Programme notes on the Beethoven string quartets
Here follow some of the late Dr. Robert Simpson’s thoughts on the Beethoven String Quartets as published with the Vanbrugh Quartet‘s CDs on the Intim Musik label.
- Op. 18 No. 1 · No. 2 · No. 3 · No. 4 · No. 5 · No. 6
- Op. 59 No. 1 · No. 2 · No. 3
- Op. 74
- Op. 95
- Op. 127
- Op. 130 with Op. 133
- Op. 131
- Op. 132
- Op. 135
Beethoven String Quartet in F major Op. 18, No. 1
Allegro con brio
Adagio affettuoso ed appassionato
Scherzo: Allegro molto
Beethoven’s Op.18 quartets were not written in the sequence in which they are numbered. Basil Lam in his admirable BBC Music Guide gives the following order:
- No. 4 in C minor – probably much revised after second version of No. 1
- No. 1 in F (first version)
- No. 3 in D
- (uncertain) No. 5 in A
- No. 2 in G
- No. 6 in B flat
The F major quartet, published as No. 1, underwent a comprehensive revision by which it became in many ways the strongest work of the set. Beethoven sent its first version to his friend Carl Amenda but two years later wrote to him “Don’t let anyone see your quartet as I have greatly changed it, as only now do I know how to write quartets properly”. It was a root-and-branch revision, a magnificent lesson in composition to any student (both versions can be found together in Section VI, Vol. 3 of the Beethoven Edition published by Henle). The result was a work of considerable power in which the composer showed not only his mastery of structural subtlety but also a new grasp of quartet texture. Such lessons are evident in every movement.
The first movement is one of the most succinct and muscular statements in early Beethoven, and the first figure generates a remarkable range of growth. The directness and simplicity of its beginning did not come all at once; the sketches show that it had to be hammered out, and the way its terseness serves to make room for later expansion foreshadows the extraordinary achievement of Op. 95. Notice how the little turning figure in the first theme is soon overlaid by a new counterpoint and then, as the music moves to the dominant, the second group floats and expands (with gentle syncopations) in a way we might not have supposed possible in a piece with so crisp a start. In the revision the development was drastically altered in its range of modulation and the perfection of its part-writing – of all the Op. 18 quartets, this shows the most democracy between the instruments.
Beethoven told Amenda that when composing the slow movement he had Romeo and Juliet in mind. He more than once responded to the promptings of Shakespeare, but as with the Pastoral Symphony, would have insisted that the result was “more an expression of feeling than painting”. This passionate D minor movement has something in common with the Largo e mesto of the piano sonata in D Op. 10, No. 3. Both spaciously express a sense of tragedy beyond the ken of any of Beethoven’s predecessors except Gluck, and the quartet movement has a new refinement of sound, partly due to the way in which the composer removed many of the more vehement markings of the first version. The fining down of the dynamics makes all the more striking the intense outburst towards the end.
After this the scherzo, far from being the usual release of energy after the restraints of a slow movement, is almost soothing. This is another sign of maturity – a quality we must never underestimate in Beethoven’s early masterpieces. Too often his Op. 18 quartets are patronisingly treated as the promising products of a student of genius, and we must not forget that already Beethoven is active in a territory unpredictable even by Haydn and Mozart. When these works were first heard the impression was of disconcerting but dazzling mastery of novel ideas. By the time this F major quartet appeared, audiences were prepared for a fiercely aggressive Beethoven scherzo, so the quiet nature of this one provided a new kind of surprise, not contradicted by the abrupt humour of the humorously modulating trio with its skipping octaves. In this scherzo there is, as Basil Lam says, an element of “unrest that links it with the first half of the quartet” – but it is also an easement towards the rondo finale.
When he revised it, Beethoven changed the marking for the finale from Allegretto to Allegro. This means that he first thought of a not excessive speed, but may have felt that Allegretto suggested too slow a pace. The Allegro marking does not really mean very fast ( we have to remember that the literal meaning of the word is “cheerful” or “lively” – not quick) and there is great risk to the detail if the piece is rushed; its rhythmic vitality is the stronger for not being hurried. The quicksilver first subject is contrasted with singing elements that give the piece great spaciousness, and in this respect it balances the first movement. The development shows Beethoven’s already great mastery of polyphony, a skill for which he has not always been given the credit. To the academics smoothness used to be the only acceptable attribute of good counterpoint.
