Ludwig van Beethoven:
The Razumovsky Quartets
Quartet in E-flat Major, Op.74 “Harp”
Quartet in F minor, Op. 95 “Serioso”
Ludwig van Beethoven:
The Razumovsky Quartets
Count Razumovsky, the Russian ambassador to Vienna, commissioned Beethoven to write the three quartets of Op.59 in 1805 for the Schuppanzigh Quartet. The Count was an amateur violinist and frequently played as second violinist with the Schuppanzigh Quartet, a group he funded and whose members were considered to be some of Vienna’s finest string players. In his commission, Count Razumovsky’s only specific request of Beethoven was that Russian folk tunes be significantly featured in the music. Beethoven fulfilled this request in two of the three quartets, but with melodies that are, as he put it, “real or imitated” Russian themes. The Op.59 set was completed in 1806, after the “Eroica” Symphony of 1803, six years after his earlier Op. 18 quartets, and immediately following the “Waldstein” and “Appassionata” Piano Sonatas. In the three-year period of 1803-06, Beethoven completed his Fourth Piano concerto, Piano Sonata in F, Op.54, his Triple Concerto, 3 Leonore Overtures, the three Op.59 quartets and his opera Fidelio, thereby demonstrating his mastery of the genres of the symphony, sonata, concerto, opera and string quartet. With the publication of the Op.59 quartets, Beethoven moved the genre of the string quartet out of the small “chamber” setting and onto a larger stage. Each of the Op.59 quartets stands as a monumental individual work, both in terms of literal size and dramatic scope.
Quartet in F Major, Op.59, No.1
The debut of Beethoven’s new Op.59 No.1 quartet elicited reactions of disbelief and incredulity from musicians and public alike. The quartet’s size alone, easily twice as long as any of Beethoven’s earlier quartets and longer than five of his nine symphonies, caused musicians to react very negatively. Some of Beethoven’s most trusted friends believed he might even be playing a joke on them, as the technical and expressive demands put to the players had never been seen in a chamber work before. One violinist, whose advice Beethoven had sought for fingering suggestions for the violin parts, challenged Beethoven as to the artistic validity of the Op.59 No.1 quartet. Beethoven’s response to him was firm: “Oh, it is not for you, but for a later age.”
The sonata form first movement opens with one of Beethoven’s most noble themes, and sets the stage for the genial mood to follow. It’s difficult for us to imagine today, but Beethoven’s decision to set the initial presentation of the first theme in the cello part so challenged the conventions of the time that his friends would tease Beethoven mercilessly, with rehearsal sessions frequently ending in raucous laughter. (As the cellist in the quartet, I know we all now see the sensibility in Beethoven’s decision!) Beethoven cleverly adorns the first theme with triplets and buoyant eighth notes that help keep the music aloft. Moments of trepidation and darkness in the exposition are quickly supplanted by bright optimism. The centerpiece of the first movement is a marvelous fugue that begins with the second violin, moves to the viola and first violin, and which culminates in the cello before splintering apart for the reemergence of the music from the opening of the movement.
The scherzando second movement was another flashpoint of controversy because of the utter simplicity of the first few measures. The movement opens with a rhythmically engaging four bar phrase comprised of just one repeated note played by the cello (Beethoven would later employ this idea in the creation of the slow movement of his Seventh Symphony). This rhythmic motive serves as the structural underpinning for the music throughout the movement while more interesting melodic material is explored. One of the hallmarks of the second movement is the way Beethoven divides and shares the music among the four instruments of the quartet. This ingenious manipulation of the texture creates a sense of freshness in the music, and allows the two primary themes to reinvent themselves throughout the movement.
There are two theories to Beethoven’s inspiration for the devastatingly beautiful Adagio e molto mesto (slow and very sad) third movement. On surviving sketches of the movement, Beethoven wrote the words “Eine Trauer-weide oder Akazien-Baum aufs Grab meines Bruder”, or “A weeping willow or an acacia on the grave of my brother”. Either Beethoven was remembering the brother who was born a year before him, but who only survived for one week, or he was ironically mourning his other brother Casper, who had recently married a woman whom Beethoven detested. The music speaks for itself and gives us entrée into one of Beethoven’s darkest and most deeply personal landscapes. The lonely opening theme in the first violin, which is cast against a backdrop of dark harmonies in the lower three voices, is echoed in the cello and extended. A more hopeful second theme, played first in the cello and then passed to the first violin, provides a brief glimmer of hope before the feelings of utter despair return. Although the music is generally sad in nature, the patient expansiveness of the movement demonstrates some of Beethoven’s most ethereal writing.
