Thursday, April 25, 2013

Beethoven: String Quartet in A minor, op 132

Following the order of opus numbers, the next of the late Beethoven quartets would be op 131 in C# minor, but I have already done an extensive post on that quartet here. So I will go on to the A minor quartet today. This was the second quartet written, just after op 127 in E flat, and it shares some features with that quartet. For example, both quartets have a great deal of weight in their slow movements and in the dance movements. Later quartets tended to both shrink and multiply both. But in other ways, the A minor quartet is as different from the E flat as Beethoven's 5th Symphony is from his 6th.

The A minor quartet is about intensity of expression and contrast. The opening theme takes the chromatic intensity of the minor mode and distills it to its essence:

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The 'bones' of the first movement, the two themes from which everything seems to be built, are that four-note cantus firmus G# A F E and the dotted-note theme we see beginning in the very last measure of the example above. Here is the first movement--with the score--played by the Orion Quartet so you can hear how it all plays out:

The second and fourth movements of this five-movement quartet act as a kind of buffer, sealing off the strange world of the middle movement. The second movement seems at first to be a conventional dance movement but in reality it is a cool and brilliant contrapuntal study of three basic elements. Here is the opening:
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Those three elements are found in mm 5 and 6: first, the violin 1 in measure 5, second the violin 1 in measure 6 and third, the rising theme of violin 2 in mm. 5 and 6. This little fragment of double counterpoint (meaning that the two levels can be inverted) is found in one form or another in the whole movement. I did a whole post on invertible counterpoint here. Let's listen. Here is the Orion Quartet again:

Just one little thing to notice about the many ways Beethoven handles these themes. That little eighth-note turn originally appears on the third and the first beats of the bar: he gets a great deal of effect out of echoing it on the second beat of the bar.

The heart of the A minor quartet is the middle movement, Molto Adagio, that Beethoven prefaces with this title: "Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit, in der lydischen Tonart" (A Convalescent's Holy Song of Thanksgiving to the Divinity, in the Lydian Mode). Beethoven had just recovered from a serious illness and this was his prayer of thanks. Now what about that Lydian mode? The ancient Greeks had a Lydian mode, but in the Middle Ages, the theorists took the names of the Greek modes and applied them to their modes instead. For them, and ever since, the Lydian mode is the white notes of the piano from F to F. This gives us a rather odd scale, like a major but with the 4th degree raised. Even among composers who like using the church modes, the Lydian was not one often chosen. But Beethoven uses it to create a strange kind of transcendent harmonic space like none other. Here is the opening of the movement:

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This strange, archaic hymn, using the Lydian mode in a way no-one ever had, alternates with a contrasting section that Beethoven labels Neue Kraft fühlend ("feeling new strength"). The overall form of the movement, some fifteen minutes long, with 'A' the hymn and 'B' the new strength is A B A B A. The two contrasting sections do not mix and barely are able to co-exist. The "new strength" section is an Andante in 3/8 with all the decorative trills and delights that are excluded from the utter simplicity of the Lydian hymn. Here is the Orion Quartet again:

The fourth movement is a mere bagatelle, a tiny march that serves to introduce the finale. Here is the theme:

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Alas, I can't turn to the Orion Quartet for this movement as whoever posted it to YouTube made an error and posted the third movement twice. So I will use a video of the Blair Quartet. It is a complete performance so in order to start with the fourth movement begin at the 40:30 mark. This march turns into a passionate recitative that leads into the finale proper that begins at the 42:50 mark. And the finale itself is very passionate, it bears traces of both the first and third movements. But how does it end? With a modulation to A major and an almost operatic effervescence. There are playful hints at that E to F from the first movement, but that is contradicted by a cheerful E to F#. Not quite the ending one was expecting! Now here is the Blair Quartet with the whole piece. Scroll to 40:30 for the fourth and fifth movements:

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