performed by the Artemis Quartet, or in a superb performance below by the American Quartet
I am thinking of devoting myself almost entirely to this type of composition…
Beethoven, to a publisher, regarding his composition of the Razumovsky quartets
(cover image by Aliis Sinisalu)
Welcome to the next installment of Beethoven’s string quartets. It took us much longer to get through the op. 18 than I’d originally planned, but I feel like we savored them, and while they are undoubtedly strong achievements in the form, we’re moving on to a much later Beethoven.
Since this is the first of three works in the opus 59 quartets, I’ll give a cursory overview of the set as a whole. They’re referred to as the ‘Razumovsky quartets’ because they were commissioned by Andrey Razumovsky, the Russian ambassador to Vienna at the time. These middle period quartets are longer than the op. 18 works, and the Russianness comes not only from their commissioner, but, as Wikipedia states:
Beethoven uses a characteristically Russian theme in the first two quartets in honor of the prince who gave him the commission…
These works come after both the third and fourth piano concertos, as well as the third and fourth symphonies, a whole six years after the op. 18 quartets were completed, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that these are grander, more developed works. They were written as early as 1806, but the set was published in 1808.
The seventh quartet is in four movements and has a duration of nearly 40 minutes, as follows:
- Allegro (F major)
- Allegretto vivace e sempre scherzando (B♭ major)
- Adagio molto e mesto – attacca (F minor)
- Thème Russe: Allegro (F major)
As we can see, the ‘Russian theme’ doesn’t appear until the finale.
There are a few things we might want to notice about the first movement. For one, despite its length (which Wikipedia says is “nearly 12 minutes,” but the Artemis quartet’s is barely under 10 and Borodin quartet’s is just under eleven), and you’ll see why that’s significant in a moment.
We’ll discuss more in a post next week how F major is just kind of (spoiler alert) a sunny, bucolic, you could even say…. Pastoral key. It’s warm and welcoming, and while (Wikipedia says that) this quartet begins ambiguously, it’s unmistakably friendly and cheerful from the word go. The cello carries the opening melody, and for me, it’s kind of an unforgettable one, the kind that wafts back into your memory here and there, and things only get sweeter when the rest of this quartet joins the party.
As we’ll discuss, all four movements of this work have a sonata form to them, but really… with this first movement, everything just kind of unfolds, like a flower blooming, and the ‘this is the moment the development begins’ seems so academic with music that’s so natural and charming. Just listen; you’ll agree.
What is interesting about this is that after the substantial first theme, second theme and closing, we get a quote of the cello’s opening theme, but it’s a trap. Instead of what we expect to have, a jump back to the beginning, we quickly realize we’re in the development. The movement doesn’t adhere to the typical exposition repeat and yet is still 10+ minutes long. If it did, this movement would be something nearing 15 minutes. Anywho, it’s just a beautiful first movement.
The second movement emphasizes that this is a bigger, more robust work. It too is in a sonata form, even though it formally functions as the scherzo. The listing for the movements from Wiki (above) lists this one as B♭ major, but we have passages of dark cloud here that are a safe distance away from the sunshine of the first movement. Portions of this movement do fit the ‘allegretto’ marking, as more polite, almost even dainty, but there are crunchy, more heavy-handed passages that we can sink our teeth into, easily calling to mind the more mature, crazy-haired Beethoven. If you want to be a little more academic, try to get the outline of the sonata form; if not, listen for the real soulful, maybe even ‘Russian’ heartbeat that certain passages exude. There’s also a coda.
The third and longest movement is marked ‘very slow and sad,’ which it really is. We’re obviously still some time before the seventh symphony, but it does remind me some of the second movement of that work. It’s tender and heartfelt but also so tragic and mournful, and in my mind, those are somehow sort of opposites. It’s one of those passages, a section of music, that so easily moves people that it seems to contain some universal truth, some fundamental element of the human experience. But it’s obviously not all abject sorrow. There are remarkably touching moments of pure beauty, and ultimately, the ending leads by way of a sort of cadenza for violin into the fourth movement.
After the third, it’s almost uncharacteristically cheery, and this has apparently been a sticking point for some people, saying it doesn’t fit with the rest of the work, or that it seems maybe a little too forced, as if the composer had to wedge something in at the end to meet the ‘Russian’ criterion for this work. I think it’s just perfect though.
The violin who just gave us a flashy little solo passage holds a trill while the cello begins the Russian movement. As has been the case with all previous movements, this one is also in sonata form, without a repeat of the exposition. The second theme is a little more subdued, with single-beat notes and underlying offbeats. As with the first movement, there’s a faint suggestion of a return to the opening, but we really are in the development, and finish with recapitulation and coda.
We’ve chatted before about how it may now seem so odd that these respected pieces were ever received coolly or even ridiculed, but one reviewer expressed his sentiments (as if they were fact) this way:
Three new, very long and difficult Beethoven string quartets … are attracting the attention of all connoisseurs. The conception is profound and the construction excellent, but they are not easily comprehended.
Small matters aside, like how much you’re willing to buy the grand, cheerful conclusion, this work shows just such brilliance and a deeply moving quality to Beethoven’s work as he matures. The symphonies obviously get tons of credit, but we can see in works like the quartets (and sonatas, to which we shall turn soon) that they form an even greater part the man’s output and we are so wonderfully privileged to have them.
I’m so very excited to begin the op. 59 set, which, along with the opp. 74 and 95, makes up the ‘middle period’ quartets. So much good stuff to look forward to. We’re not getting to those now, but do please stay tuned, because there’s a bunch more Beethoven on the way in the coming weeks. Actually just a few next week and then like half a dozen in May. Thanks so much for reading.