The slow movement moves to the finale without pause, as the first violin plays a series of virtuosic running scales, eventually landing on a trill. The cello introduces the ebullient “Theme Russe” that Beethoven promised to Count Razumovsky, and as the first violin expounds on the theme, the joyous mood of the music immediately washes away the effects of the slow movement. Moments of raucous enthusiasm give way to episodes of elegance and intimacy, but in the end, the exuberance of the music can’t be suppressed. The closing bars provide us with a fitting end to one of the true giants of the string quartet repertoire.
Quartet in E minor, Op.59, No.2
The Quartet in E Minor, Op.59, No.2 is a work wrought with tension and emotional depth, and one has the sense that this is “big music” from the outset. Beethoven’s symphonic approach to the use of the instruments of the quartet creates a canvas that feels emotionally limitless.
The pathos laden first movement opens with two declamatory chords covering the interval of a fifth. Following a bar of silence, the first violin and cello introduce the first motivic figure. This opening motive quivers with quiet energy, full of dramatic promise. The unique opening phrase structure of 3 bars+3 bars+4 bars (including bars of silence) helps to create a sense of spaciousness and of uncertainty. The concise sonata form first movement bustles with energy, and eventually finds its way to sure-footed emotional ground. The arrival of the second theme brings a sense of relief, but as with many of Beethoven’s most dramatic works, it doesn’t last long. A rising tide of syncopation, shared by the quartet, ushers back the tolling chords from the opening. Spurred by accents and rhythmic energy, the movement covers a huge emotional range. Relatively simple melodic material is countered by a harmonic complexity that to this point had not been explored in the writing of quartets. Beethoven moves the music through a myriad of harmonic sequences in the development, heightening the listener’s sense of ebbing emotions and never allowing us to settle comfortably on one central key. The movement closes with a forte statement of the melodic motive that opened the movement, and then fades to a close.
According to Beethoven’s friend and student Carl Czerny, “the Adagio in E Major occurred to him when contemplating the starry sky and thinking of the music of the spheres.” To help us grasp the transporting beauty of this music, Beethoven clearly writes in the score, “this piece is to be played with great feeling.” An opening eight-bar hymn conjures a “heavenly” feeling, and immediately contrasts the feelings left in the wake of the first movement. The texture is dappled with triplets, dotted rhythms, and the ever-present hymn, giving us a feeling expansiveness and intimacy. The hymn appears one final time in the coda of the movement in fortissimo, with strong sforzandi
pushing us toward the conclusion of the movement.
The E minor Allegretto offers us a landscape of simplicity and clarity after the Adagio. The simple tune is accompanied with a sparse rhythm, keeping the texture uncluttered. At the trio, marked Maggiore, Beethoven finally introduces his six-bar folk tune, “Theme Russe”, in an unexpected fugue. The unique feature of this movement, besides its emotional effect within the scope of the whole quartet, is Beethoven’s double repetition of the allegretto and trio sections. The movement unfolds as follows: allegretto-trio-allegretto-trio-allegretto.
The presto Finale begins in C major, although the key signature denotes E minor. The symphonic physicality of this music is punctuated by driving rhythm and the energy of the running melodic lines. The return to the rondo theme is achieved through a playful passing of the first three notes of the melody between all four instruments. The closing prestissimo brings the piece to its impassioned final chords.
Quartet in C Major, Op.59, No.3
The heroic Op.59 No.3 string quartet opens with a sizzling diminished seventh chord that creates an air of uncertainty and expectation, and which must have stunned the audience at the first performance in 1807. The slow twenty-two bar introduction that follows is anchored by a bass line that steadily descends an octave and a half while enigmatic melodic fragments flicker in the instruments above. Even as the main Allegro vivace body of the movement begins in the first violin, Beethoven cleverly withholds his true first theme for another twelve measures before allowing it to burst forth with unbridled exuberance in the upper three voices of the quartet. The robust disposition of the music wanes briefly in the development as Beethoven splinters the music, spreading it in unexpected ways between the instruments of the quartet before closing the first movement with a very brief coda.
