Posted on February 4th, 2010 by

Beethoven-Rondeau WoO41 (1792)

PSS-Violin (Stradivari 1734 ‘Habeneck’ from the Collection of the Royal Academy of Music, London)

PSS and Aaron Shorr. Washington 2006 (Library of Congress)

Aaron Shorr-Piano

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This charming little rondo has links, both back into Beethoven’s output, and to the 20th Century. Like many violinists of my age, I found my way towards the violin through the work of Fritz Kreisler. I was, I confess never charmed by the more show-stopping pieces, such as the Praeludium & Allegro, or Timbourin Chinois. I always preferred the simpler, more elegant, miniatures, such as his transcription of Granados Danse Espagnole, or  The Old Refrain , or Syncopation. But the very first one that I learnt was his little E Flat Major Rondino . This is a fascinating compositional trick, taking a work by Beethoven (the Rondeau WoO41) and infusing it with something of the essence of a work to which Beethoven’s original work is related, the Variations  from the  Eroica Symphony. Beethoven’s theme, of course has it’s origins in a number of works-the Creatures of Prometheus  ballet, and another dance work, a set of  Kontretanzen.  Fascinatingly these country dances, which function like a set of variations without a theme, include both the ‘Eroica’ and ‘Rondeau’ themes, leaning towards each other, across the set. I’m not sure that Kreisler knew about these, but he certainly sensed the link; with his unparalleled sensitivity to Beethoven’s compositional process – as evidenced in the astounding Cadenza which he wrote for the Concerto-this was, I guess, inevitable.

IN 1826 Francoise-Antoine Habeneck initiated the Société des Concerts with a rehearsal of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony, in 1826. This replaced the long – defunct Concerts Spirituels.   Vidal takes up the story:

 “In November 1826, on St Cecilia’s day, he organised a meal at his home for the most fervent ones, and he begged them to bring their instruments.  The guests arrived, and they found the parts for a ‘heroic symphony’, unknown to them all, on the music stands.  Habeneck asked for a reading; so they set to work; the day passed in the in the enthusiasm of labour.   Four hours passed; everyone, host and guests, had forgotten about lunch, which Madame Habeneck, guessing what would happen, had taken care not to let go cold. She transformed it into an excellent supper, to which the hardy symphonists did honour, all thinking it excellent.  The result, due to the tenacity and intelligence of Habeneck and sanctioned by the public, was the first seed of our admirable Société des Concerts, which was not long in being organised.  The first took place in the actual hall, on Sunday 9th March at 1828, at two o’clock, and began the evenings with the ‘Heroic Symphony’ of which we have just been speaking.”

 Hector Berlioz remembered the struggle that began with Habeneck’s appointment to the conservatoire Exercises in 1804, up to and beyond the founding of the Société des Concerts in February 1828:

“It is thanks to him that his great institution, today famous throughout the civilised world, was founded at all.  It was a hard struggle; and before he could secure adequate performances, he had to persuade a large body of players to share his enthusiasm for totally unfamiliar music which had the reputation of being eccentric and difficult to play; he had to overcome an indifference which turned to hostility at the prospect of endless rehearsals and unremunerative toil stretching ahead.”

           Ironically, it was Habeneck’s innovation of the trained large orchestra that gave Berlioz the impetus for his very own ‘exercises’ in orchestral excess. Habeneck’s skill with large forces made works such as the Symphonie Fantastique possible.  But it was also Habeneck who later provided the institutional resistance which Berlioz later attempted to break down, most particularly as his work requires the true conductor, working with a full score, rather than a violinist, given to taking snuff during performances.

Perhaps the most visible Stradivarius, most regularly seen on the Paris, was the magnificent 1734 example that Habeneck played. He was able to use the sheer power of this instrument, to great advantage as an orchestral director. Unsurprisingly, he was not noted as chamber musician, so there were not many works for small groups written for him.  Only two quartets seem to have been dedicated to him during his lifetime-one by the gifted amateur, Georges Onslow (1784-1853), the other, a group of three by Zamboni, a conductor at the Théâtre Italièn.