Beethoven String Quartet no. 8 in Em, op. 59 no. 2

performed by the Artemis Quartet, or below by the Alban Berg Quartet

(cover image by Francisco De Legarreta C.)

We find ourselves now at the second of Beethoven’s three Razumovsky quartets. The works were written in 1806 for the Russian ambassador in Vienna, one Count Andreas Razumovsky, and published as a set in 1808.

These are considered the first quartets of Beethoven’s ‘middle period,’ and the second of the three is the only one of op. 59 in a minor key. This work, for some sort of rather arbitrary reference, puts us at around the halfway point of Beethoven’s string quartet output (16 numbered quartets and then the Große Fuge), which is pretty cool.

The work is in four movements, as follows, with a playing time of about 35 minutes:

  1. Allegro, E minor
  2. Molto adagio (Si tratta questo pezzo con molto di sentimento)
  3. Allegretto (with the second section marked Maggiore – Theme russe)
  4. Finale. Presto,

The first movement, as we would expect, is in sonata form and thus gives us two main themes, which are repeated before entering the development section.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. John Palmer points out that the two chords, like exclamation marks at the beginning of a sentence, make this opening similar to the third symphony, which precedes this piece by a few years (the op. 59 quartets are, obviously, much closer to the fourth symphony, op. 60).

It’s difficult to think, as I’ve said regarding many pieces, that these shining examples of Beethoven’s mastery over the quartet form could be anything but wholeheartedly welcomed, but remember that in the annals of history, that isn’t as often the case as we think today. The works were considered somewhat challenging, one reason being that they reached heights of emotion, of duration, of expression, that the form had never really seen before.

It begins with those two chords. Answered by a quiet whisper, the quartet then grows to life again, and we’re off. There’s such a sense of propulsion, of focus and tension; the minor key here isn’t like the composer’s penchant for tragedy and sorrow in C minor. The second theme is lighter and more relaxed, but seems still to be cut from the same cloth as the main theme. This is intense music, I’d go so far to say as epic as some of his symphonies.

Leave it to the wonderful Robert Simpson to give us an erudite explanation of keys and tonal centers. He says at Hyperion:

This movement lives on high contrasts, often brought about by semitonal juxtapositions. The first of these (F major quietly challenging E minor) characterises the opening theme. This semitonal tension pervades the whole quartet, and another manifestation of it is the use of C against the dominant B. C major dominates the climax of the development, and becomes important later in the work.

Beyond just this, there’s the interesting detail of all portions of this first movement being repeated, not just the exposition but the development and recapitulation as well. Simpson says:

In this first movement Beethoven (as in the last two Opus 18 Quartets) directs the whole development and recapitulation to be repeated as well as the exposition, with startling effect each second time. This creates a vast circling effect, against which the calm expanses of the Adagio are all the more impressive and to which its moments of intensity refer.

While you (or I) may never have noticed something like that or been able to describe it, it is still very satisfying when someone who knows what they’re talking about can put words to an idea that we can actually come to understand once it’s expressed.

The second movement is structured much the same way, in sonata form, but with no repeat of the exposition. This is nearly as substantial a movement as the opening one, nearly as long, even without any repeat. Very different from the first movement with its explosive contrasts and vividness, the second movement is subdued, at times mournful, but overall bright. This movement is longer than the third and fourth combined (as is the first), so while it may not be anywhere near as vociferous as the first movement, it carries its own emotional weight, and is itself quite substantial, with more tender and equally impressive writing.

The story about this movement, according to Carl Czerny, apocryphal though it may be, is that Beethoven composed the second movement after staring at a starry sky. It is indeed hymnlike, more focused on the long line of the music overall. The overall placidity is the kind of feeling you may get when awe-inspired, contemplative of moving thoughts, both happy and sad.

Simpson, though, draws our attention to more semitone-relationships:

The semitone is also the basis of the very intense climactic harmonization of the slow movement’s main theme, highly chromatic but entirely without self-indulgence.

The third movement is not a scherzo, (and Simpson says that none of these three quartets have a true scherzo), but an allegretto. It presents A and B parts (the latter twice) before the trio, wherein we find the Russian theme for this quartet. They’re called the ‘Razumovsky’ quartets, but I do think of them as Beethoven’s ‘Russian’ quartets, even if that moniker goes to Haydn’s op. 33.

This is far shorter than the two previous movements (and the finale is shorter still), but it does not suffer for it. Like the opening movement, the minor-key here isn’t menacing, but at times has a darker side. In some passages its practically celebratory. The real… perhaps the remarkable quality of the whole piece is this Russian theme in the trio. Wikipedia says that “Beethoven used it in an ungentle way,” and that Mussorgsky, Arensky, and Rachmaninoff would all later use the same tune. Beethoven throws it around the quartet, where one instrument (first the viola) passes it off to another, until each has had their turn with it before the return of the opening.

The finale is a rondo form (or sonata-rondo form?) with two main themes (alternating as a rondo rather than plain sonata form), a development, restatement of themes and large coda. It’s a glorious movement, giving us a bright and sunny C major theme that seems like it could be a march if it would settle down a little bit. Simpson tells us that this C major that keeps interrupting the E minor is taken from the development of the first movement.

This theme later appears, after all the rondo excitement of this movement, as a stately, triumphant march, chest out, shoulders back, giving us a finale that so adeptly embraces the nervous energy of the opening movement and the brightness of the finale, ending just exceptionally rewardingly.

After seven already superb string quartets, I feel like this is on a different plane altogether. In the Artemis Quartet’s recording of the work, you can hear the performers’ exhalations as they give such spirit to some of the climaxes in the first movement. The sentiment that Beethoven had really already mastered the string quartet form with the composition of his op. 18 quartets has been expressed before, but now we get to see him going yet further, and it’s riveting.

I hope you also think so, because we have Beethoven on the blog for the next two weeks, not for as many pieces as we saw Mozart, but we’ll be seeing Beethoven a half a dozen times in total before the month is out, as part of yet another very special milestone, so stay tuned for that and thanks so much for reading.

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