Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1826) String Quartet Op.18 No.3 in D (1799)
Andante con moto
Allegro – Minore
Beethoven was in his late 20s and living in Vienna when he wrote his six Op 18 string quartets. Uneducated (“I do everything badly except compose”), rough-mannered, but with an alluringly intense personality and undoubted musical genius, he had managed to secure the patronage, both as composer and pianist, of Vienna’s cosmopolitan aristocracy. Chamber music was an important part of their diet, and Beethoven composed piano trios (Op 1) and string trios (Op 9), violin sonatas (Op 12) and piano sonatas (Ops 2, 10 & 14) before publishing in the ‘serious’ medium of the string quartet. As models he had Mozart, who had died the year that Beethoven arrived in Vienna from Bonn, and Haydn, from whom Beethoven (“the Great Mogul” as Haydn called him) had briefly had lessons in composition. Whilst their influence is undeniable, Beethoven in these early chamber works already has his own voice, with tantalising seeds of his later style clearly apparent.
The opening ten-bar phrase of the third of his Op 18 quartets is entirely novel in its gentle stillness: a rising seventh in semi-breves in the first violin is followed by a leisurely decorated descent. The viola starts the phrase again, but is interrupted by the second and then the first violin who extends the decorative quavers into a more rhythmically forceful figure leading us off on a proper Allegro. The movement explores the contrast between the stasis of the opening semi-breves and the movement of the decoration. The interval of the seventh recurs both rising and falling, often as the endpoints of the many running quaver and triplet figures that pepper the movement.
The Andante is a very successful combination of a serious opening theme in walking quavers with contrasting gracefully jaunty episodes; its Rondo form reveals Beethoven’s wonderful ability to vary simple material. The following Allegro in triple time, is marked neither Minuet nor Scherzo although it has the appropriate form. Its Minore section in D minor is built on the same descending four note bass line that underlies many 17th-century Chaconnes, notably Bach’s for solo violin in the same key.
The Presto last movement’s opening ‘Mexican hat-dance’ motif is again built on a seventh, this time falling (from D to E under ). The movement has great vitality and wit. Watch out for the game of musical tennis as the first three notes of the opening are batted between the players, and how the notes simply evaporate into the silence of the final two bars – a joke that Haydn would have appreciated.
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) String Quartet Op 51 No 2 in A minor (1873)
Allegro non troppo
Quasi Minuetto, moderato
Finale. Allegro non assai
Brahms’ friend Max Kalbeck claimed that Brahms had destroyed over 20 quartets before the Op 51 pair appeared. That claim is unconfirmed but we do know that Brahms wrote to his publisher in 1869 saying that as Mozart had taken ‘extreme care’ over the six Quartets he dedicated to Haydn, Brahms intended to do the same with his quartets. He had already been working on the two Op 51 quartets for several years, but it was a further four years before they finally appeared, in 1873, after he had arranged a secret performance of them and made yet further revisions. By then, it was eight years since he had published any chamber music.
Brahms’ chamber music spans 40 years of his career (1854-1894), and, for many, is the form that best captures his personality. His first period of chamber music composition included the first version of the B major Piano Trio in 1854, two string Sextets, two Piano Quartets, a Piano Quintet (initially composed as a now lost 2-cello string quintet) and the Trio for french horn, violin and piano (1865). So he was no stranger to chamber music, but composing for the string quartet raises particular problems, both technical and, especially for the classicist Brahms, historical. The quartet is a sparse medium, sparser than the string sextet and the piano trio, quartets and quintet that he had already written. Here above all Brahms found that “It is not hard to compose, but what is fabulously hard is to leave the superfluous notes under the table.” Brahms’ floor must have been littered with notes, for in these quartets he achieves a new formal compactness and great economy of thematic material within a sound world that is uniquely his own.