Dr. Robert Simpson
Beethoven String Quartet in G major Op. 18, No. 2
Allegro molto quasi Presto
This is a comedy, rich in wit and humour. There is no intention to search the depths, and even the slow movement is a tongue-in-cheek reference to the the much more serious and beautiful slow finale of Haydn’s C major quartet, Op. 54 No. 2.
Beethoven’s first movement starts with a delightful exchange of phrases that deceptively adopts eighteenth century manners. But we must take care about this – the second phrase turns up again in the scherzo of the late C sharp minor Quartet! As we shall see, Beethoven was able throughout his life to use the simplest material to the profoundest ends. In this case any profundity lies in the subtlety with which he is able to manipulate light-textured matter – perhaps we are apt to forget that a mosquito has unfathomable such profundities! Be that as it may, Beethoven does not altogether eschew emotionally deeper suggestions, as in the pianissimo change to Eb in the development, with a mysterious fugato; but it is abruptly dismissed, and the movement resumes its witty course, coming soon to an astonishingly concentrated yet broad approach to the recapitulation.
The C major Adagio is plain-sailing, if one can so describe the concertante decorations of the 1st violin, joined by the cello in the reprise. Harmonically it avoids “expression” like the plague. The plainness recalls the Haydn slow finale already mentioned, not least because Haydn also interrupts his slow music with a presto that sounds like another movement, the interruption suggesting the slow movement to have been a protracted introduction to a quick finale which, however, quickly evaporates, leaving the Adagio in full possession to the end. In the second movement of a four movement quartet Beethoven makes his quick section pose as the premature arrival of a scherzo, and in returning to the slow music he does not aspire to the immense gravity of Haydn. Perhaps Beethoven’s light -hearted, even sardonic allusion slightly misfires if we draw too close a parallel, and so long as we are not expecting a deep slow movement (of which we know Beethoven to be capable even in his early period) we can accept this piece as an easy going relaxation during a comedy.
The real scherzo is brilliantly unpredictable, thematically and harmonically, with a C major trio employing sparkling triplets, from which a link leads back to the return. Beethoven’s early scherzos show amazing variety and resource, the answer to Haydn’s wistful, “I wish someone would show us a new way to write minuets”. Some of them would not surprise us if they had appeared in much later works.
Beethoven’s finale shows that he has learnt from Haydn, who would greatly have admired what it makes of manifold witty inversions and diminutions of its first three notes. This vividly humourous movement also shows what can be done by constant flexibility in contrasting textures and phrase-lengths in music that nothing can hinder as it hurtles by. In the finale of the G major string trio, Op. 9, No. 1 we find Beethoven using groups of three notes with astonishing resource, and although one of its themes could easily have occurred in the quartet, he does not repeat a single device from the earlier work.
Dr. Robert Simpson
Beethoven String Quartet in D major Op. 18, No. 3.
Andante con moto
The D major quartet is one of the gentlest of Beethoven’s earlier works, certainly in its first three movements, and its subtlety will not be noticed by those who tend to patronise his first quartets. Take the very opening, for instance – the first two notes of the violin and their continuation in quietly flowing quavers over a very deliberate chordal accompaniment could easily be the start of a slow movement. We realise only after a while that the motion belongs to an allegro. Beethoven’s control of movement shows already a high degree of maturity, clearly proved in an opening to which no parallel can be found in Haydn or Mozart. It is a beautiful beginning and the rest of the movement fulfils its promise. The part-writing in later quartets produces greater democracy than here, but the music itself could hardly be bettered in the ease and certainty of its flow, while the sidelong approach to the dominant in the second group (through C major and A minor) has unobtrusive originality. The development is not long, but its approach to the recapitulation is unexpectedly dramatic, through the dominant of F sharp minor, later powerfully intensified in the Second Symphony (in the same key).
The easeful B flat Andante is a rondo. As Basil Lam points out in the BBC Music Guide to the Beethoven quartets, the twelve-bar theme “is constructed with great subtlety; the melody, begun by the second violin, is taken over and repeated by the first before the statement has been completed”. The smoothly flowing figuration of the theme is prominent in most of the movement, and Beethoven’s use of contrasting harmonic areas prevents this fact from preempting the always welcome returns of the theme itself. At the centre is a rich development.
