Sunday, April 28, 2013

Beethoven: String Quartet in F major, op 135

Apart from the replacement finale for the B flat quartet, op 130, the last substantial piece Beethoven wrote was the String Quartet in F major, op 135. As so often in Beethoven's output, he takes us by surprise. We might expect this to be a work of the utmost profundity (and perhaps it is), but what we don't expect it to be is a return to the classical style of Haydn and Mozart. We don't expect a work of lightness, clarity and good humour. But one of the great things about Beethoven is how often he surprises us.

The year 1826 was one of great emotional strain for Beethoven and anyone associated with him. It is safe to say that the only part of his life that he seemed able to organize and control was that of the compositions that came from his pen. Both the C# minor quartet, op 131, and the F major quartet, op 135, were written this year. At the same time, Beethoven's nephew Karl, whom he regarded as an adopted son, felt so oppressed by Beethoven's paranoid attempts to control his life that he attempted suicide and was recovering in hospital for the months, August and September, when most of the F major quartet was written.

So it is ironic and surprising that the F major quartet should seem so untouched by all this. It is truly Haydnesque and Mozartean in the character of the themes, the harmonic writing and the formal structure, even including a false recapitulation in the first movement, very typical of Haydn. In this quartet it can truly be said that Beethoven managed to upstage Haydn and Mozart at their own game.

Here is the first page of the first movement:

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The mood is alert, inquisitive, with little two bar phrases going to the dominant and then a nice lyric melody taking us to the tonic. Following this is a four measure cantus firmus-like phrase that takes us to the dominant of the dominant. We could almost call this "neo-classicism" a hundred years too soon! Let's listen to that first movement in this performance by the Pavel Haas Quartet:

The next two movements are in extreme contrast to one another: first, a very dynamic and quirky Vivace that delights in cross-rhythms. It begins with an odd sort of phrase that turns out to be triple counterpoint as the three voices appear inverted in various ways later on. The next section hammers away at E flat and tries its best to completely dislocate the meter!

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The trio is even more disconcerting as it leads to a big climax in A major with the three lower instrument banging out a turn figure while the violin howls a rustic dance a couple of octaves above:

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Here is the Pavel Haas Quartet again:

The third movement, in contrast, is utterly calm in Beethoven's hymn-like variation style. It begins with a section in D flat major:

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It is remarkable how very few composers are capable of writing great music of great simplicity and I think Beethoven heads the list. Here is that third movement played by the Kodály Quartet:

The fourth movement begins with one of Beethoven's notorious jokes. As Kerman relates,
A certain Ignaz Dembscher, who held quartet parties in his house, had not subscribed to the première of Op. 130 in March 1826. So Beethoven refused to lend him the parts until he paid up. When Dembscher heard this, he moaned "Wenn es seine muss!"; the remark caught Beethoven's fancy, and he tossed off a feeble canon with the words "Es muss seine! ja ja ja ja! Heraus mit dem Beutel!"
Not so terribly funny, but the little theme of the canon ended up beginning the last movement of the quartet. It starts with a rather operatic Grave:

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The "Muss es sein?" question of the Grave is answered with the "Es muss sein!" of the Allegro. The movement is perhaps a bit subtler than one might expect, but the prevailing mood is that of laughter, spontaneity and garlands of charm. Here is the Pavel Haas Quartet again with the last movement.

How appropriate to end with a little compression of the theme in pizzicato. Beethoven always seems to be showing us what real musical talent is, even when doing the simplest things. Some other composers, with their great expanses of 'profundity' seem merely to be showing us what talentlessness is!

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