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Looking back and forward: Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival

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Posted: Friday, August 9, 2013 5:00 am | Updated: 10:35 pm, Thu Aug 15, 2013.

Ludwig van Beethoven struck gold with his Septet for Violin, Viola, Cello, Double Bass, Clarinet, Horn, and Bassoon, which he unveiled in Vienna in 1800 and published two years later, in June or July 1802, as his op. 20. Its combination of string and wind instruments offered pleasing, full-textured possibilities for orchestration, yet the ensemble was not so large as to create undue difficulties in assembling the requisite players. Nonetheless, publishers of Beethoven’s time rarely missed an opportunity to expand the market for a piece that proved popular, and before the year was up the Septet accordingly appeared in a transcription for string quintet. Beethoven was not particularly enthusiastic about this arrangement, and he published a notice in a Vienna newspaper that stated: “The making of these transcriptions is on the whole a thing against which nowadays (in our prolific age of transcriptions) a composer would merely struggle in vain; but at least he is entitled to demand that the publishers shall mention the fact on the title page, so that his honor as a composer may not be infringed nor the public deceived.”

He was right to resist struggling against the inevitable. It quickly became one of his most popular pieces — his most popular of all, for a while — and by the time he died in 1827, publisher’s catalogs all over Europe boasted editions of it in its original form and in arrangements for a wide variety of instrumental combinations: for 11 winds, for nine winds, for flute quintet, for piano quartet, for piano trio, for guitar duet, and on and on. Beethoven grew to resent its success, feeling that others of his works deserved its popularity more. In 1815, when a British visitor told him about how enthusiastically the piece had been embraced in England, Beethoven responded gruffly: “That’s a damned thing. I wish it were burned!” The following year, when the publishing firm of Breitkopf & Härtel issued one of the various settings made for piano four-hands, the company described it as a “particularly beloved, exquisite work — known as one of the most richly melodic, cheerful, and comprehensible among B’s works.”

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