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Beethoven Septet In E-Flat Major Analysis Essay

Beethoven - Septet in E-flat Major

Two major influences on Ludwig van Beethoven in his apprentice years were the two great composers of his era - Mozart and Haydn.  Beethoven wanted to take lessons from Mozart and went to play for him in Vienna when Beethoven was sixteen, (with Mozart reportedly saying "Watch out for that boy. One day he will give the world something to talk about") but Beethoven had to rush back to his home town of Bonn when his mother became critically ill.  By the time Beethoven could manage a trip back to Vienna, Mozart had died.

Beethoven did manage to take some lessons from Haydn, but Haydn was preoccupied with writing symphonies for another planned trip to England. Beethoven even supplemented his studies by taking lessons from other teachers without Haydn's knowledge.  Beethoven's talk of Haydn was always somewhat disparaging, especially after Haydn suggested that one of Beethoven's three Opus 1 piano trios should not be published because it needed more work.  Beethoven often said that he learned nothing from Haydn, but he dedicated his opus 2 piano sonatas to Haydn.

Beethoven composed in most of the forms used by Haydn and Mozart, and one of his most popular compositions was his Septet in E-flat major. It is in all but name a Serenade or Divertimento,  musical forms used by Mozart and Haydn a great deal. Beethoven's natural originality usually saw him making changes in his music that set him apart from others.  While many Serenades were written for instruments in pairs, Beethoven uses seven single instruments,  - clarinet, horn, bassoon, violin, viola, cello and string bass.  This ensemble of instruments must have appeared odd at the time, and in a way it still does. But Beethoven knew how to blend this odd combination when he wanted and have any instrument stand out in contrast when he wanted, and he wanted to show off his skill.

But it was not only in instrumentation that Beethoven showed his creativity. He expanded the from by writing two extended introductions to the first and last movements and by substituting a scherzo for the second minuet.  It was written in 1799-1800, performed in 1800 and was a great success, so much so that Beethoven wrote a version of it for clarinet (or violin), cello and piano.  Over time, Beethoven came to loathe the work because of its popularity and the continuing requests from patrons to compose more of the same kind of music.

While the Septet does resemble a serenade or divertimento, it is but a superficial resemblance. The whole character of the piece is more symphonic,  a little more serious in spots and daring (even quirky). Beethoven wrote it while he was still sketching out his first symphony, so perhaps the Septet was one of the pieces Beethoven stretched his 'symphonic' muscles with to get limbered up for genuine symphonic composing. The Septet is in 6 movements:

I. Adagio; Allegro con brio -  The slow, tuneful introduction leads the way for the beginning of the sonata form allegro con brio. The first theme is heard in the violin, and then taken up by the clarinet. The second theme also begins in the violin and is taken up by the clarinet.  After a short section containing some new material, the exposition is repeated.  The short development section begins with the opening of the first theme and explores the possibilities of material already heard. The recapitulation of the themes contain subtle changes in accompaniment and shifts in key.  A coda leads to the end of the movement.

II. Adagio cantabile - A gentle, singing melody mostly played by the stars of the septet, the violin and clarinet. But Beethoven doesn't stick to the conventional division of the treble instruments playing the melody and the others the accompaniment. There is a great deal of swapping of roles.

III. Tempo di minuetto -  The tune of the minuet was taken from the minuet of Beethoven's Piano Sonata Opus 49, No.2, a work that was written very early in Beethoven's career but only published later on, hence the large opus number.

IV. Tema con variazioni: Andante -A set of 5 variations on a Rhenish folk tune.

V. Scherzo: Allegro molto e vivace -The horn begins the scherzo with a rasping dotted rhythm and is a main player in the movement. The scherzo hops and prances until the trio section where the cello is in the spotlight.

