Beethoven: Septet in E flat, Op. 20, movement I

  • Background Information & Performance Circumstances
  • Elements of the Classical period
  • Instrumentation
  • Texture
  • Structure
  • Tonality
  • Harmony
  • Melody
  • Rhythm 
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Background Information & Performance Circumstances

Background Information:

  • Beethoven spent most of his life in Vienna, studied for a time with Haydn. 
  • Known initially as predominantly a virtuoso pianist. 
  • Eventually dedicated himself to composition (especially because of his increasing deafness).
  • By the time of its performance, he was aware of hearing problems, although it was only 20 years later that he reached the point where normal conversation became impossible.
  • Main contributions to music are symphonies and piano sonatas, though his chamber music is outstanding and his string quartets are greatly admired. 

Performance Circumstances:

  • Septet was written in 1799.
  • First performanced very successfully in Vienna, a year after its composition. 
  • The septet grouping was/is rare, and this is one of the few important examples by any composer. 
  • No standard instrumentation for this grouping. 
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Elements of the Classical period

  • Keyboard-less chamber music (no more harpsichord). 
  • Strings were the basis for all ensemble instrumental music.
  • Use of a clarinet, which was hardly used before Classical era, became an important wind instrument. 
  • Most movements were written in Sonata form. 
  • Big dynamic contrasts. 
  • Melody dominated homophony texture was popular.


  • There is unusually no second violin part. 
  • The coda is longer than most composers would have written. 
  • A septet was an unusual grouping. 
  • Beethoven varies the way the melody dominated homophony texture is applied in the piece (see texture). 
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  • Septet was an unusual grouping. 
  • There are 4 strings, a clarinet, bassoon and horn. 
  • Clarinet in B flat sounds a tone lower than written. 
  • A double bass is also used. 
  • The horn in E flat is a transposing instrument and sounds a major 6th lower than written. 
  • The violin and viola use double stopping in the first bar. 
  • The violin has a trill at the end of the slow introduction. 
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  • The slow introduction includes a number of Tutti homophonic chords, e.g. bar 1.
  • The texture for much of the piece is standard melody dominated homophony, e.g. beginning of the exposition. 
  • Sometimes the clarinet and bassoon play in octaves, e.g. bar 128, or in sixths, e.g. bar 140. 
  • Texture at the end of the coda becomes more complex, with imitation between the lower strings and woodwind (bars 258-264). 
  • Beethoven effectively varies the number of instruments playing at one time, e.g. the tutti section in bars 90-92 which contrast with the 3 part texture that precedes it. 
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  • The movement is the first of six in the style of a Serenade. 
  • In sonata form with a slow introduction.
  • Coda is much longer than most Classical composers would have written. 
  • Introduction is in E flat major (tonic), but with modulations. 
  • Exposition: 1st subject in tonic, 2nd subject in dominant. 
  • Development moves through various related and unrelated keys. 
  • Recapitulation: 1st subject in tonic, 2nd subject in tonic. 
  • Coda: tonic. 
  • The 2nd subject group includes three melodic ideas, as well as a codetta. 
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  • Standard functional tonality. 
  • Modulations to related keys. 
  • Development moves through various keys, including C minor (relative minor), A flat major (subdominant) and F minor (relative minor of subdominant). 
  • All keys are generally established by perfect cadences. 
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  • Functional harmony with clear perfect cadences.
  • Most of the piece uses diatonic root and first inversion chords, with occasional second inversion harmonies. 
  • There are occasional chromatic chords, including a German augmented 6th.
  • The introduction ends with a dominant 7th chords, which leads effectively into the tonic chord at the beginning of the introduction. 
  • Harmonic rhythm (rate of change) is often relatively slow, for example the 4 bars of the tonic E flat major chord at the beginning of the Exposition, but speeds up towards cadences. 
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  • Melodies are mainly diatonic, e.g. first tune of 2nd subject, though they do often contain brief chromaticisms: -the second note of the 1st subject is a chromatic lower auxiliary note. - there is a chromatic scale in bar 26 of the 1st subject. 
  • The 1st subject begins with a rising sequence based on a four note motif. 
  • The staccato theme from the 2nd subject has a descending sequence. 
  • Melodies are often repeated, so the ten bar 1st subject theme is immediately repeated with fuller instrumentation. 
  • Some of the themes contain ornaments, such as the turn at the end of the 1st subject tune. 
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  • The slow introduction is rhythmically complex, including demi-semiquavers and sextuplets. 
  • The accompaniment to the first subject theme has a distinctive continuous repeated quaver pattern in the viola, and then becomes a syncopated accompaniment in the violin and viola parts during the repeat, whilst the cello plays continuous crotchet movement, and the clarinet plays the tune. 
  • Many themes begin with an anacrusis - the first theme has 3 upbeat quavers, the second subject's first theme has a single upbeat quaver. 
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