Of the three Op.59 quartets, the third quartet is the only one in which Beethoven does not specifically identify a “Theme Russe”, but the second movement features a plaintive theme that may have been Beethoven’s attempt to fabricate his very own Russian sounding melody. The great Beethoven scholar, Alexander Thayer, says the theme “could almost be a touching klezmer lullaby; a little sad, yet serene. Or perhaps Ludwig van was showing the Russians that he could dish up a Russian sounding theme as good, if not better, than any Russian.” Above an insistently plucked bass line in the cello, the first violin unveils the tender first theme of the second movement, and is answered by the second violin and viola. When the viola gets the theme, the music is somewhat modified by the addition of unexpected accents and swells, creating a stormier mood. Eventually the first violin ushers in a more dance-like second theme that lifts the spirits of the music, and provides a much needed sense of hope. When the movement finally fades to a close, it ends as it began, with a simple pizzicato.
For the third movement, Beethoven chose to utilize the form of a minuet instead of a scherzo, which gave him the opportunity for grace and elegance instead of crackling energy. The movement, built on a smoothly contoured melody played first by the violin and then by the other instruments of the quartet, is patient and refined. By contrast, the trio is much more spirited and angular with lively arpeggios balanced by a running sixteenth note accompaniment. Following the da capo (return) of the minuet, a somewhat reflective little coda closes the movement and sets up the direct segue to the finale.
The sensational finale Op.59 No.3 is one of Beethoven’s true virtuosic masterpieces (and is as much fun to play as it is to listen to). In the face of his having to come to terms with his loss of hearing and the uncertainty of his professional and artistic future, Beethoven managed to leave us with this amazing movement that captures the joy of life like no other. Again, to quote Thayer: “It is said that on the page in his notebook where Beethoven was working out the fugal theme he wrote “Never again need you feel ashamed of your deafness, nor others wondering at it. Can anything in the world prevent you from expressing your soul in music?” Beethoven opens the movement with a fugue that he begins in the solo viola, passes to the second violin, to the cello, and then to the first violin. Once all four voices are in, Beethoven begins to skillfully dismantle the theme, dispersing the various components throughout the quartet of instruments giving each player a chance to shine. The pace of the movement is rigorous and unrelenting; Beethoven halts the music only twice, as if to give the players a chance to catch their collective breaths, before reigniting the music and sending it charging to the brilliant finish.
(notes by Kurt Baldwin)
Quartet in E-flat Major, Op.74 “Harp”
The handful of years directly preceding the 1809 composition of the Op.74 string quartet was a time marked by severe social and political tumult in Western Europe. Napoleon’s quest for French domination of northern Europe meant that Beethoven’s homeland, Austria, was under nearly constant siege from 1800 until 1814. It’s all the more amazing then that while distracted by the sounds of fierce battles going on in and around Vienna, Beethoven was able to produce the Op.74 quartet, a work loaded with optimism and beauty (Beethoven, as it turned out, saved his impassioned response to the harshness of the war for his Op.95 “Serioso” quartet, which he wrote the next year). Despite the social turbulence of an unrelenting war and the personal realization that he was beginning to suffer from early symptoms of deafness, the years 1803-1814, Beethoven’s “middle period”, produced some of his most expansive and heroic works. During this brief time, Beethoven produced five string quartets (Op. 59 Nos. 1-3, Op.74 and Op.95), six symphonies (Nos. 3-8), two piano concertos (Nos. 4 and 5), his opera “Fidelio”, seven piano sonatas (including the “Appassionata” and the “Waldstein”), the Violin Concerto and the Triple Concerto.
The Op.74 “Harp” quartet signals a tipping point in Beethoven’s evolution as a composer in that we hear him simultaneously honoring the stylistic and formulaic traditions of the past while also beginning to experiment with innovative compositional techniques. The concise first movement begins with a slow, questioning introduction, featuring a motive played by the first violin that serves as the melodic seed for the entire movement. Shocking chords are followed by moments of silence, as Beethoven allows the listener to ponder the possibilities that lie ahead. After segueing to the main Allegro body of the movement, the optimism of the piece is finally disclosed, as Beethoven creates a first theme in the first violin from the music of the slow introduction. Plucked arpeggios in the viola and cello introduce the “harp” motif (for which the quartet was given its unofficial nickname) before passing the jaunty conversation to the two violins. A second theme comprised of running sixteenth notes, accompanied by a short-short-short-long rhythm that is immediately reminiscent of the famous motive of the Fifth Symphony, provides a lovely contrast to the more languid first theme. The first movement culminates with a dazzling coda made up of the now familiar “harp” motif (shared amongst the lower instruments) and a truncated version of the first theme (also shared by the viola and second violin) played against a virtuosic first violin line, all of which cascade toward a triumphant finish.