Quietly flexing strong muscles, the scherzo is unaggressive and its D minor trio decorates a four-note descending bass. Sustained brilliance in this quartet is reserved for the finale, in a fast six-eight time. Its keys and rhythms create the temptation to compare it (of course unfavourably!) with the finale of Mozart’s D major quintet-but in this case it must be Beethoven who wins the palm for sheer mastery of movement. Mozart’s theme sits down with dangerous regularity, while Beethoven’s flies at once into the sky, alighting when and where it wishes, and the length and size of Beethoven’s paragraphs and the energy with which they are infused can be found only rarely with other composers. Here it is also generates rich and vigorous polyphony in the overwhelmingly energetic development.
Dr. Robert Simpson
Beethoven String Quartet in C minor Op. 18, No. 4
Allegro ma non tanto
Scherzo: Andante scherzoso quasi allegretto
It has been suggested that Beethoven’s C minor quartet is based on material from his earliest period in Bonn; whatever the truth, the work represents him at full power so far as he had evolved it around 1800, when the six Op. 18 quartets were being composed. C minor has always been connected with Beethoven in trenchant mood, and there is some of that here, with instantly assimilable melodic invention. For all this, there is no lack of subtlety in the proportions, and the sense of movement is as perfect as a cat’s. In the crisply effected first movement we feel strong purpose rather than the tragedy or pathos often associated with a minor key, and the E flat music of the second group has an unmistakably optimistic “lift”. As if to confirm this, there is no slow movement – instead a lighthearted C major andante actually entitled “scherzo”; this anticipates in some ways the second movement of the First Symphony, especially in its fugato beginning.
By far the most serious part of this quartet is the so-called minuet, having the urgency of some of Beethoven’s later scherzo movements (which incidentally when they were not humorous he never called “scherzo”). This dramatically intense “minuet” has some remarkable chromaticisms, and the Trio, with its constant quick triplets in the first violin, could well have influenced Schubert’s quartet textures. The finale is one of Beethoven’s rare excursions into the Hungarian style of which Haydn was fond; it is a simple rondo with a contrasting much broader second theme. At the end the tempo increases and unlike Haydn in such cases, Beethoven allows the minor key to persist to the end. In this quartet, all the movements are in C.
Dr. Robert Simpson
Beethoven String Quartet in A major, Op. 18, No. 5
In the first movement we might not be far wrong in detecting a sardonic skit on genteel elegance – the form is simple, even primitive if we compare it with, say, Mozart’s great A major quartet K. 464, where conscious intellectual mastery is displayed. Beethoven’s almost casual lightness of touch has other aims – entertainment, and perhaps correction of the idea that he is always aggressive.
The minuet (not a scherzo) comes second. It is still in A major and the elegance is continued, though with an abrupt excursion into a blunt C sharp minor in the second part, from which the gentle music reacts as if nothing had happened. The trio consists of a beautiful tune enlivened by off-beat accents.
Any suspicion of casualness provoked by the first movement was already assuaged by the minuet, and is now laid fully to rest in one of the finest of his early variation movements. Beethoven shows what can be done with a simple falling and rising fragment of diatonic scale. The D major theme is simplicity itself, but of striking beauty, and the first three variations animate it with growingly active figuration, the third strongly anticipating Schubert. The fourth variation is of exquisite calm and depth – the theme is intact but harmonised with surpassing sensitivity. Variation 5 returns to vigorous, even rough, activity and leads directly to a long and felicitous coda in which the scales are given in diminution (i.e. in shorter notes) producing an altogether new development, beginning in the magically remote key of B flat, from which the return to the tonic is delightful.
In the finale, we find much contrapuntal invention and a highly original quartet texture, with what by now we must expect in Beethoven, a magnificent sense of movement. The quicksilver motion is offset by a splendidly broad second theme that is carried with consummate ease by the general current.
Dr. Robert Simpson
Beethoven String Quartet in B flat major Op. 18, No. 6
Allegro con brio
Adagio ma non troppo
La Malinconia: Adagio – Allegretto quasi allegro
Extreme contrasts characterise the B flat quartet, perhaps an anticipation of the great Op. 130 in the same key. But care is necessary in such comparisons. In the late quartet Beethoven was almost certainly influenced by the format of the old suite with its many movements, especially when ending the work with the Grosse Fuge. Beethoven was always attracted by the problems posed by strong contrasts and in the last of the Op. 18 quartets he is trying out the possibilities of disparity of character between the movements. It can with some justice be argued that the experiment is not fully successful (if it were it would no longer be an experiment) and that the final allegretto is not quite the response called for by the extraordinary La Malinconia, with its amazing modulations and gripping pathos.
