Monday, April 22, 2013

Beethoven: String Quartet in B flat, op 130

Yesterday I put up a post on the first of the late quartets by Beethoven. These are works that almost stand outside music history. By the time Beethoven began to write them in the last few years of his life, he had been deaf for more than two decades and was creating sound worlds that it would take quite some time for the rest of us to grow accustomed to. Beethoven's fame was extensive, but even that did not lead to very many performances of the late quartets. It was not until the 20th century that they began to achieve the respect that they deserve. One of the greatest admirers was Igor Stravinsky who said about the Große Fuge, the original last movement to the quartet op 130, that "[it is] an absolutely contemporary piece of music that will be contemporary forever."

According to Wikipedia:
In 1822, Prince Nicholas Galitzin commissioned the first three quartets (numbers 12, 13 and 15) and in a letter dated 9 November 1822, offered to pay Beethoven "what you think proper" for the three works. Beethoven replied 25 January 1823 with his price of 50 Ducats for each opus.
The first thing I wonder, of course, is how much is 50 ducats in today's money? That's not so easy to answer, but we can do a rough calculation. An Austrian ducat is 0.123 ounces of gold, which is worth a little less than $200 at today's gold prices. So fifty of them would be a little under $10,000 USD. Of course I have no idea what that means in terms of purchasing power, but oddly enough, I suspect you could commission a string quartet today for the same amount--or perhaps a lot less! Tell you what, I'll write you one for $5000!

The String Quartet in B flat, op 130, was completed in November 1825. Here is the original sequence of movements:
  1. Adagio, ma non troppo — Allegro
  2. Presto
  3. Andante con moto, ma non troppo. Poco scherzoso
  4. Alla danza tedesca. Allegro assai
  5. Cavatina. Adagio molto espressivo
  6. Große Fuge (Grande Fugue Op.133): Ouverture. Allegro — Meno mosso e moderato — Allegretto — Fuga. [Allegro] — Meno mosso e moderato — Allegro molto e con brio — Allegro

Just looking at the sequence of movements is a bit daunting! Joseph Kerman in his magnificent book on the Beethoven quartets describes this one as "a mercurial, brilliant, paradoxical work, toying with the dissociation of its own sensibility and toying with the listener's limping powers of prediction. Force jostles with whimsy, prayer with effrontery, dangerous innocence with even more dangerous sophistication." Of course, this is exactly the kind of music I seek out! The problem I usually have with popular music is that it is entirely too predictable. What possible interest can there be in music that announces its every thought in the first thirty seconds?

As an example of the unpredictability of this piece, Kerman cites the first movement development section. He points out that you would likely not expect it to use material from the adagio introduction. But even if you did predict that, you would never guess that it would be the little two-note cadence figure from measure four.

Click to enlarge

Kerman cites a dozen other examples of subtle prefiguring of later material. Let's have a listen to the whole first movement. Listen especially to the performance just after the 9 minute mark when that cadence figure is developed:

There are a thousand incongruities and ironies in this first movement, not least the role of that adagio introduction which seems to return again and again to interrupt the allegro as soon as it gets going! The whole of the second movement is an irony in itself: following that weighty first movement we have a rustic peasant dance in B flat minor that seems to poke fun at the complexities of the first movement:

The B flat quartet, op 130 has two slow movements, the first of these, the Andante con moto, delights in freshness, grace and spirited play--it is everything the last movement wasn't! 

Following this is another of Beethoven's peasant dances, the "danza tedesca" or German dance. Beethoven gives this very simple dance a surreal quality with the exaggerated dynamics and rhythmic subtleties. Listen to how the awkward crescendi and diminuendi at the beginning tend to make one a bit seasick!

Now for the real slow movement, the Cavatina. The title is taken from opera, of course, where it refers to a simple melodious air. This Cavatina is rather darker than that. Coming after the whimsy and rusticity of the preceding movements it comes as a shock. We had forgotten that this much emotional depth was possible. And in the middle, an even greater depth is uncovered, ironically, through a repression of emotion. Against the pulsing triplets of the lower instruments, the first violin intones a stuttering, halting line as if feeling were simply too much to express... Here is how that section begins:

That marking in the violin part, beklemmt, is, I believe, unique. It means "oppressed" or "anguished". Now here is the Guarneri Quartet with the Cavatina movement:

To end this quartet, Beethoven originally wrote a great fugue, the Great Fugue! A fugue of such ferocity and violence that the publishers begged him to write a more conventional final movement--if he ever desired another performance, ever! And so he did. So now quartets have the option of using either final movement. And the Great Fugue is often played as a separate piece. In fact, I am going to stop right here and save the Great Fugue for another post.

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