VI. Andante con moto alla marcia; Presto  - The introduction to the finale is rather dark and brooding, but it lasts but a short while, after which the first theme is played by violin followed by the clarinet. The horn plays a descending figure after the theme is played.  Other thematic material is heard and the exposition is repeated. During the development section new themes are heard along with a short solo for violin which leads to the recapitulation.  The descending figure in the horn takes a dark turn as it is given in a minor key which leads to the second theme repeat. A coda develops a fragment of the first theme until the violin takes off and the movement ends.

Spending most of his like in Vienna, Ludwig van Beethoven wrote Septet in 1799 and was performed with great success a year later in a concert in the Court Theatre in Vienna. Written in 1799 when Beethoven was 29, this piece is part of a large scale piece in six movements. Adopting a structure in Sonata form, below is a complete analysis of the orchestral piece Septet in E flat major, Op. 20: movement 1. Feel free to skip to the parts most relevant to you.

The Sonata Form 

The Sonata form has three main sections:

  • Exposition – This features the 1st subject, bridge, 2nd subject and a Codetta.
  • Development – This has new material based on the 1st and 2nd subjects.
  • Recapitulation – This features the 1st subject, bridge, 2nd subject and finally a Codetta.

1st subject is the first main theme. 2nd subject is the second main theme. The bridge is a short passage which links the 1st and 2nd subjects together. A Codetta is a short ending section.


  • With the Clarinet being in B flat, it will sound a tone lower than printed. It’s a transposing instrument.
  • The Viola uses the alto clef. This means the middle line is middle C.
  • There is the use of tutti homophonic chords (instruments all playing together).
  • The key starts off in E flat major.
  • The first chord of the piece is dramatic loud and soft being the next bars which feature a quiet solo for the violin. 
  • The harmony is simple and diatonic (stays to the notes of the scale).
  • Bars 1-4 have a monophonic texture.
  • It is a slow introduction to the start.
  • It lacks intimacy of chamber music because it isn’t a four string quartet.
  • The Horn in E flat will sound a major 6th lower than printed.
  • Another transposing instrument is the double bass that will sound an octave lower than printed.
  • Chromatic notes are rarely used.
  • The Viola has double stopping at the start of bar 5 (playing two strings at once).
  • Chromatic notes are used in bar 7.
  • There is a B flat major dominant chord at bar 8.
  • A four note motif appears in bar 8-9 in the Violin. The 1st subject begins with a four note motif found in the introduction. The four note motif dominates much of the rest of the movement.
  • Bars 8-10 are in E flat major. Bars 11 are in E flat minor.
  • At bar 15, there is an ornate (decorated) melody.
  • Bar 16-17 has a Chord V7 (B flat major 7).
  • There is further decoration in 17 with the Clarinet descending an arpeggio. 
  • The introduction finishes at bar 17.

Exposition (Bar 18)

  • The key of the exposition starts off in E flat major.
  • The four note motif from bar 8 otherwise known as the 1st subject. It has the same interval as the four note motif and is an ascending sequence.
  • The harmonic rate of change is one chord per bar. But, at bar 27, the harmonic rate of change increases to two chords per bar.
  • The Violin has a decorated chromatic passage in bar 26.
  • The Clarinet repeats the 10 bar Violin melody exactly starting at bar 28.
  • There is syncopated rhythm in bar 30 with Violoncello playing arpeggios/broken chords.
  • The dynamics ‘fp‘ means for the dynamics to go from loud to soft (the accent is leaning on the first note of each bar).
  • There is an antiphonal exchange between the wind and string instruments at bars 47-49.
  • The 1st subject ends at bar 52.
  • The 2nd subject begins at bar 53 in the dominant key of B flat major.
  • The 2nd subject is different as it has a homophonic texture of a three part strings. It is presented in minims at first and then repeated by the wind in lively quavers.
  • The second theme of the 2nd subject starts at bar 62.
  • Bar 85 has a staccato chordal phrase.
  • The third theme of the 2nd subject is seen at bars 86-88.
  • The third theme of the 2nd subject is repeated in sequence (notes increase by one degree) at bar 90.
  • There is a perfect cadence at bar 97-8. There is a chord of Ic (E flat major), Va (B flat major) and I (E flat major). This is cadential 6/4 (Ic – V – I).
  • There is a small coda (Codetta) starting on the third beat of bar 98 in B flat major.
  • A there is a tonic pedal establishment of the dominant key (B flat) at bar 103-105.
  • The harmonic rate of change increases towards the end of the Exposition to create excitement. 
  • The melody at bars 111-115 is in octaves.
  • The 2nd subject and Exposition finishes at bar 111 through a perfect cadence of I – V – I.

