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Chips: Beethoven/ Music for Wind Instruments

The MHS Review 403, VOL. 12, NO.7 • 1988

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David M. Greene


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Chips from Beethoven's workbench: this record reminded me--as so many things do these days--of time's swift and inexorable passage. To put it another way, it, to all intents and purposes, signalizes the end of a cycle. You will note that, like most recor­dings now produced by MHS, it is available in three formats: LP, cassette, and CD. I have no doubt that there are folks out there who deplore the fact that it is not offered in 78-rpm shellacs. There may even still be those who would prefer to have it single­sided horn-recorded, with grit in the grooves to keep the "needle" sharp. Be that as it may, I am seeing the end of another cycle. The LP revolution, which has lasted exactly 40 years, is as surely on its way out as were 78s in 1948.

Back then (God, it's wonderful to be old enough to have a historical perspective!) it was more than a matter of a more con­venient way of hearing music. Instead of having to leap up every four minutes to change the record (or wait for the wheeze­and-crash of the changer) one could listen uninterrupted for at least a third of an hour. (As with early CDs, the manufac­turers were not very generous with time.) But prior to that day, we were largely dependent for our recorded fare on the RCA and Columbia catalogs. These were limited to the works whose sales were pret­ty well guaranteed and the artists the two corporations had nominated for lasting fame; what was available changed only minimally over the years.

When Columbia introduced the LP (which RCA scorned until it looked too sil­ly to keep it up), the list consisted mostly of reprocessed catalog offerings. But by 1950 little new companies began to pop up all over the place, producing often unheard-of repertoire played by equally unheard-of artists. The weekly visit to the local record shop became a voyage of discovery. (Yes, Virginia, there were local record stores, staffed by knowledgeable people, of whom I was one on occasion.) One such company was Westminster, the brainchild of Michael Naida, who later fathered MHS.

In its first release was WL5003, contain­ing Beethoven's wind sextet and octet played by the Vienna Philharmonic Wind Group. I had never heard of the works. The VPWG did not have the Red Seal stamp of Approval, and I was convinced that the Vienna orchestra could not hold a rushlight to those of Philadelphia and New York, but I bought the record anyway--and played it to death. (Actually I still have the thing in its plain maroon sleeve, and, considering age and hard usage, it still sounds pretty good!)

These are, mind you, not masterpieces. (I discover that I swiped the "chips" image from Harold Schonberg's chamber music volume in the Knopf Guide to Long-Playing Records [1955], which I hadn't consulted in years!) They are apprentice works and intended as Gebraucbsmusik-- a background to party chatter. Perhaps the earliest of the four pieces is the octet; certainly it strikes me as the most immediately charming. One writer says it was was written for the 1792 name-day of Beethoven's employer, the Elector Maximilian Franz ("Fat Max") von Hapsburg, but others are by no means so sure. After the composer went off to Vienna to improve his skills his teacher Haydn sent Fat Max a copy in 1793 to show Beethoven's progress. Max was not impressed: he had already heard the work before Beethoven left Bonn. Beethoven thought at least enough of it to make it the basis of a string quintet, which he published as op. 4 in 1797.

The Rondino, for the same eight winds, was probably first conceived as a finale for the octet. Both were published posthumously, which accounts for the high opus number of the latter work. The sextet dates from ca. 1796. For whatever reason, Beethoven hesitated to unveil it. It was first played in public in Vienna in 1805, but he did not release it for publication for another five years. He wrote the publisher that though it was of lesser quality than much he had done since, he had managed to dash it off in one night --manifest fib from the manuscript evidence.

The curiously instrumented E-flat Quintet was originally intended to have a clarinet part, but it never got written.only parts of the opening and the minuet survive, the "reconstruction" being the 1862 effort of one Leopold Zellner, which was not published until 1954.

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