Thursday, November 15, 2012

Beethoven & His Late Quartets: Part 1

Q&A with the Doric Quartet
Last night, at the Midtown Scholar Bookstore, the Doric Quartet gave us a preview of tonight's concert with excerpts from each work on the program, ending with the conclusion of  Beethoven’s Quartet in C-sharp Minor, Op.131. The program also includes quartets by Robert Schumann and Ernest Chausson – and will open with excerpts from Britten's Suite No. 1 for Solo Cello played by Julia Rosenbaum whom some of you may have heard play with the Harrisburg Symphony last weekend (she’s the 16-year-old winner of the latest “Rising Star” Concerto Competition held at Messiah College).

You can read more about the concert here in this earlier post (which includes directions to Temple Ohev Sholom at 2345 N. Front Street in Harrisburg). The concert begins at 8:00.

This post is about Beethoven’s Late Quartets, more or less in general. Part 2 of this post, Beethoven, the Late Quartets & His Audience, continues at my other blog which will also give you more background on these works, often described as the Himalayas of the String Quartet Repertoire.

It’s difficult to find the best performances or recordings on YouTube, even when there are so many good ones available. I’ve chosen this clip for two reasons: it’s complete in one “video” and it’s the Juilliard Quartet, recorded in 1960. However, the sound, transferred from vinyl, is not the best. But it is the Juilliard Quartet.

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The work is ostensibly in seven movements, though a few of them are little more than expanded introductions. The main difference between these movements and those in other works Beethoven composed, they’re played without interruption. It’s also interesting to realize how the composer balances the difficult movements (the opening fugue, for example) with a contrasting movement (at 6:47), a scherzo built on simpler phrase structures and dancelike rhythms that are more easily assimilated.

While the rhythmic design might give the whole work a more seamless flow, the frequent changes in tempo and mood might give it more discontinuity – rather than being closely organized around the tonal center of C-sharp Minor, there are six distinct “main” keys and thirty-one changes of tempo (ten more than in the longer Op.132 Quartet).

At 9:40, a brief recitative-like dialogue sets up the heart of the quartet, a long, largely slow set of variations (beginning at 10:34) with its own sense of unity and contrast.

This easier-to-follow movement is followed by a wild scherzo (at 25:56) ending with the glassy sound of the strings being played near the bridge, before rising up to a dramatic conclusion (31:03) that sets up a slow, tragic passage that leads us into the dramatic and intensely rhythmic finale (at 33:22).

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Beethoven in 1823
It’s possible these five late string quartets of Beethoven’s might never have been composed.

In 1822, Beethoven had been sketching at a new quartet while he was working on the Missa Solemnis and had offered both works (the nearly completed Mass and the as yet unfinished if unbegun quartet) to one of his publishers, C.F. Peters, who accepted the Mass but turned down the quartet, saying they were more interested in, say, piano trios or piano quartets. Besides, they had enough “beautiful quartets” by Ludwig Spohr, Bernhard Romberg and Pierre Rodé (how many of you have heard any quartets by either of these composer recently? Anyone? Bueller?)

So Beethoven put the quartet aside and resumed work on the Mass (he had finished the first draft).

Then, in late November, 1822, a Russian prince from St. Petersburg who had lived in Vienna and was quite familiar with Beethoven’s music, sent him a letter hoping to commission from him one, two or three string quartets. Beethoven immediately sent off a letter to a student of his then in London to look around and see if there was the possibility of “selling quartets” there which, it turned out, was answered in the affirmative. He also pursued other arrangements with another publisher, meaning he could write something for Prince Galitsin who would pay for its being composed, and then make additional money from publishers in England, Germany and Vienna.

They argued about fees, the publishers feeling Beethoven’s asking price too steep, though the Prince was willing to pay whatever Beethoven wanted. The only problem was, in early 1823, Beethoven had other projects still in the fire that needed to be completed first: the Mass, the 9th Symphony, the Diabelli Variations – all vast works – and that only after the May 1824 concert which saw the symphony’s premiere would he be able to turn his attention to the new quartets.

This request from Galitsin almost didn’t come about.

Having heard Carl Maria von Weber’s new opera, Der Freischütz, he thought perhaps he would contact Weber for his newest commissioning project. Galitsin was then 27 years old, a talented amateur cellist married to a talented amateur pianist. He employed his own string quartet (of which he was the cellist). But when he announced he thought about commissioning Weber, the violist in his quartet, himself a composer, advised against it and said he should contact Beethoven instead.

