Boxwood & Brass: The Harmonie in Beethoven’s Vienna Back

In the period-correct and intimate setting of Oxford’s Holywell Music Room, the period-instrument ensemble Boxwood & Brass presented a fascinating and well-executed examination of music written for the so-called Harmonie, a wind band consisting of pairs of oboes (here played by Rachel Chaplin and Nicola Barbagli), clarinets (Emily Worthington and Fiona Mitchell), horns (Anneke Scott and Kate Goldsmith), bassoons (Robert Percival, Takako Kunugi), further supported by a double bass (Jacqueline Dossor). The evening’s programme included arranged music from Jean de Paris (1812) by Adrien Boieldieu; a purpose-written partita for Harmonie by Josef Triebensee; and an anonymous arrangement of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7. The programme was capped with an encore performance of an arrangement of the second movement from Beethoven’s Sonata in C Minor, No.8 Op.13 (‘Pathétique’).

From a musicological perspective, the genre of the Harmonie seems to raise more questions than it answers. It is asserted that this was the means by which (presumably) minor or impoverished aristocrats, or indeed those whose musical expertise and taste were perhaps limited, could make a minimum stake in keeping a corps of musicians. Typically this would be for the purpose of background music, and the composition of the band with wind instruments would suggest that this format was originally conceived for performance out of doors.  Nevertheless, Robert Percival suggests in the programme notes that the quality and difficulty of pieces like the Beethoven symphony seem to elevate the genre beyond just mood music. Furthermore, it is evident from the music presented here that to see this as a kind of ‘poor man’s string orchestra’ is perhaps a mischaracterisation. Indeed, aside from the size of the ensemble – an octet, the standard arrangement in Vienna by the late 1700s – musicians of significant skill would have been required, which likely would have had a comparable price tag in turn.

As a whole, the main programme of three contrasting works is representative of the kind of music that would typically have been performed by a Harmonie band. For the most part, repertoire consisted of arrangements of popular music of the day, as is evidenced by the preponderance of pieces drawn from opera — and not just single pieces either: composers such as Triebensee also made arrangements of full operas (for instance, Mozart’s Don Giovanni). In the case of this performance, with its focus on Harmoniemusik in Vienna at the beginning of the nineteenth century, we had Boieldieu’s overture to Jean de Paris (1812), the operatic hit of that particular year’s season. Often called ‘the French Mozart’ on account of his facility with creating pleasing melodies, Boieldieu was a significant figure on the Parisian opera scene, chiefly contributing to the development of the opéra comique, a genre, not necessarily restricted to comic subjects, combining spoken dialogue with fully accompanied arias and scenes. Rather like the plot of Jean de Paris itself, the overture in question is perhaps somewhat prolix, never truly developing its themes to a point of sufficient dramatic intensity, and relying instead on the repetition of short patterns. In this respect, the character and overall treatment of Boieldieu’s overture, though representative of a French late Classical aesthetic similar to Etienne Méhul or Luigi Cherubini, are rather closer to the overtures of Giovanni Paisiello, Napoleon’s favoured composer.

Following on from this, Triebensee’s Partita in E-flat represented the kind of original music composed for these forces. The four-movement work (Allegro vivace – Andante – Menuetto and Trio – Allegro assai) was varied, and at the same time somewhat uneven in quality and style. As its putative date of the early 1800s would suggest, the first movement was quite transitional in feel: somewhere between Viennese classicism and the nascent Romantic spirit. The Andante, on the other hand, was more chorale-like in its texture. While this caused it to be rather traditional in terms of its character, its close harmonies served as a superb vehicle for showcasing the deep, rich tones of the full ensemble in the tutti passages. The following minuet was somewhat idiosyncratic, feeling at times rather more waltz-like, and the concluding Allegro assai, actually a rondo, cheerfully betrayed the Harmonie’s military origins. In sum, the first half of the programme can be characterised as charming, perhaps innocuous, music which is fairly typical of its time, and, indeed, well suited to its performance context.

The two Beethoven pieces were probably the most enjoyable of the evening. On the one hand this is almost to be expected: the essential quality of the composition is of course far superior. Nevertheless, in the case of this arrangement of Symphony No. 7, which the programme notes described as being the handiwork of an ‘inexperienced arranger’, or possibly even Beethoven himself, the distribution of the parts seemed to allow for the illusion of a more vibrant texture, and more integrated interplay between the instruments, than had been seen in either the Boieldieu or the Triebensee pieces. Here, too, there was ample opportunity to evidence the richness of the full ensemble. Both the arrangement of the symphony and the ‘Pathétique’ sonata made structural changes to the original, which begs the question as to how ‘sacred’ the original piece was considered, and indeed what this meant for the dissemination of musical works more broadly.

The technical requirements of the music aside – and this was indeed a high bar that was deftly managed by the ensemble, particularly in the Beethoven arrangement – the specific composition of the Harmonie band is such that there is necessarily a rather limited tonal palette. This is both a strength and a weakness. On the one hand there is a wonderfully rich homogeneity of tone, which was suited especially to close harmonies such as those in the Andante of the Triebensee partita or the Scherzo of the Beethoven symphony. On the other, the brashness of this particular instrumentation, with its origins in military bands, can run the risk of becoming taxing on the ear for long stretches when at full blast. Nevertheless, the evening proved very enjoyable. Boxwood & Brass’s execution of these pieces was clean, sharp, and confident. Moreover, the programme offered a well-judged selection of the familiar and the new, and even the familiar pieces had something new about them in their arrangements. But above all the concert provided many interesting points to reflect on the place that such music had in the broader context of the movement and dissemination of music at a time without recourse to recordings and instant replays. It was a pity that the event was not better attended. As with other projects seeking to flesh out the historical context of a particular major composer, it is precisely this awareness of context that makes us appreciate the ‘canonical’ works more.

Boxwood & Brass performed at Holywell Music Room, Oxford, on 17th February 2017. Their debut CD, Music for a Prussian Salon, is now available through Resonus Classics.