Although this A minor quartet is dedicated to Brahms’ surgeon friend Theodor Billroth, it is possible that it was originally intended for another good friend, the violinist Joseph Joachim. Kalbeck points out that the opening minims of the second quartet (illustrated) use the notes FAE, the abbreviation of Joseph Joachim’s motto ‘Frei, aber einsam’ (Free, but lonely). That Joachim is not the dedicatee could be because of a recent falling out between him and Brahms over Joachim’s failure to programme a performance of Brahms’ German Requiem. The more animated second subject, like the opening carries a hallmark of Brahms: the opposition of duple against trips time. The tune (illustrated) and the crotchets of the cello’s pizzicato are in duple time, while the viola plays a triplet figure similar to its accompaniment to the original FAE theme. This second theme underlies the opening of the second movement (illustrated). Its calmness is augmented by the accompaniment now agreeing on duple rather than contrasting in restless triple time.
After a novel ‘Quasi Minuetto’ whose conventional triple time is interrupted twice by a trio-like section in scampering duplet semiquavers, we are plunged into the fiercely energetic Finale (illustrated). Now the three against two face-off is full frontal. The lower parts pointedly mark the triple time of the time-signature, while the first violin insists on a theme which falls naturally in two beats.
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) String Quartet Op 59 No 3 in C (1805)
Introduzione: Andante con moto. Allegro vivace
Andante con moto quasi Allegretto
The Op 59 Razumovsky quartets were a revolution in quartet writing. In Joseph Kerman’s words ‘It is probably not too much to say that Op 59 doomed the amateur string quartet.’ The conversation between equal players of Haydn, Mozart and even Beethoven in his earlier Op 18 quartets here gives way to ‘the heroic discourse of the symphony’ – and no ordinary symphony at that. The Op 59 quartets were written in 1805-6, a full four years after the Op 18 set but only shortly after the third, “Eroica” Symphony (Op 55). The commission was from Count Razumovsky, the Russian ambassador to Vienna and a very able second violinist in his own quartet. Its first fiddle was Ignaz Schuppanzigh a friend, inspiration and perhaps also violin teacher to Beethoven. As well as playing with the Count, Schuppanzigh had formed his own professional quartet in 1804 in order to give public quartet concerts – a radical new departure. This accomplished quartet may have encouraged Beethoven to stretch the technical demands on the players to match his more ambitious musical conceptions.The slow introduction of the third of the Op 59 quartets is extraordinary, not only to listen to but also to play. Rebecca Clarke: “One hardly dares breathe, and can almost see the internal counting of one’s companions floating like some astral shape above them. It is such a trying thing to play – wonderful as it is – that the entry into the Allegro vivace feels exactly like a sigh of relief at gaining solid ground again.” Its significance is intriguing. Lewis Lockwood points out its harmonic relation to the introduction to Florestan’s dungeon scene in Fidelio, written a short time earlier, leading Angus Watson to speculate that it expresses Beethoven’s deep personal feelings, given his comment in the manuscript “May your deafness be no more a secret, even in art.“
Two motifs shape the ensuing Allegro: it opens with a simple cadence (illustrated under 1), which after about 40 bars of tentative exploration leads to a joyful main theme as we finally get to the home key of C major (illustrated under 2). Only Beethoven could make such a movement out of these snippets.
Angus Watson feels the Andante evokes the stillness of stories retold on long Russian winter evenings – the ticking of the cello’s persistent pizzicato interspersed with encouragements to tell it all again. The charmingly graceful Menuet (illustrated) ) contrasts with its assertive Trio in which the second violin (written with Razumovsky in mind?) and viola, egged on by the others, lift the semiquaver runs of the Menuet and show just how far they can take them.
The opening phrase of the Menuet is inverted to give the start of the last movement’s fugue (illustrated). The viola, fresh from its triumph in the Trio, kicks off at speed for 10 bars. Nobody is to be outdone, especially the first violin, who initiates a string-climbing competition, cheered on by the others. Finally, the second violin transforms the underlying slow accompanying figure into a lyrical vote of thanks and the party ends in a triumphant last fling.