But the work as a whole cannot lose its fascination. Nothing could be more exhilarating than the powerfully sprung first movement with its spare textures and the abrupt and economical nature of its harmonic movement. This exuberant piece is followed by a soberly ornate slow movement in E flat, with touches of mystery here and there, serving to relieve the general tone rather than to search depths.
One of Beethoven’s most astonishing scherzos follows. Its remarkable rhythmic disruptions could have occurred at any time in his life, and if this piece had cropped up in one of the late quartets nobody would have questioned it. The trio displays a wild and difficult violin solo, a phenomenon we also find in the trios of Op. 130 and Op. 135.
A slow introduction, La Malinconia, full of daring shifts of harmony and texture, begins the last movement. It is justly one of the most celebrated passages in early Beethoven – he asks for it to be played with the greatest delicacy. It recurs later in the course of the following cheerful major movement, which may possibly have its origin in one of Haydn’s weaker finales, the one in the “Sunrise” quartet, Op. 76, No. 4, of which the surprising and (for Haydn) rare helplessness is not improved on by Beethoven. Maybe Beethoven’s cheerfulness should not be thought of as a cure for the melancholy – perhaps it is part of it, with its sense of helpless circling. But we must avoid special pleading. Whatever we feel about the conclusion of the B flat quartet, the whole is a work of genius.
Dr. Robert Simpson
Beethoven String Quartet in F major Op. 59, No. 1 (1806)
Allegretto vivace e sempre scherzando
Adagio molto e mesto
This is the most obviously spacious of Beethoven’s three Rasumovsky Quartets, composed in 1806, during the richest period of his middle life. All his work at that time displays immense confidence while encompassing a great range of human expression. The Op. 59 quartets themselves show a scope of experience quite beyond anything in music hitherto – except, that is, in his own work.
The first movement of this F major quartet has the kind of spaciousness we associate with the “Eroica”, and its controlled tension is exemplified by the way the whole of its grand first theme keeps its feet off the ground; its harmony avoids an accented root and conveys an airborne feeling, without haste. The exposition is expansive, the development vast, and the moment of recapitulation dramatic, after the “wrong” theme has appeared in the “right” key. The second movement is a unique scherzo – unique in tempo and form, a highly irregular sonata structure that must be analysed in the greatest detail or not at all. Its mood is at once nervous and humorous, as if the first movement’s monumental tension has left an unsettling effect, to be further accentuated in the dark Adagio, a kind of private funeral march as opposed to the public one in the “Eroica”; it is in F minor and gleams of major keys are rare. At its close the air clears and admits the Arcadian Finale, based on a Russian theme for Count Rasumovsky’s benefit. The Count might have thought that Beethoven had made a mistake in treating so lightly, in so lively a tempo, a tune that is slow and sad. But near the end Beethoven gently and tenderly reveals the nature of his joke, which also reveals a wonderful absorption of the folk tune’s Dorian mode into the quartet’s classical F major. The Dorian mode is D to D on the white notes of the piano, and the key of D minor is also very forcible in the development of this light-hearted but powerful finale.
Dr. Robert Simpson
Beethoven String Quartet in E minor Op. 59, No. 2 (1806).
Molto adagio. Si tratta questo pezzo con molto di sentimento
The second Rasumovsky quartet gives vent, perhaps, to some of the nervous tension that begins to show itself in the scherzo of the first. Like another even more tense later quartet, Op. 132, it has a deeply contemplative slow movement, but in this case not entirely immune to stress. C major has a central function in the development of the remarkable first movement, with repercussions in the finale. The third movement is not a typical Beethoven scherzo (none of the Rasumovsky quartets has one) but an Allegretto with twice-heard trio – this E major trio is where Beethoven quotes a “Thème Russe” as a compliment to his dedicatee. The C major that invaded the first movement makes to begin the wildly Slavic finale, and almost succeeds in rendering the main key of E minor unstable. Every time the first theme returns, C major, not E minor, is prepared, and at length Beethoven, with wry humour, makes the movement seem to run away from the effect; “No-not that again!” All this is a magnificently imaginative way of preventing the wrong kind of monotony when all four movements are in the same key, minor or major. Curiously enough, the four important works of Beethoven in the key of E (minor or major) (Op. 14, Op. 90, Op. 109) -all piano sonatas-and this quartet) all have this monotonal design.
