History of the String Quartet – Beethoven (2)







Beethoven returned from writing his Heilingenstadt testament in 1892 resolved to face the future. His second symphony was in the making at the time but it gives no evidence of the mental torment he had been through. This brought to the end a period in his life which had not been some early apprenticeship but one of a Beethoven already accomplished as a musician, both as composer and performer.

Post Heilingenstadt was to bring about a completely new phase of a Beethoven who was an even more assured composer and whose revolutionary output was to bring about a complete change in musical sound. Mozart had died ten years before. Haydn was near the end of his creative career and died in 1809. He was still the revered master, the model for others still to emulate but it was now Beethoven who bestrode the world. Within five years he would make the eighteenth century drawing room as obsolete in much the same way as effect of the steam locomotive on the horse and carriage.

Beethoven was not to write any more string quartets between 1800 with the completion of the Opus 18’s and1806 with the three Opus 59’s, the Rasumovskys . Two further quartets follow in this middle period, the Harp, Opus 74 in 1809 and the Serioso, Opus 95.

To follow Beethoven’s development in the early part of the middle period would be better understood by listing some of his principal works, particularly the better known orchestral ones. They are not in exact chronological order of composition as opus numbers reflect the date of publication and not that of composition. and therefore I have omitted such opuses or opi (or, to satisfy our didactic crossword addicts), opera, as the two lovely violin romances which were written in the 1790’s


Piano Concerto No 3 Op 37


Symphony No 3 Op 55 (Eroica)


Triple Concerto Op 56


Fidelio (original version: Leonora)


Piano Sonata Opus 57 (Waldstein)


Piano Concerto No 4 Opus 58


Three quartets dedicated to Count Rasumovsky Opus 59


Symphony No 4 Opus 60


Violin Concerto Opus 61


Coriolan Overture


Symphony No 5 Opus 67


Symphony No 6 (Pastoral) Op 68


Cello Sonata No 3 (p 69


Piano Concerto No 5 Op 73 (Emperor)


What is immediately apparent is not just that this list contains between 1803 and 1808 four symphonies, two piano concertos, the violin and triple concertos, an opera (which under its original title of Leonora turned out to be a failure and was rewritten as Fidelio in 1814) and several of the mighty classic sonatas but that it contains simply great iconic (and I rarely use that word) masterpieces, one after another. Bearing in mind Beethoven’s compositional methods of subjecting each idea to minute exploratory dissection – Matthew has already illustrated the numerous ways Beethoven recorded in his sketchbooks just the opening phrase of the first Opus 18 quartet – and bearing in mind the length of these works compared to those of Haydn or Mozart, Beethoven would have in fact written four or five times as much as the final product in an outpouring of unstoppable creativity.

Another aspect is the change in character of these works from those of his earlier period. They are longer, more powerful, more dramatic, more fortissimo more monumental. The orchestra has grown, extra horn in the Eroica; trombones, contra bassoon and piccolo in the fifth symphony, with extra strings to balance, and it is interesting to pursue the reason for this. Is it simply because Beethoven had the sound locked up within his system and it simply was waiting to emerge? A composer has to have a suitable venue for performance of his compositions. Haydn’s London symphonies were far more powerful than their predecessors because they were played at the Hanover Square Rooms, far larger than any salon that Prince Esterhazy could provide, and with a larger orchestra recruited by Salomon. Haydn revelled in the sound it made and he continued to compose music to reflect the ambiance. Beethoven’s first two symphonies were commenced in the late 1790’s and performed in 1801 at the Theater an der Wien.  This theatre was built first in 1791 and housed the first performance of The Magic Flute. It was rebuilt in 1801 and my own theory is that Beethoven must have realized that here was somewhere to mount the performance of an orchestral style he could only have dreamed about earlier.

Beethoven had become not just a mover and shaker but an earthquake maker. The Eroica was a statement of monumental heroism with its links to the earlier ballet, Prometheus, as well as to its intended dedicatee, Napoleon, whose name Beethoven angrily erased from the title page on hearing he had declared himself emperor. The fifth symphony was a statement of personal triumph against the fate which had knocked at Beethoven’s door. It was too much for most, the work of a madman firing off his Big Bertha. Heard on period instruments it evidences its classical origins. By the way the Beethoven orchestra never contained 70 or so players. This became a later practice on which we have been all been weaned. We have learned to listen to Bach Handel and Mozart with size appropriate orchestras but with Beethoven for some reason we are forever stuck with a tradition created by the Weingartners and the Furtwanglers. On this basis why not have quartets for eight players!

Of course the world did not change overnight. There were those who, like today’s audiences, would not go in for all this modern music and were happier to stay with the likes of Dussek and Dittersdorf. Berlioz in his memoires relates taking his teacher, Le Sueur, to the first performance in Paris of Beethoven’s fifth symphony, suitably edited by Fétis, in 1823. Le Sueur’s response was that people should not write music like that and that he had to hold his hat to make sure his head was still there. To the world at large, including many other composers, Haydn was still the man at the top of the pedestal.

Another important background consideration was the changing world. Austria was largely unaffected by the French revolution but these works were written to the backdrop not only of Napoleon’s coronation but of war spreading throughout Europe. Austria had already been invaded and large parts were under French occupation. In 1806 an uneasy truce was signed and the French occupied Vienna. Maybe there is something of the blitz spirit about some of the music or conversely, as in the slow movement of the second Rasumovsky quartet, a sense of intense sorrow, of keeping the home fires burning.

