record as many of his compositions as possible in the various versions which exist for chamber ensemble.
And there are many, most notably an almost complete set of symphonies for flute, violin, cello and piano by his contemporary and an important composer in his own right, Johann Hummel – the missing one, unsurprisingly, is the ninth. But there are also arrangements for string quintet, sextet, septet and nonet as well as piano trio by various hands including Karl Josef Khÿm, Ferdinand Ries, Karl Friedrich Ebers and others.
If those names are unfamiliar today, then there are the arrangements that Beethoven himself made. The transcription of the violin concerto for piano and orchestra is not exactly well known but certainly known about. But there is another arrangement of the piece for violin and ensemble of 10 players that I Musicanti will be presenting as part of the project. Likewise, his orchestration of the famous ‘Kreutzer’ violin sonata for string quintet (in the two-cello format).
However, the project begins with the piano concertos, with Martin Roscoe as soloist in the arrangements made for piano and string quintet by Vincenz Lachner. These date from the 1880s, well after Beethoven’s death, and were published in Stuttgart by Sigmund Lebert with the indication on the title page ‘for use in study or concert hall’.
‘We hope,’ writes Lebert in a foreword to Lachner’s transcriptions, ‘to materially assist in furthering the usefulness and enhancing the enjoyment of these works, in Music Schools and other Institutions, in private concerts and the like.’ Mechanical recording may only just have been getting under way at that time, but we trust this project is the kind of thing he had in mind anyway.