LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN
Born in Bonn, baptized December 17, 1770; died in Vienna, March 26, 1827
String Quartet in B-flat major, Op. 130, with Grosse Fuge finale, Op. 133
Composed in 1825-26; 49 minutes
Having toiled mightily to bring the Missa solemnis and the Ninth Symphony to completion in the early 1820s, Beethoven returned in 1824 to the intimate chamber music medium that had occupied him so fruitfully at the outset of his career. Whether or not he made a conscious decision to devote his final years almost exclusively to writing string quartets, there is little doubt that he regarded his five so-called late quartets — Opp. 127, 130, 131, 132, and 135 — as the capstone of his life’s work. The language of these knotty, inward-looking masterpieces, with its radical discontinuities, far-flung tonal relationships and bold reconfiguration of musical time and space, exerted a seminal influence on composers as diverse as Schumann, Bartók and Shostakovich.
The Quartet in B-flat major is the last of three quartets that Beethoven wrote for the cello-playing Russian prince Nikolai Golitsin in 1825-26. It followed hard on the heels of Op. 132, with its majestic and deeply felt slow movement that Beethoven had offered as a “sacred song of thanksgiving” upon recovering from a severe intestinal ailment. In fact, the most lighthearted of the B-flat-major Quartet’s six movements — the lively danza tedesca, or German dance — was originally earmarked for Op. 132. It is also one of two movements — the other being the darkly urgent Presto — that Vienna’s illustrious Schuppanzigh Quartet encored by popular demand at the first performance of the piece on March 21, 1826.
The version of the Op. 130 Quartet heard on that occasion climaxed in a titanic fugue that served as a counterweight to the first movement, a “serious and heavy-going” piece by the composer's own admission. Both adjectives apply in spades to the dense, closely argued, and somewhat enigmatic Grosse Fuge (Great Fugue), which one bewildered reviewer pronounced as “incomprehensible as Chinese.” When Beethoven’s publisher complained that the fugue would deter potential customers, he obligingly replaced it with a more conventional finale. The Grosse Fuge was subsequently issued as a freestanding opus.
After the slow, richly textured introduction, a flurry of 16th notes in the first violin seems to signal the start of a conventional sonata-form allegro. But the bursts of almost manic energy are repeatedly interrupted, and that, plus the sharp contrasts of rhythm, dynamics, and tonality, gives the opening movement of Op. 130 a decidedly mercurial character. The Presto, in rounded ABA form, similarly veers between extremes: the jaunty triple-time midsection in B-flat major is sandwiched between statements of a nervous, tautly compressed tune in the parallel minor key. In the third movement, marked Poco scherzoso (somewhat playful), Beethoven weaves an intricate tapestry of themes and motifs with a combination of elegance and whimsy.
The quartet’s loosely structured, suite-like format continues with a slightly buffoonish German dance in G major. A series of swooning phrases in 3/8 meter, neatly apportioned into three groups of eight bars each, give way to smoothly interlocking roulades and a display of acrobatics by the first violin before returning at the end in fragmented form. The tender, ravishingly melodious Cavatina, suffused with the warmth of E-flat major, serves as a lyrical counterweight to the uncompromising intensity of the Grosse Fuge.
Beethoven’s original finale makes heavy demands on the listener, though it’s unlikely to faze anyone who knows the quartets of, say, Bartók or Schoenberg. The subject of the fugue — a sequence of half-steps separated by wide leaps — is both simple and, once heard, impossible to miss. The four players present it in unison at the beginning, with dramatic accents and pauses. A quiet interlude of a more searching character leads to the fugue proper, which breaks out at a gallop in jagged, energetic rhythms. “Partly free, partly in strict counterpoint,” as Beethoven indicates in the score, the fugue is divided into clearly defined sections of varied textures, meters, and tonalities. As in any fugue, part of the fun is listening for the theme as it darts in and out of the tightly knit musical fabric, like a golden thread.
© 2016, Harry Haskell
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