Musical Musings

Faculty + Fellow Perspectives: On Beethoven’s “Party Music” and More

Beethoven looms larger than life in the collective imagination—take it from the title of Saturday’s concert, Three Titans, which features an early Beethoven work, the Octet in E-flat Major for winds. We spoke with two members of the octet who prepare to share the work with Festival audiences this week: oboe faculty Nancy Ambrose King and horn Fellow Austin Ruff.

Sarasota Orchestra: What can you tell me about how this particular composition came to be?

Nancy Ambrose King: There is a long history of wind music from the Classical era into the early Romantic period. Generally, every aristocratic court, especially the Austrian aristocracy, would have in their musical employ a wind group called a Harmonie. Since space or budget didn't always allow for a full orchestra, we have a wealth of Harmoniemusik repertoire; actually, many pieces for orchestra and from operas were transcribed for wind octet.

SO: It's almost like the Harmonie were the cover bands of their day, taking the popular music that was being played in concert halls and opera houses and bringing it into the chamber music setting.

Nancy: Exactly, and in addition to the cover band aspect, quite a few-well known original pieces were written—Including, of course, this Beethoven octet. Beethoven was living in Bonn at the time, and so it's most likely it was written for the Elector of Bonn, Beethoven’s patron, for his court Harmonie ensemble.

An SMF faculty artist since 2003, Nancy Ambrose King is a celebrated soloist with 11 solo oboe recordings to date. She is Professor of Oboe at her alma mater, University of Michigan, has appeared as a recitalist throughout the world, and was a member of the jury for the esteemed 2009 Barbirolli and the 2016 Muri Switzerland Oboe Competitions. Nancy is also the author of a highly successful e-book titled Making Oboe Reeds from Start to Finish with Nancy Ambrose King.

Nancy Ambrose King

SO: In the collective conscious, Beethoven is depicted as such a passionate, sometimes stormy or turbulent character. Does any of that come across in the music he wrote when he was young, like this octet?

Austin Ruff: Being a much earlier work, I would say that aspect of Beethoven's music was still in development, although some of that appears in certain areas. This piece has a lot of influence from Mozart and Haydn. It’s party music, meant to be listened to while enjoying the company of others in a social setting.

Nancy: I think even though it's early Beethoven, there definitely are aspects of his later writing in evidence: lots of really sudden dynamic changes, cutting sforzando that just pop out of nowhere. It also has fiendishly difficult horn parts!

SO: Tell me more about that, because this piece has such lightness in character—I take it that doesn’t necessarily make it easy?

Austin: At the time this was written, it was all composed for valve-less horn. Some of the biggest flourishes that could be written for horn at the time were just really fast arpeggios, of which I have a bunch toward the end of the first movement. That's been challenging, but I think I've definitely grown just from learning this music and getting to play this horn part.

Austin Ruff completed his sophomore year at Southern Methodist University this spring. Sarasota Music Festival marks Austin’s very first festival experience!

Austin Ruff

SO: Since chamber music is such a conversational format, I wonder, do you ever think about your parts as characters? And if so, what characters are you playing in this particular octet?

Nancy: You know, if we were playing Mozart, the characters would be very apparent because Mozart is such an operatic composer. However, I think this Beethoven octet does have a lot of characters in the various instruments. It has a lot of back-and-forth dialogue between oboes and clarinets, between horns and bassoons.

Austin: I would also say that in this piece, the horns and bassoons are actually used more as chord filling. We do have our moments where we become the prime characters and we really stick out. But a lot of the time, we are the filling of the cake, and the oboes and clarinets are more decorative on top.

Nancy: But I think that the art of playing chamber music is to get out of the way when it's not your turn, stand up to the plate when you do have the chance to carry the melody for a few bars, and then once again retreat. We worked a lot on that in our rehearsal last night.

SO: I’d like to hear about the dynamic between Fellows and faculty in rehearsals of a blended ensemble like your octet.  

Nancy: In what we do, everyone is learning from each other all the time. I think the free exchange of ideas is so important to music, and there is really no hierarchy when it comes to playing chamber music.

SO: Austin, we’re getting close to the Festival’s halfway point. Have there been any “aha moments” that you already know will stick with you after the Festival ends?

Austin: Honestly, every day I learn a new approach to music or my own instrument that’s really invaluable. The experience I've gotten here is just amazing.

Nancy Ambrose King and Austin Ruff will take part in a performance of Beethoven’s Octet in E-Flat Major on Saturday, June 15, as part of Sarasota Music Festival’s second Saturday Symphony: Three Titans.  Tickets and Details

Saturday Symphony: Three Titans

June 15, 2019

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