Development (Bars 112)

  • In the development section, Beethoven is developing the ideas from the exposition especially the four note idea. The music develops material from the 1st and 2nd subject themes in different keys.
  • There is a rapid modulation from B flat major (which the development started in) to C minor from bars 111-120.
  • The melody is with the Clarinet at the start of the development. This changes to the Horn at bar 120. 
  • The melody is a descending sequence unlike the Exposition which was ascending.
  • There are A flat major chords present at bar 124.
  • At bar 125 Beethoven draws upon the previous Violin melody in bar 40.
  • There are F minor chords at bar 132.
  • At bar 140, the pedal is a dominant pedal being B flat because the recapitulation is going to back into E flat major.
  • The four note idea is repeated in an ascending rising sequence in the Clarinet and Viola parts for bars 148-151. At the same time, the Double Bass has long dominant pedals.
  • The B flat, A, B flat in bar 153 is the first subject in E flat major).
  • The development finishes at bar 153.

Recapitulation (Bar 154)

  • The recapitulation uses the same exposition subjects in the tonic key being E flat through a strong E flat chord.
  • The recapitulation starts with a re-scored repeat of bars 18-30 (same notes just re-scored into different parts and rhythms).
  • There is a sudden modulation at bars 170-172 from E flat major to A flat major from the additional D flats being added.
  • Strong syncopation occurs at bars 172 onwards in the Violin and Violoncello parts.
  • From bar 182 onwards, there is a repeat of bars 47-98 in the tonic key of E flat major.
  • The second subject begins at bar 185 in E flat major.
  • The B flat in the Violin part at bar 187 doesn’t go back to the dominant: it stays in the home key of E flat major.
  • There is a homorhythmic texture at bars 221-225 because all the parts have the same rhythm (three part string).
  • The Coda begins at bar 233 which runs to the end in E flat major.
  • There is a repeating Double Bass tonic pedal of E flat major.
  • There is a two part counterpoint (Clarinet and Horns in octaves against lower strings in octaves) and a tonic pedal in Bassoon and 2nd Violin for bars 254-257.
  • During bars 258-264, there is imitation. The Cello and Double Bass is imitated by the Oboe and Bassoon in bar 260. There is a counter melody for the Violin.
  • There is a duet for the Clarinet and Bassoon above sustained chords at bars 274-277.
  • The chords used at the end are as follows: V-I-V-I-V-I-V-I-V-I. The harmonic rate of change halves to create excitement nearer the end.


  • Texture – Melody dominated homophony, tutti homophonic chords, monophonic and imitation.
  • Tonality – Functional tonality with modulation to related keys. Starts with E♭ major which modulates to dominant key of B♭. This helps to move to C minor. Other brief keys include A♭ major and F minor.
  • Structure – Sonata form: Exposition, Development and Recapitulation with an Introduction and Coda.
  • Harmony – Functional harmony with clear perfect cadences. Majority of chords have a root position or first inversion. Rarely is second inversion seen as well as chromatic chords such as an augmented 6th or dominant 7th. Harmonic rate of change is often slow at 4 bars long but speeds up towards cadences.
  • Melody – Mainly diatonic with brief chromaticism and decoration. 1st subject has a rising four note rising sequence. Melodies are often repeated.
  • Rhythm – Slow Intro is rhythmically complex including demi-semi quavers and sextuplets. There is often an anacrusis at the start of a theme (unstressed notes before the start of a bar of a theme).

Be sure to check out other pieces I have analysed on Ask Will Online.


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