Monday, October 8, 2012

Beethoven's "Harp" Quartet

Beethoven in 1806
The Philarhmonia Quartet Berlin performs Mozart and Beethoven Quartets as part of their performance with Market Square Concerts first program of the new season, Wednesday night at 8pm at Harrisburg’s Market Square Presbyterian Church. In between, they’ll play the String Quartet written in 1964 by Polish composer Witold Lutoslawski – next January marks the 100th Anniversary of Lutoslawski’s birth.

So, listening to the Mozart that opens the Philharmonia Quartet Berlin’s program and the Beethoven that ends it, not much time, chronologically speaking, has passed – barely a generation. But in between, Beethoven composed a few works that changed the course of music history in the new century – the Eroica Symphony and the 5th Symphony – which nominally mark the beginning of what we call “The Romantic Era” – in general, 19th Century Music and all its contrasting varieties between Beethoven, Berlioz, Mendelssohn and Liszt to Wagner, Brahms, Mahler and Strauss.

Lutoslawski’s Quartet, performed between them – because programs do not need to follow chronological or stylistic order – will throw this into even greater relief. But I will save most of my remarks about these significant developments for my pre-concert talk, focusing more on listening to “new music” whether it was Mozart’s audiences in 1786, Beethoven’s in 1810 or Lutoslawski’s today which can still present challenges to anyone listening almost 50 years later but not knowing “what to listen for” if it doesn’t sound like something more familiar written a 150 years ago.

You can read about (and listen to) the Mozart Quartet K.499 in this earlier post.

Here’s a classic recording of one of the great quartets of all time, the Budapest Quartet, playing Beethoven’s String Quartet in E-flat, Op.74, the “Harp,” recorded in 1951.

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The “Harp” Quartet earns its nickname from the unusual passages where the instruments pluck the strings – called pizzicato – as part of the opening theme at 2:11-2:20 but especially at two structurally significant moments, 4:35-4:50 and again at 7:12-7:40, both leading up to the return of the main theme.

The second movement (at 8:24), the slow movement, is a straight-forward adagio in A-flat Major, which Philip Radcliff in his book on the quartets calls “one of the most directly appealing movements that Beethoven ever wrote” with its “mood of Olympic serenity.” Judging from the sketches, this long-breathed theme came into existence more spontaneously than usual for Beethoven who frequently struggled with his ideas, the final version sometimes lacking any similarity with his first attempt.

The third movement (at 17:51) abruptly changes the overall mood. In Beethoven’s darkly dramatic key of C Minor (think especially the C Minor 5th Symphony), it bears many resemblances to the scherzo of the 5th with its almost constant “fate” rhythm in the background. Unlike the 5th, however, the transition to the finale (at 21:50) works in reverse: rather than building up to it, it’s more like the Storm movement in the 6th Symphony, the Pastorale, where the thunder and tension recedes into the background. It moves directly into the 4th Movement without (hopefully) a break.

This finale (at 22:22) starts off almost anticlimactically with a seemingly mundane theme. This, however, sets up a series of variations that soon shifts into the patterns we’d normally associate with Beethoven. The harmony is simple, almost prosaic – easy for a listener to follow than some of the things he’d written before which often left listeners unwilling to leave the 18th Century behind them.

Rather than being old-fashioned, it’s his way of taking “something old” and turning it into “something new.” Perhaps not as new as the variations that would conclude his late piano sonatas and would fill the Late Quartets with some of their most magical moments, but well on its way.

And this quartet is a difficult work to “place.” It follows the symphonic brilliance of the three “Rasumovsky” Quartets (Op. 59) and though it seems to be a “one-off” work, not part of a larger set, it’s actually part of a pair of quartets that were written about the same time, though its companion piece, the Op. 95 Quartet in F Minor, which Beethoven called the “Serioso,” was published several years later. It would be twelve years before Beethoven would begin his last set of string quartets, known collectively as the “Late Quartets.”

You can read more background information about the quartet – how it fits biographically into Beethoven’s life as well as chronologically into his creative output – in this post which continues at my main blog, Thoughts on a Train.

- Dick Strawser

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