Dr. Robert Simpson
Beethoven String Quartet in C major Op. 59, No. 3 (1806)
Andante con moto – Allegro vivace
Andante con moto quasi allegretto
Minuetto – Grazioso
Would it be going too far to suppose a connection between this extraordinary work and Beethoven’s advancing deafness? Could that painfully groping introduction seem like someone trying to hear something? Could the ensuing brilliant C major Allegro be a rush of relief that the inner ear is unimpaired? Could the obsessive A minor second movement with its stabbing accents suggest the solitary imprisonment of deafness? Could the minuet (not a Scherzo) recall the kind of music Beethoven once heard most perfectly? Could the irresistable force of the finale be defiance of the affliction? The last question we can answer with “yes”, for Beethoven wrote on its sketches: “Make no secret of your deafness, not even in art”. It is surely not impossible that the whole work is an account of his coming to terms with the specific tragedy. But even without interpretation of this kind, the work is astonishing in its coherence when its startling variety is considered; there are many subtle musical reasons for this, but they may have been generated by a deeply unified resolution of emotional stresses.
Dr. Robert Simpson
Beethoven String Quartet in E flat major Op. 74 (1809)
Poco adagio – Allegro
Adagio, ma non troppo
Allegretto con variazioni
The year 1809 could be called Beethoven’s E flat year, since it produced three major works in that key – the Fifth Piano Concerto, the piano sonata Les Adieux, Op. 81a, and this magnificent quartet. The three works are basically serene masterpieces, as if Beethoven felt himself to be on a plateau of confidence after a great outpouring in the previous six years. Other things in 1809 testify to his desire to enjoy his powers – the two short piano sonatas, Op. 78 and 79, and a number of songs.
The quartet (which has been labelled “The Harp” on account of some arpeggiando pizzicato passages in the first movement) opens with a contemplative introduction in which the key of E flat is made to have introspective tendencies, with a pull towards the sober subdominant, A flat, in which key the slow movement will fall. The Allegro, dignified and confident, immediately displays a similar tendency towards the subdominant and the celebrated pizzicati soon follow. The development contains a wonderfully exultant C major treatment of the main theme, and the coda creates one of the most original and powerful passages in quartet writing – the first violin breaks out into brilliant bravura, as if he were suddenly the soloist in a concerto, and while he lets fly the texture thrillingly deepens and solidifies beneath until the four instruments sound as if the whole world is singing.
The gentle A flat slow movement is a rondo, the beautiful main melody recurring at intervals, with episodes that tend to melancholy. This music is essentially innocent and direct, and attempts to overstress it always defeat themselves. Then comes a very strong C minor scherzo, its rhythm reminding us of the Fifth Symphony, the suggestion reinforced by a rushing C major trio. The parallel with the symphony becomes even more striking when the scherzo recedes into a breathless pianissimo that shows signs of behaving like the famous link into the symphony’s finale.
The allusion is genuine, but ironic. Beethoven is clearly making affectionate fun of the earlier drama, and instead of a blazing finale (as much as to say “there’s no brass in a string quartet!”) we have some delightfully resourceful variations on a deceptively accented theme. These variations, in their unobtrusive way, contain shrewd prophecies, as anyone who knows his Brahms will confirm. The last movement of Brahms’ B flat quartet, Op. 67, might almost be described as a variation on Beethoven’s variations, theme and all. If you remember the Brahms, listen especially to Beethoven’s variation with solo viola, and to the one with persistent triplets on the cello. Brahms obviously could not resist anything so Brahmsian.
Dr. Robert Simpson
Beethoven String Quartet in F minor Op. 95 (1810)
Allegro con brio
Allegretto ma non troppo
Allegro assai vivace ma serioso
Larghetto espressivo – Allegretto agitato – Allegro
1810 was not one of Beethoven’s most prolific years, but it did produce this magnificently concentrated Quartet and the music for Goethe’s “Egmont”. Is there a connection between the two works? The Overture and the Quartet have the key of F minor in common, and both have deliberately dissociative endings in the major and in new, quicker tempi. In the Overture, the intention is to depict the blaring fanfare ordered by Alva to drown Egmont’s speech on the scaffold, an intention it defeats by itself being inspiring. Could the Quartet have anything to do with the private – as opposed to the public – aspects of such a situation? Egmont’s inner thoughts? If so, the lithe and delicate F major coda to the Finale could be apt enough for a fleeting sense of justification and release at the point of death, while the dissociative nature of the music itself, all new material, might have had some additional extra-musical motivation – though it is profoundly convincing in itself. There is no doubt that Beethoven was absorbed by Goethe’s “Egmont” at the time, so the idea of a link with the Quartet may not be too fanciful.
