• George Lewis
  • Born Obbligato (2013)

  • C.F. Peters Corporation (World)

Commissioned by the International Contemporary Ensemble

  • 27 min

Programme Note

Composer note
This work, commissioned by ICE, is conceived in dialogue with Beethoven’s Septet Op. 20 (1800). Beethoven scholar Nicholas Mathew, to whom the work is dedicated, pointed out to me that the Septet’s convivial affect deviates markedly from the standard image of Beethovenian fist-shaking. As the story goes, in his later years the composer found the work’s popularity a source of chagrin, reportedly responding to a compliment by growling, “Mozart wrote that.”

Both the title and musical intent of Born Obbligato derive from a remark Beethoven made in an 1800 letter to his Leipzig publisher, in which he announced “a septet per il violino, viola, violoncello, contrabass, clarinett, corno, fagotto – tutti obligati”– adding parenthetically, “I cannot write anything that is not obbligato, for I was already born with an obbligato accompaniment.” Or at least, that is what a common English translation tells us. The German is a bit more ambiguous: “Ich kann gar nichts unobligates schreiben, weil ich schon mit einem obligaten Akkompagnement auf die Welt gekommen bin.” The translation of the seldom-used word “unobligates” (i.e., not required) as referring to style refers to the Septet’s texture, but Beethoven’s use of the expression “obligates Akkompagnement” to describe the circumstances of his birth invokes the sign of enigma.

Born Obbligato borrows from the Septet’s structure and texture, if not its conviviality. The addition of percussion and digital transformation and spatialization in the fourth movement (“Tema con Variazioni”) pays homage to the conductor Steven Schick.

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