Now, Beethoven may have already had a quartet on a back burner – he always had new works on numerous back burners but didn’t always complete them (an opera based on Macbeth at least provided some ideas for his “Ghost” Trio, for instance). Without a possible performance outlet, would Beethoven have spent the time and effort on a quartet for the sake of writing another quartet? And would he have written, as it turned out, five of them?

He picked up his discarded quartet sketches again before he completed the 9th Symphony, put them away again. He had initially proposed completing the first quartet by March of 1823 but then put Galitsin off with more delays and excuses that the prince probably feared he would never see his quartets.

Then, in May of 1825, after the premiere of the 9th, Beethoven settled down to work on the quartets. Originally there were going to be three for Galitsin. But he kept on writing them, perhaps keeping an eye to the other publishers and the lucrative deal he had made with them for those three. At one point, while working on the third of these quartets, he wrote to a publisher in Berlin that, ultimately, he planned on writing a total of six quartets – imagine, another Late Beethoven Quartet!

Beethoven’s friend, the violinist Karl Holz (recently, the new 2nd Violinist of Ignaz Schuppanzig’s quartet) had joked there was enough music in the Op.130 Quartet for two works – and then the decision to separate the difficult finale known as the Grosse Fuge resulted in at least an additional fee.

By February of 1825, over two years since Galitsin first wrote to him, Beethoven completed the first of these quartets, the E-flat Major, Op.127. Then in July, he had completed the A Minor which would be published as Op.132. Come November, the B-flat Major, Op.130, was finished.

But he just kept going.

In May of 1826, Beethoven informed his publisher Schott that a new quartet was ready – this was the C-sharp Minor, op.131 – though he didn’t send them the manuscript until mid-August. It was announced by the publisher in February of 1827 but didn’t go into print until June. By that time, Beethoven had died.

Immediately after sending off Op.131, then, Beethoven started work on the F Major, Op.135, which he finished in October.

Sometime during this span of months, there’s a fragment of a sketch for a Quartet in C Major, what might have become the sixth quartet from this set.

Between October and November, then, while visiting his brother in Gneixendorf, along with his nephew in what turned out to be a most unfortunate visit, Beethoven composed the new finale for the Op.130 quartet, replacing its original Grosse Fuge ending.

This would turn out to be Beethoven’s last completed composition. He and his nephew returned to Vienna. Beethoven’s health took a decided turn for the worse and he died on March 26th, 1827.

In April, 1825, while composing the A Minor Quartet, Op.132, Beethoven had suffered another relapse, this time with intestinal complications and spitting blood. A letter to his doctor ended “Doctor, close the door to Death! Music will also help in my hour of need.” In late May, he began to feel better: he composed the famous slow movement of the quartet, the Heiliger Dankgesang with its prayer of Thanksgiving to God on his convalescence with a sense of renewed strength in the contrasting sections.

A few days later, his nephew wrote to him “God is my witness that my sole dream is to get away completely from you.” Karl was 18 at the time.

There followed a precarious truce. But it was a time filled with tension and several letters back and forth between Beethoven and Karl’s teacher who was not supposed to allow Karl out of the house at night under any circumstances.

Then, on July 31st, 1826, Karl attempted to commit suicide, shooting himself in the head with a pistol but succeeding only in wounding himself (apparently, a week later, they had not yet removed the bullet). Among other things, this caused the need to cover it up since attempting suicide was a state crime. Something had to be done to get Karl out of this state of mind – perhaps a military career would give him the necessary discipline and, also, get him out from under the obsessive watch of his Uncle Ludwig.

Beethoven was still working on the final version of Op.131 in July of 1826, only sending the score off a couple of weeks after his nephew’s attempted suicide. Originally, the score was to be dedicated to Johann Nepomuk Wolfmayer, a devoted friend of Beethoven’s, but instead he gave the dedication to General Baron von Stutterheim who had secured a place for Karl in his regiment: Karl joined the regiment in January of 1827 and never saw his uncle again. Wolfmayer, instead, received the dedication of the next quartet, Op.135. A wealthy textile merchant, Wolfmayer had advanced Beethoven a large sum for a Requiem that Beethoven promised he would write but never did. (Imagine the irony of both Mozart and Beethoven writing requiems at the times of their deaths?)

Alternating between depression and defiance, Karl’s life was not an easy one, kept in almost virtual imprisonment at his school and forbidden to see his mother. Whatever tensions led to Karl’s attempt to take his own life must not have been easy for the composer to bear, either.

For lack of space and time, we’ll have to leave the biographical details at that, but it’s enough of a headline to give you an idea Beethoven was not working on this quartet in an idyllic setting.

Click here for Part 2: Beethoven, the Late Quartets & His Audience.

Dick Strawser

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