Beethoven called Op. 95 “Quartetto, serioso”, a curious step to take when so many of his works could scarcely be said to lack seriousness, and the fact that he showed at first some reluctance to let the work be published suggests it held for him some special significance at which we can only guess. It is one of the most compact of all his works and his shortest Quartet; yet it has an astonishing variety and scope of character and material, achieved through a power of suggestion that contrives to create space where there seems not enough to contain all these things. The amazingly terse opening has a rhythmic subtlety that causes its answer on the flat supertonic (a semitone higher) suddenly to withdraw – the mysterious harmonies that follow already create a sense of space, and when Beethoven comes to the second theme, he is able to allow it to expand, almost with leisure, without the slightest suggestion of diffuseness. This is composition of the very greatest order. The first movement is unusually short but gives the impression of incalculable dimensions and limitless power.
The remarkable Allegretto is in the remote key of D major and contains two main elements, a cantabile (“mezza voce”) main theme and a second subject treated as a highly individual and expressive fugato. The deeply disturbed polyphony dominates the heart of the movement, and during this time there is a passage of astounding non-contrapuntal modulations followed by another fugato where the theme gets shorter and shorter, losing notes from the tail backwards – a phenomenon probably unique in classical music. This passage, seeming to lose its subject, prepares the way for the return of the first. But the fugato theme is not altogether lost – it reappears later in the lower parts, rising briefly to the surface as part of the melodic flow of the “main” theme before vanishing again. The end is inconclusive and the Scherzo breaks in abruptly. Beethoven does not call it a scherzo – he used this term only literally, when humour or wit was intended. There is no humour in this fierce piece, nor in the wonderful Trio, unlike anything else in the quartet literature, and also unique in occurring twice in different forms, the second time with more marvellous modulations than before. The final statement of the blunt Scherzo is sharply truncated and speeded up.
The Finale opens with a short but deeply elegiac introduction, leading to a movement of extraordinary tortuous grace – a dance of despair, some might think – anticipating in some ways the last movement of the late A minor Quartet. But despair is not an element in Beethoven’s art. Profoundly disturbing as he can be, he cannot express mere depression, for the human energy of his work is irrepressible, breaking through the most terrible agonies of his life with prodigious creative effects. This is one of the works where he achieves the apparent impossibility of totally convincing dissociation – in this case the gloriously fleet and elated F major coda. What does this mean? We have already thought of a possible extra-musical explanation – but it doesn’t have to “mean” anything except the miracle it performs. The other great works in which dissociation is a positive and paradoxically unifying force (on a much greater scale) are the last Piano Sonata in C minor Op. 111, and the late B flat Quartet Op. 130. The F minor Quartet and the “Egmont” Overture are the first notable examples of this phenomenon, of which Beethoven was the first and, perhaps, the only master.
Dr. Robert Simpson
Beethoven String Quartet in E flat major Op. 127 (1824)
Maestoso – Allegro
Adagio, ma non troppo, e molto cantabile
Scherzando vivace – Presto – Tempo 1
There is much mystery in this angelic work, the first of the late quartets. The serenity is not unaware of problems, yet is above them. The calm expansiveness of the whole contains a paradoxical degree of thematic concentration. The unprecedented originality of the quartet texture is carried by a structure more “classical” than we find in any of the Rasumovsky quartets. The astonishing beauty and innocence of much of the music seems to clothe a spirit more bold and exploratory than ever before. These are some of the apparent contradictions that conspire to produce an indescribably perfect work, The key is E flat, but C major is important. Take note of the dignified (and rhythmically ambiguous) introduction, fixing itself and E flat in the mind. In the middle of the first movement’s development it returns in a bright C major; most composers would have brought it back (if at all) in the tonic at the recapitulation. The fact that it comes unexpectedly, and in a bright foreign key, creates a memorable mystery; we subconsciously remember it a long time later when the coda of the Finale begins with a magical change to C major in a mysterious new tempo. The two middle movements are among the greatest and most original of their kind. The Adagio consists of four variations and coda on a theme of vast calmness and humanity, the whole movement a triumph of quiet sustained inner strength, one of the supreme examples of decorative variation in all music. When one considers what Beethoven had suffered by this time in his life, such music as this illuminates the more his true nature. The scherzo is one of his largest and strangest, alternating solidity and disparateness of texture, all pervaded by a playful unpredictability; the trio in the minor is wild and fantastic, the more so in the context of this work, yet puzzlingly not at all out of place. The deceptively simple finale (it has no tempo indication) makes as if to begin in C – and this is connected with the point made earlier by the C major intrusion in the development of the first movement. The unobtrusive originality of everything in this great work is typified by the main theme of the finale; it begins with two regular eight-bar phrases that sound tantalisingly irregular – as if they were 3+5+3+5. The simplest things seem continually to renew themselves. The coda, with a change of tempo, makes a magical modulation to C major before finding its way back home again.