The slow second movement is one of Beethoven’s most sublime essays of lyricism and beauty. The expansive main theme, played by the first violin, is stated three times throughout the movement with each incarnation baring more ornamentation than the previous version. Beethoven creates a sense of variation through clever alterations not only to the accompanying voices but also through subtle changes in nuance in the main theme. Between these three utterances of the primary melody, Beethoven introduces two melodic episodes that take the music in slightly different emotional directions: first, through the use of the parallel minor, to darkness and despair, and then with a more soaring theme shared by the first violin and cello, back to a glowing beauty.
One of the most innovative aspects of Beethoven’s compositions was his ability to expand existing musical forms for greater emotional impact, a technique he chose to employ in the third movement. In the scherzo of Op.74, Beethoven constructs a double trio in which he introduces the scherzo (A), jumps to the first trio (B), restates the scherzo (A), revisits the trio (B), and then goes back to the scherzo (A) before ending the movement. The first violin led scherzo features a vigorous version of the short-short-short-long theme with a ferociously unrelenting accompaniment in the lower instruments. Ebullient arpeggios get tossed between the instruments between amid of the main theme in the scherzo before Beethoven moves to the sturdier sounding trio. The opening run in the cello part turns out to be the accompanying material to a canonic theme that is introduce by the viola and then taken up by the rest of the quartet. After traversing the supercharged framework of the scherzo, Beethoven steers the movement to a surprisingly gentle close before segueing directly into the last movement.
The finale of Op.74 is built on a genial theme, which is carried by the first violin, and a set of six charming variations. Each variation has a specific mood and character uniquely its own as Beethoven alternates between fast and slow variations, and spreads the music equally among the instruments of the quartet. The sixth variation begins an accelerando that continues all the way to the end of the movement, where Beethoven completes the quartet with a wink and a smile.
(notes by Kurt Baldwin)
Quartet in F minor, Op. 95 “Serioso”
The years of 1808-1810 were extremely difficult for Beethoven as he was in the midst of dealing with his deafness, poor health, financial issues and problematic personal relationships. Still, this period of his life was profoundly important, as he produced several revolutionary works, including the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies and the Op.74 “Harp” string quartet.
The quartet in F minor, Op. 95, was written in one month in 1810. It is recognized as the last of Beethoven’s “middle period” string quartets, and set the stage for his revolutionary journey into his late works. When Beethoven had completed the Op.95 quartet, he knew it was unlike anything that had come before it, and was somewhat skeptical about the public’s willingness to accept it into the popular literature. Perhaps feeling a bit protective, he issued this comment to a close friend: “This quartet is meant for a small circle of connoisseurs and should never be publicly performed.” We are fortunate that his wishes were not heeded!
The “serioso” character of this piece is heard at the very beginning of the first movement, as all four members of the quartet play a driving five-note motive in unison. This opening motive fuels the movement throughout, playing both the roll of primary theme and accompanying voice. The sonata form first movement is highly compressed, as Beethoven eliminates the traditional exposition repeat, creating a sense of an erratic and unpredictable texture. Also, Beethoven alters the length of the phrases so the listener’s expectation for the predictable classical era symmetry in the music is never fulfilled. The more melancholy second theme is introduced first by the viola, and is then carried by the cello and violins. The brief second theme statement is interrupted by the rolling sixteenth note motive of the opening theme before transitioning to the concise development. The thrilling coda is built on the terse five-note motive of the opening, and propels the movement to its abrupt close.
The second movement offers some of Beethoven’s most intimate and beautiful writing, and gives us momentary peace following the emotional torrent of the unrelenting first movement. The movement begins with a gently descending line in the cello that is expounded upon by the first violin. Unexpected bell-like chords, traded between various instruments and heard throughout the movement, pepper the texture. The viola introduces a fugal subject that is passed around the quartet before the ruminations of the opening cello line return. What follows is a brilliant double fugue, intricately woven together to create one of the great moments in the string quartet literature.
Like the first movement, the third movement scherzo is serious and dramatic in character. An ominous dotted rhythm theme is shared by all four instruments, galloping at a feverish pace toward the first of two wondrous trios. The trio sections are carried by hymn-like music in the lower three instruments as the first violin flutters above, as if ruminating about the impending return of the turbulent scherzo. Beethoven increases the tempo and the emotional fervor in the coda, sending the movement to its brusque end.
The Larghetto espressivo opening of the last movement features an augmented version of the third movement scherzo melody, sounding at first as if the entire movement will be introspective. The depth of the opening gives way to a fanciful rondo, marked Allegretto agitato, whose music is anxious and again unpredictable. Following his trend of unpredictability, Beethoven closes the “serioso” quartet with a surprisingly brilliant and optimistic coda.
(notes by Kurt Baldwin)