BEETHOVEN: The Sixteen String Quartets
by Sandra Hyslop
With this set of six concerts at 92nd Street Y, the Hagen Quartet continues a practice set in motion by the renowned Budapest Quartet 75 years ago. In 1938 92Y invited its audiences to New York City’s first-ever hearing of all 16 Beethoven string quartets played in a cycle. It would also be the Budapest’s first-ever performance of the entire set. “If you are a musician,” read the Y’s 1938 advertisement, “you will appreciate the importance of this announcement—if not, just ask any real musician and you will be convinced.” In 2013 92Y presents the Hagen Quartet’s six Beethoven concerts—its first-ever in New York City—with undiminished enthusiasm and appreciation for “the importance of this announcement.”
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When the 22-year-old Beethoven moved to Vienna in 1792 from Bonn, intending to study composition with Joseph Haydn, he arrived as a good professional violinist, violist and organist—and a knock-out pianist. His virtuosity at the piano keyboard opened doors in Vienna society, and he found his way into the circles of Vienna’s social and musical elite. His engaging, if rough-edged, personality and his love of social interaction made him a popular guest—especially when he dazzled the assembled company with his pianism. That Beethoven and Haydn failed to develop a good working relationship mattered little in the long run. Beethoven was ready to prove himself as a composer without significant further instruction; he took full advantage of all that Vienna offered, creating a life for himself as an independent professional.
Beginning in 1798, when he began to write his first quartets, and continuing to the final months of his life, Beethoven repeatedly stretched the concept of “string quartet.” Like his 32 piano sonatas, which similarly engaged his creative energies from early to late in life, Beethoven’s 16 string quartets represent a road map of his growth as a musician. They lead the way in tracing his journey toward the deepest realms of the composer’s art.
The concept “Early-Middle-Late Beethoven” arose as a scholarly categorization of his music in general and has come to designate three specific groupings of string quartets— those composed in 1798–1800, 1806–1810, and 1824–1826. The three periods of success are shadowed by Beethoven’s growing deafness, which was already painfully evident to him in 1798, and which isolated him increasingly from the world.
1801: Early quartets. The success of Beethoven’s first major publication for string ensemble, a set of three String Trios published in 1798, alerted Vienna’s music lovers that the phenomenal pianist had emerged as an equally remarkable composer. Even as music connoisseurs were awakening to that fact, Beethoven was beginning work on the ne plus ultra of chamber music, the string quartet. In 1801Beethoven issued six String Quartets, published as Op. 18. These new quartets found immediate success and secured his reputation not only with the public, but also with Vienna’s fine professional musicians. For the next 25 years, Beethoven was the most prominent musical force in the city.
In the wake of the Op. 18 Quartets, Beethoven composed piano sonatas, symphonies, the Violin Concerto, the Fourth Piano Concerto, and his opera Fidelio, any one of which would have secured his eminent position. In spite of his growing deafness, he possessed the exquisite inner hearing of a powerful musical mind, a faculty amply demonstrated as he fearlessly produced works that set him apart in conception, style and execution from all his contemporaries.
1806–1810: Middle quartets. The Vienna correspondent of the Leipzig Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung, the most important music journal of its day, reported early in 1807 that “three new, very long, and difficult Beethoven quartets…are attracting the attention of all connoisseurs. They are profoundly thought through and admirably worked out, but not to be grasped by all.” Indeed, Beethoven’s new music proved bewildering to musicians and audiences. One violinist, the Italian Felix Radicati, asked the composer if he seriously considered the three Op. 59 quartets to be real music. Oh, said Beethoven, this music is “not for you, but for a later age.” Undeterred by the puzzled reception accorded his string quartets, Beethoven published two further gems, Op. 74 and Op. 95, in 1809 and 1810.
1824–1826: Late quartets. After that, Beethoven left the genre alone for a full 12 years. In the summer of 1822, once again thinking in string quartet terms, he produced some sketches that he soon put aside—temporarily. A commission for string quartets offered him by an amateur cellist from St. Petersburg, Prince Nicholas Galitzin, then living in Vienna, got Beethoven’s full attention. In 1825 he composed three quartets for Galitzin—published as Opp. 127, 130, and 132. Two more followed—the quartets of Op. 131 and Op. 135—and shortly before he died, Beethoven composed a new final movement for the Op. 130 quartet.
Beethoven was a trained violist and violinist; but by all accounts, he was a careless performer—lax in practice habits and apparently indifferent to playing accurately or in tune. His inner ears, however, remained acute for his entire lifetime, and he had a superior sense of how the four instruments of a string quartet could be challenged. If such a thing were possible, Beethoven might have played a string quartet as one instrument as well as he played a piano.
Already in the 18th century, the metaphor of string-quartet-as-conversation was widely known and accepted. No one knew better than Beethoven how to structure such a conversation, not merely as a polite agreement among voices (such as a simple canon or a fugue), or one person expressing an opinion and the others amiably following along (such as a melody with supporting accompaniment), but also as an exchange of ideas—exploratory, challenging and discursive. The voices might be heated, calm, elevated or hushed, but they are always vibrantly engaged. It was this vibrancy and engagement that increasingly characterized Beethoven’s quartets, and he was by no means finished with the medium when he died, in March 1827, at age 57.
© 2013 Sandra Hyslop
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