Dr. Robert Simpson
Beethoven String Quartet in B flat major, Op. 130 (with Grosse Fuge Op. 133 followed by the “second finale”)
Adagio ma non troppo – Allegro
Andante con moto ma non troppo
Alla danza tedesca: Allegro assai
Cavatina: Adagio molto espressivo
In its original form with the Grosse Fuge as finale, this was the longest of Beethoven’s quartets. The fugue was found at first incomprehensible and almost unplayable and Beethoven was at length persuaded to substitute a shorter, lighter, “easier” finale; this was the last thing he ever completed.
Although it seems surprising that Beethoven agreed to this compromise, the artistic reason for it could have been deeper than a mere desire to please, or a lack of confidence in his own judgment. Such indecisions had plagued him before, in the Fifth and Ninth symphonies, in Fidelio, or in the appalling cuts and shifts he suggested in in the Hammerklavier Sonata. Publishing the Grosse Fuge separately as Op. 133 may well have been done in the hope that it would eventually find its way back to its original place, as it now often does, for it is widely and rightly felt that the small “substitute” finale cannot counterweigh the great first movement. But if the Grosse Fuge is restored to Op. 130, what are we to do with the other piece? The idea that two such disparate movements are satisfying alternatives could be sustained only by ingenuity. Perhaps the answer lies further back.
Listening to the first movement, notice the mysteriously disembodied effect of the whole second group in the strange key of G flat, approached abruptly, and not grounded in a tonality at all. The same thing happens in the Grosse Fuge, even more mysteriously, when everything slips into a wonderful animated cloud of soft G flat. These two events are crucial. The work as a whole also has something in common with a Bach partita; Beethoven in his later works searches the past ever more deeply.
The first movement is followed by a very fast and short scherzo in the tonic minor; the next movement, ambling gently and delicately, with many original quartet textures, is in the related key of D flat. Then comes the simple Alla danza tedesca, but suddenly in the strange key of G major, as far as possible away from D flat – a switch to the other side of the musical universe! This violent dissociation, expressed in the simplest language, is the secret heart of the work, psychologically connected with those in the first movement and the Grosse Fuge.
From G it is an easy step to E flat, where we find the touching Cavatina, and the note G at the top of its last chord begins both the Grosse Fuge and the second finale. The Fugue is a mighty struggle stretching mind and sinews to the limit, and besides the great G flat dissociation it contains, it also makes another such rift by means of the key of A flat, the “contradictory” flat seventh of the tonic B flat. But at length, with an unmistakable sense of release, it breaks through into sunlight – the air is all at once fresh and free and the music takes flight. Does not the extra movement say, gloriously, “Now we can play!”? Is it not a felicitous appendix, in its vivid delight the most heroic of all Beethoven’s utterances?
His bodily condition was piteous, but his spirit found its way into this sparkling allegro, in which all tonal contradictions and dissociations are wonderfully resolved (especially the A flat question, the point of which depends on our having heard the Grosse Fuge). There is a powerful case for freeing ourselves from the vexing choice. Beethoven might have welcomed this way out; perhaps he felt that Op. 130/133 was somehow not quite finished. Therefore, already in extremis, without time to change existing publishing arrangements, he achieved his happiest music. Shouldn’t it take its natural place?
Dr. Robert Simpson
Beethoven String Quartet in C sharp minor, Op. 131 (1826)
Adagio ma non troppo e molto espressivo – Allegro molto vivace – Allegro moderato – Adagio – Andante ma non troppo e molto cantabile – Presto – Adagio quasi un poco andante – Allegro
Beethoven wrote this great work in 1826 and appears to have thought it his finest. Certainly nothing could surpass its depth, scope, originality, or organic perfection. Although it is continuous and the “movements” are numbered 1 – 7, it can be felt as a five-movement quartet if we regard No. 3 (Allegro moderato – Adagio) as a link between Nos. 2 and 4, and No. 6 as an introduction to No. 7.