In 1806 Beethoven, being in a depressed state following the failure of Leonora was invited by Count Lichnowsky to accompany him to Tropau near Gratz. When Beethoven first settled in Vienna in 1792 he had brought with him a letter from Waldstein with an introduction to Lichnowsky. The latter gave Beethoven his first accommodation and was a faithful patron. It was he who gave Beethoven an annuity which ended in 1806 after a quarrel which was never repaired. At Gratz there were French officers anxious to meet Beethoven, although Beethoven was not anxious to meet them, and when one of them asked Beethoven if he could also play the violin he got an answer back such as Nigel Kennedy might have delivered. Lichnowsky tried to repair the damage but Beethoven wrote to him, before leaving, “Prince, what you are, you are by circumstance and birth. What I am, I am through myself. Of princes there have been and will be thousands. Of Beethovens, there is only one”. Proof, if ever it were needed, that nobody was too mighty for him. The result of all this was that Beethoven who had taken with him his newly written appassionata sonata (opus 57) left in a storm, both literal and metaphorical, his manuscript smudged by the rain, and having to make his way back to Vienna.

One introduction by Lichnowsky was Count Rasumovsky who was the Tsar’s ambassador in Vienna. He was what one describes as stinking rich. He had built the most extravagant palace at Vienna, later burnt down, an example of money to burn. I was informed from a spurious source that he had taken Catherine the Great to bed. As every one else seems to have done so, it is of more exceptional interest that he had not taken Catherine the Great to bed. One tome states that his diplomacy did not match up to his love affairs with the ladies of society who were said to include the Queen of Naples. He was accomplished enough to play with the Schuppanzigh quartet and Schuppanzigh himself described him as “an enemy of the revolution but a friend of the fair sex”. The spirit of Rasumovsky lives on (for the time being) in Dominique Strauss-Kahn.

Rasumovsky commissioned a set of three quartets from Beethoven with a request that each include a Russian or a Russian sounding tune. Thus for the first time since the Opus 18’s we have in 1806 the first of Beethoven’s middle period quartets. I do not intend to analyze them but one thing is certain. The three quartets taken together are about as long as the six opus eighteens. Like their orchestral fellows they sound bigger and louder. This raises a question I cannot answer, one I hope Matthew will deal with. An orchestra becomes bigger and louder by adding more instruments. Simple. With a quartet you cannot add an extra instrument without it ceasing to be a quartet. So how does he manage this effect?   This music has qualities of being attentively silent; more serious; more spiritual; more reverential. Whatever, this is Beethoven big time and sublime.

You sense a new world for the string quartet from the opening of No 1 which has a repetitive accompaniment , somewhat reminiscent of the opening of the Waldstein sonata. No 1 has been described by Robert Simpson as chamber music’s equivalent to the Eroica and he went on to describe its second movement as a dark Adagio, a kind of private funeral march as opposed to the public one in the “Eroica”.

The Russian themes are found in the last movement of No 1, not a particularly well known Russian tune as is that in the middle section of the double decker scherzo in No 2 which was used by Mussorgsky in the coronation scene in Boris Godunov.

Number three is particularly notable for its mysterious introduction which seems to owe something to the strange tonalities at the beginning of Mozart’s K465, “the Dissonance”. The lugubrious pizzicato of the slow movement is totally original.

The remaining two quartets (about which Matthew will speak a week on) are the Harp, opus 74 and the Serioso, opus 95. From those opus numbers they appear to be like distant planets out on their own. In fact they could be coming out of the same stable. Beethoven’s output did slow down from 1808 but there came the Emperor piano concerto Opus 73 in 1809, the year of Haydn’s death. The emperor by the way was not the emperor but a name said to have been given by the English piano maker, J B Cramer, to the concerto which he perceived as an emperor of concertos.  The Harp quartet immediately followed. The Serioso’s opus number is misleading. Beethoven’s seventh and eighth symphonies were composed in 1812 and first performed in 1814. Their opus numbers were respectively 92 and 93. Little wonder therefore that one would assume the Serioso, opus 95, being even later. In fact it was written in early 1810 and only published later and it makes a natural partner to the Harp but they are by no means identical twins.

The Harp commissioned by Prince Lobkowitz obtains its name from the pizzicato playing in the first movement which gave its baptiser the impression of that instrument. Its use was quite unusual for its time and, in the more popular repertory of the string quartet , we have to wait till Debussy and Ravel for pizzicato to be more greatly exploited. Its main point of interest is Beethoven’s re-employment of motifs from his 5th symphony. The morse V abounds in the first movement and again in the scherzo. The middle section of the third movement of the fifth symphony, a rumbustious double bass and cello theme is clearly used again in the scherzo of the Harp. One feels that Beethoven must have had other ideas for these themes and could not resist using them again.

The Harp harks back to fifth symphony. The Serioso seems to look forward to a distant world not yet arrived. Beethoven’s quartets of this period could all be described as serious but the opening of this one is particularly bewildering, sounding like a firework going off in circles. It sounds like music to play in the waiting room of a psychoanalyst. It certainly could not have been played in any 18th century surround. The serioso is the shortest of the quartets and looks towards the last quartets to be written more than ten years ahead. More of them anon.