Sunday, March 4, 2012

Masterpieces of Music: Beethoven, Part 7

I can't leave this sketchy traversal of Beethoven without looking at one last piece: the String Quartet in C# minor, op 131. In my early days of discovery of classical music I read all the relevant books in the local, small, public library. One group of pieces that kept coming up over and over were the late quartets of Beethoven. So one day I made the, at the time, significant investment of purchasing a box of LPs containing all the late quartets performed by the Guarneri Quartet. As a result, I have had these quartets in my ears for forty years! Beethoven, sparked by a commission by Prince Nicholas Galitzin, spent the years 1825 and 1826 in composing five string quartets and a Great Fugue, originally the last movement of the Bb quartet, but replaced with a less-demanding finale and now often played as a separate piece. They were the last important works he wrote and he died in the following year.

I'm going to pick the C# minor quartet because, while certainly not representative because the overwhelming thing about these quartets is how utterly different they are from one another, getting to know it will certainly be worth your time. There are seven movements in all:

  1. Adagio ma non troppo e molto espressivo
  2. Allegro molto vivace
  3. Allegro moderato
  4. Andante ma non troppo e molto cantabile — Più mosso — Andante moderato e lusinghiero — Adagio — Allegretto — Adagio, ma non troppo e semplice — Allegretto
  5. Presto
  6. Adagio quasi un poco andante
  7. Allegro

As Joseph Kerman remarks in his excellent book on the quartets, the C# minor quartet was written immediately after the Bb quartet and while that was the most dissociative of the five, the C# minor is the most integrated as all seven movements, played without a break, with no thick double bar until the very end, are inter-related in a way few if any other pieces have been. We often hear about 'cyclical' form where a composer manages to include in the last movement some reference to themes from the other movements. Beethoven does nothing so obvious. The first movement is a fugue on this theme:

Click to enlarge
I have included the first two entries in this fugue to point out a couple of extraordinary details. First, notice the dynamics: Beethoven uses them not as a decorative or expressive device as most composers do, but as part of the structure. That suddenly loud A natural is interesting in itself, but the real reason is revealed in the next entry. Normally, so normally that it is almost a rule, the second entry in a fugue is on the dominant. In this case the first notes should be D# F# (or F double-sharp perhaps) G#. But no, Beethoven has the second entry or answer on the sub-dominant, F#, which puts that subito forte on D natural, the Neapolitan. How is this structural? Well, the second movement, a vivacious 6/8 contrast to this one, is in D major, the key of the Neapolitan and the join, from octave C#s that end the first movement to the octave Ds that begin the second, is both jarring and, subconsciously, expected. And it is that stressed D natural that sets it up. Let's listen to those first two movements:

This is such a weighty quartet that I think I will stop here and continue with the rest tomorrow. Enjoy!

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