performed by the Artemis Quartet, or below by the Alban Berg Quartet
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 sharp stabbing accents suggest the solitary imprisonnent of deafness? Could the Minuet (NOT a scherzo) recall the kind of music Beethoven once heard most perfectly? Could the irresistible force of the finale be defiance of the affliction? This last we know to be true, for Beethoven wrote on the sketches ‘Make no secret of your deafness, not even in art’.
(cover image by Karl)
This quartet is the third and final installment of Beethoven’s ‘middle period’ Razumovsky quartets, op. 59.
Beethoven’s third symphony was an epic, milestone moment not only for his own output, but for the form as a whole. But what about for the quartets? John Palmer points out that only six years had passed between his op. 18 quartets, themselves wonderful works, and these three pieces. He says that they “inhabit a very different universe from that of his first set, Opus 18.” He continues:
The Opus 59 quartets were composed in the wake of the “Eroica” Symphony, and the vastness of the individual movements, the symphonic, orchestral character of the string writing and the stretched formal boundaries led some critics to dub the first of the set an “Eroica” for string quartet.
The work was published with the other two quartets under one opus number in 1808, but they were all finished a few years before that, around 1806. This work is the only one of the set that does not explicitly make use of a Russian theme anywhere throughout the piece, although some people have commented on the Russianness of this or that part of it.
The quartet, as with the others in the set, is in four movements, as below, and has a playing time (at least from the Artemis quartet) of a little over a half hour:
- Andante con moto – Allegro vivace (C major)
- Andante con moto quasi allegretto (A minor)
- Menuetto (Grazioso) (C major)
- Allegro molto (C major)
The first movement begins with a sort of… well, as Simpson so persistently questioned it, maybe there is something to it, but what I’d suggest is that coming off the central minor-key quartet (the eighth), this introduction may be moving away from what was not so much gloom but certainly shadow, or drama.
Simpson attributes this eeriness to “the chord of the diminished seventh (three minor thirds on top of each other). This is the most famously ambiguous chord in music,” but all you need to know is that while this opening is captivating, the mood changes entirely when the C major finally shows its sunny self in a robust, invigorating subject that launches us into what is really… one great, dramatic trajectory of a brilliant first movement. It really is breathtaking. I was walking home from work (after a frustrating day and a stop at the post office where I had a bunch of exciting things) the other day and this happened to be the next thing on my playlist. It was refreshing and exciting.
Simpson says that “The A minor second movement is unique in Beethoven, who wrote nothing else like it.” Some apparently suggest that this movement’s bleak mood can be associated with the barrenness of Siberia or something, but I really think that’s a little arbitrary. (Palmer describes it as sounding “eastern European in origin.) Regardless, the movement is a melancholy one, and the plucked cello somehow adds an intimacy and sense of despair to the atmosphere, perhaps because of the resonance of each note in this sound-space. It seems, though, that there are things to discover here with each turn of the page.
The movement makes use of what has elsewhere been called the ‘tragic sonata form’ (what I assume Simpson means by “reverse recapitulation”), in which the two themes appear in the opposite order in which they appeared at the beginning. That is also to say that, yes, this slow movement is in sonata form, not unheard of but not textbook standard for a central movement.
Again, we do not have a scherzo, but a minuet, what Simpson calls “a period of repose, a soothing influence,… beautifully composed, concealing the skill of its smooth counterpoint…” Palmer tells us that this minuet is “Beethoven‘s first since the Piano Sonata, Op. 31/3, of 1802.” The other quartets in this series had allegrettos or whatever else, but this third movement is indeed marked as a minuet, and gets us back to C major.
After the first two movements, the slow introduction of the first… you would be excused for being suspicious, but the minuet itself remains light and cool. The trio is livelier, the climax you may have been expecting, but the real bang occurs by means of a connection between the more ‘soothing’ minuet and the almost tumultuous finale, being that it “provides the motif that is subsequently turned upside down for the last movement, a fugal allegro molto that begins with the viola and adds the second violin, cello and first violin in that order.”
This finale… the minuet was a short respite, a small movement, indeed the shortest of the quartet. The finale, though, is only slightly longer, and yet possessive of such disproportionate drive and heft. Simpson gives this movement only three sentences, perhaps because the music does just speak for itself. The latter two of the three:
Defiance and energy are shot through the music from start to finish, in what is to date the greatest of Beethoven’s finales. If you listen acutely you will hear an anticipation of Egmont in it (the coda of the Overture).
And would you believe it? We just did Egmont! Perhaps Simpson was so brief that I shouldn’t dare say much else about it besides my own personal excitement for it.
Not only is the music inspiring (in the greatest sense of the word), moving, grand, spirited, and exciting upon listening, but it is also all of those things in the sense that we’re now just past the middle of Beethoven’s string quartet output, only six years after the op. 18 works, and look where he is and what he is doing.
It’s nothing short of thrilling to have enjoyed these three works (as I’ve discussed them over a quicker period of time, obviously, than the op. 18 set) and look forward to op. 74, 95, 127, 130… and onward. Spoiler alert: I don’t have any of those scheduled on paper yet, but we’ve made enormous strides in covering Beethoven’s music and making it to the really remarkable works in his career. There’s a bit more of him to see in the coming days, so please stay tuned for that, and thanks so much for reading!