Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Masterpieces of Music: Beethoven, Part 2

My last post was an introduction to Beethoven, something to whet your appetite. Now I'd like to delve into his string quartets a bit. In doing so I want to acknowledge a debt to the fine scholar Joseph Kerman whose book The Beethoven Quartets has been my guide. As Kerman says, a book on the Beethoven quartets is really three books in one. The reason for this is that the career of Beethoven has long been seen as falling into three phases: early, middle and late. In the early phase Beethoven is absorbing and trying out the possibilities of the Classical style as he inherited it from the hands of Haydn and Mozart. But even in this phase, his approach is unique. In the first set of six quartets, op 18, we already see some ways in which he is adapting, even disrupting, the forms. Perhaps the most indicative of the six is the one in Bb, op 18, no 6, where already we see a tendency to go to extremes. The first movement is very fast:

I don't think this could be mistaken for Haydn or Mozart: it has a kind of rough energy that we will learn to call Beethovenian. The formal scheme is straightforward. The second movement as well has a kind of simplicity to its plan that recalls Haydn. An opening section in Eb major is followed by a middle section in Eb minor. Then the first section returns. The movement ends with a coda, first hinting at G minor, then Ab major, then sliding into Eb major. One interesting touch is the off-beat suddenly loud (subito forte) chords that will become a Beethoven trademark.

The third movement, a scherzo, plays with the rhythmic device of alternating 3x2 with 2x3. This trick, usable in any triple time signature, is ubiquitous in flamenco music, but sounds quite different here. The scherzo, an invention of Haydn as a more energetic replacement for the sedate minuet, reveals that aspect of Classical style that the English musicologist Donald Francis Tovey called 'high comedy'.

Except in the trio, the downbeat is rarely where you think it is. This brings us to the last and most fascinating movement. The movement itself, an Allegretto quasi Allegro is nothing extraordinary, a quick German dance that would not be too out of place in a Viennese ballroom. But Beethoven precedes this with an introduction, which he titles La Malinconia, that no other composer could have written, certainly not at this time. This introduction unfolds an harmonic labyrinth that the rest of the quartet gives no hint of. It is extraordinarily dense piece of music. The Bb of the beginning transforms itself through chromatic movement that never goes where we expect it. When Beethoven arrives at B major in measures 18 to 20, it would be the simplest thing to return to Bb as B major is the Neapolitan. But no. In the second half of this short movement, two new themes appear in a free fugue-like texture that modulates from E minor, to B minor to F# and so on. Beethoven takes us to some very strange places in this movement. And then follows it with a smooth, elegant dance--almost the opposite to the Malinconia. This alternation of opposites, like the alternation of loud and soft chords, will be a technique that Beethoven will pursue to the end of his life.


RG said...

Oh, I believe in yesterday.

And I expected, especially remembering what remains the dominant image on your blog here, ce grand coeur Cordier, to find some comment on currently beating hearts for the feast of Valentinus (licet nihil de illo solidum). But nothing from you either. Oh still!

And a search revealed that the Saintly name has not appeared here but once last September, pejoratively, not in your voice, about those four boys you celebrate so frequently.

But I think you were too harsh on W.F.Buckley's ignorance of music. To be so dismissed, even with worthy regret, deems not for a performer on harpsichord who loved Bach as much as you do.

[all in good humour] RG

Bryan Townsend said...

Good Heavens! You are right, I completely ignored Valentine's Day. I could have done a post on love songs. Yes, I was rather hard on Buckley's quote on the Beatles--probably because I expect more of him. Some future blogger could have fun mocking one of my posts on a pop culture figure, I suppose. I wonder which one will prove to be the one I am completely wrong about? I really hope it isn't Radiohead...