Friday, February 17, 2012

Masterpieces of Music: Beethoven, Part 3

As we left him, Beethoven had, with his six quartets of op. 18, absorbed and begun to explore the possibilities of the string quartet within the boundaries of Classical style as Haydn and Mozart had crafted it. If he had gone no further than this, he would be recognized as a very important composer nearly on a level with Haydn and Mozart, if a bit cruder. But what happened instead was with the next set of quartets, the three "Razumovsky" quartets of op 59, he maps out an entirely new musical universe. The opening of the first one, in F major, is lyrical, with a squarish accompaniment chugging along in comic opera fashion. But the theme lies low in the cello and what key we are in is surprisingly unclear. One of the principles of Classical style is clarity, especially that of harmony. One of the reasons that harmonically straightforward composers like Handel and Vivaldi were a big influence on Classical composers was their clear harmonies. Now Beethoven had already caused a stir with the opening of his Symphony No. 1 in C major which begins with a short adagio introduction that starts with a cadence in the wrong key, the subdominant, then a cadence in the right key, but deceptive, then a bigger cadence in another wrong key, this time the dominant and finally works itself around to C major, the true key of the symphony. What he is doing here, in op 59 no 1, is much subtler: he is in the right key, F major, but makes it sound like it is not F major. He does this by stressing the note C so much, both by repetition and placement on strong beats, that the listener is unsure which note is the tonic. The harmony floats.

First, let's listen to that slow introduction to the First Symphony which seems to be saying, "here we are in this key--no, I changed my mind--how about this key instead? No, C major is best, after all."

For my purposes here, you only need to listen up to the 1'30 mark, when he has finished fooling around with the key and settled into the C major of the Allegro. Now, on to the F major quartet, no 1 of op 59. Here is the opening:

Click to enlarge

Now we certainly could be in F major. That is the key signature and there are no notes outside that key. But it doesn't feel grounded in F because the melody, which is also the bass line, as it is in the cello, stresses three notes: C, C again, then F and finally G. C, F and G are the three important roots of C major, not F major where they are F, Bb and C. Beethoven largely avoids Bb in order to keep the key a bit ambiguous. We could almost be in C major. Now let's listen to that whole first movement.

There is so much going on there that I could probably write posts on it for the next two weeks! Yes, he does give us a nice solid cadence in F major, but immediately after, seems to undermine it. This is a long first movement, around eleven minutes, and there is no repeat of the exposition--it is all written out. In the middle there is a substantial double fugue on one theme derived from those eighth notes of the opening, while the other theme is a development of the leap of a sixth in the third measure. Everything is unexpected, like the long digression into Db major, but somehow right. You can never quite predict where he is going, even when he begins a sequence. It is as if Beethoven is using harmony to map out new musical continents. No-one had ever written music like this before, in which every note seems to take on new roles as the movement unfolds. I think you could listen to this music a hundred times and keep hearing new relationships you never noticed before. Even something as seemingly trivial as those long held chords that we hear between 0'35 and 0'45 come back stretched out and separated sounding a bit like something from a Webern quartet. There is nothing here that is perfunctory, that is obvious, that is gratuitous. Every note has significance, but that significance is only revealed as the movement unfolds. Neither Haydn nor Mozart could have written this movement, but they laid the groundwork. Here are the other movements of the quartet, which are also extraordinary, especially the second one, a scherzo that seems to begin with nothing at all:

And goes to many unexpected places... The third movement is one of desolation in F minor:

The three quartets of op 59 were commissioned by a Russian nobleman and Beethoven was asked to use a Russian theme in each. He saves it for the last movement. In the original the theme was in D minor, but Beethoven, in a way reminiscent of the opening of the first movement, insists on harmonizing it in C. The movement is full of gentle parody:

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