Navigating swift cultural currents, Beethoven jumped on trends
This Thursday in Portland, Maine, clarinetist Todd Palmer, cellist Peter Stumpf, and pianist Diane Walsh perform Ludwig van Beethoven’s Op. 11 Trio, which finds the composer doing what later generations might consider a most un-Beethovenian thing: jumping on a trend. The mythological Beethoven created fashion rather than following it, but in 1797 the actual Beethoven, already somewhat famous (and infamous) as a pianist, was still trying to secure a reputation and career as a composer in Vienna.
The Trio took square aim at popular taste. It was bright, flashy, and carried a savvy dedication, to Countess Maria Wilhelmine von Thun, a mainstay of Viennese society and patronage. (Beethoven aimed well: Maria’s cousin, Joseph Maximilian, Prince Lobkowicz, and two of her sons-in-law, Prince Lichnowsky and Count Razumovsky, also became patrons.) And it borrowed the season’s hit tune, ending with a set of variations on “Pria ch’io l’impegno,” the ruthlessly catchy trio from Joseph Weigl’s comic opera “L’Amor Marinaro.”
Weigl and Beethoven moved in similar Viennese musical circles, but with varying degrees of smoothness. Beethoven studied with Antonio Salieri for a couple of years, but Salieri, the doyen of the Viennese opera establishment, had already taken Weigl under his well-connected wing as his protege. Beethoven took lessons with Franz Joseph Haydn; Weigl was Haydn’s godson. Such disparities might explain why the two acquaintances never grew close. One could imagine Beethoven, the provincial outsider, grumbling at Weigl’s seemingly pre-ordained professional status.
“L’Amor Marinaro” (“The Sailor’s Love”) was the ninth of Weigl’s 32 operas. In the second act, the pirate captain Libeccio and his servant, Pasquale, are trying to wheedle information out of Cisolfaut, the music master. Cisolfaut, about to divulge all, stops himself: “Before I undertake this magisterial task,” he announces, “I need a snack.” Thus begins the trio, slapstick and featherlight. No shortage of Viennese composers took cracks at writing variations on the tune.
Beethoven may well have been the first. It wasn’t the last time he and Weigl crossed musical paths. Emanuel Schikaneder, the librettist of Mozart’s “Die Zauberflöte,” commissioned Beethoven to set another of his efforts, “Vestas Feuer,” an overstuffed ancient-Roman concoction. Beethoven gave up, finding the script intractable; Weigl finally put it to music. Weigl’s version soon disappeared, unpublished, never revived. But Beethoven’s surviving fragments from “Vestas Feuer” were painstakingly restored and recorded. Beethoven took the posthumous laurels — but still, probably, craved some of Weigl’s ephemeral success.
The Portland Chamber Music Festival opens its season at Hannaford Hall, University of Southern Maine, Portland, on Aug. 11 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets: $30, seniors $25, under 21 free. www.pcmf.org