The first movement is a wonderful slow fugue; Wagner said it floated over the sorrows of the world, but even that description is too small for it. For the reader who knows something about normal fugue practice, the answer is here on the subdominant instead of the usual dominant, so that the expressive main accent of the subject now falls on the note D. This becomes the key of the quick, fleeting second movement, in a truncated sonata form, almost miraculously contrasted to the fugue. The subdominant inflection in the fugue is now matched in a quite different way by the relationship between this D major piece and the next main movement, a great set of variations in A major, forming the central slow movement (beginning Andante ma non troppo a molto cantabile). There are six variations, the last a sublime Adagio in 9/4 time, one of Beethoven’s supreme inspirations.
The whole of this movement remains rooted in A major, and when the scherzo breaks in, its E major feels more like the dominant of the previous A than like a key in its own right. Beethoven shrewdly avoids fixing E as a tonality, always blunting its own dominant into G sharp minor; when the “trio” (heard twice complete) slips into A we feel this to be by the force of gravity. G sharp minor, having been active in the scherzo, next becomes the key of No. 6 (Adagio quasi un poco andante), a deeply affecting slow introduction to the fiery C sharp minor finale, in which both the note and the tonality of D may be felt at crucial times with penetrating force.
The unfathomable unity of all this makes any description merely topographical and pedestrian, the more so in the attempt to be poetical. Musicians or no, we can be aware of it instinctively, even when we don’t know why, when we are moved beyond expression.
Dr. Robert Simpson
Beethoven String Quartet in A minor Op. 132 (1825)
Assai sostenuto – Allegro
Allegro ma non tanto
Molto Adagio (Song of thanksgiving of a convalescent to God, in the Lydian mode) alternating with Andante (Feeling new strength)
Alla marcia, assai vivace – più allegro – Allegro
Appassionato – Presto
The A minor was the second of Beethoven’s late quartets to be composed. Apart from its profoundly luminous slow movement, it is the darkest, and the adagio perhaps represents an inner freedom from the outward sufferings the rest of the work seems to reflect. Yet the cruel blandness of the alla marcia that shatters the raptness is one of the boldest strokes in all music; Beethoven does not fail to face necessities, and is able to do so without despair, but not (in this work) without the severest strain in the last movement. Another aspect of this quartet, in common with other late works, is its exploration of the past. Not only is there the deliberately archaic Lydian mode of the adagio (F to F on the white notes of the piano) – there is also the searching contemplation of a single phrase, the first four notes we hear on the cello at the very opening of the whole work (G sharp, A, F, E), with the kind of concentration we hear in Bach’s “Art of Fugue”. Astonishingly, the heartbreaking main theme of the final rondo was at first intended for the finale of the Ninth Symphony, and it is preceded by some recitatives that actually echo those in the symphony. Beethoven was clearly at one time undecided about how to end the Ninth, philosophically and musically. But even in Op. 132 he refuses to end negatively and the close is in a poignantly hectic A major.
Dr. Robert Simpson
Beethoven Quartet in F major, Op. 135 (1826)
Lento assai, cantante e tranquillo
Grave ma troppo tratto – Allegro (The difficult resolution)
Apart from the second finale of Op. 130, the F major quartet is the last substantial work Beethoven finished. It is smaller in scope and lighter in character than the other late quartets. Profundity is not always weight or elaboration, and the Lento is a piece as deep as it is seemingly simple. The first movement displays a delicately reticulated texture he had taught himself in some of the other late music, and there is no more sensitive quartet writing. The explosively original scherzo takes us by surprise after this, especially its wildly repetitive trio, reaching a hair-raising climax. The tensions that show their teeth in this piece remain beneath the utter quiet of the Lento assai: three very slow variations on a theme of elemental simplicity, the central one in the minor, hushed and fragmented. Deep contemplation without relaxation can be felt in this movement. The finale reacts with an indescribable blend of humour and seriousness, quoting a joke phrase Beethoven wrote in reply to someone who owed him some money and was reluctant to pay, saying “Must it be?” – to which the composer answered “It must be!” in a comically atrocious canon. We should not read too many heavy hidden meanings in all this, so far as the quartet is concerned – but there is something in it nobody will ever altogether fathom, and it is this that keeps the work perennially fresh and fascinating.
Dr. Robert Simpson