Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Beethoven's 3rd "Razumovsky" Quartet: And What *IS* a "Razumovsky," Anyway?


Okay, let's not think about the weather forecasts – let's concentrate on the music the Enso Quartet will be playing Saturday night at 8:00 at Harrisburg's Whitaker Center with Market Square Concerts' January program.

The concert, dedicated to the memory of long-time board member and area arts activist Dorothy Anderson, will open with two 20th Century works – the first quartet by Argentine composer Alberto Ginastera (written in 1948) and a “study of the night” written in 1976 by French composer Henri Dutilleux he called “Ainsi la nuit” (which roughly translates as “Thus, the night”). This year marks the centennial anniversary of both their births. Then, on the second half of the program, there's one of the most popular of Beethoven's quartets, the third of the set of three “Razumovsky” Quartets completed over the summer of 1806.

I'll be doing a pre-concert talk in the hall starting at 7:15 focusing primarily about the “newness” of all these pieces – though these days, no one's probably “afraid” of one of Beethoven's masterpieces. If anything, this and the B-flat Quartet (with the “Grosse Fuge”) are probably the most frequently experienced of his quartets, and compared to Op. 130, the C Major Quartet, Op.59 No. 3 is like falling off the proverbial log.

Here's a performance of the complete quartet (in one clip) with the Orion Quartet recorded at the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival in 2008.
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Beethoven in 1806
In Mozart and Haydn's day, it was typical for composers to produce sets of quartets (and other works: think of Vivaldi's concertos published by the dozen) usually six or three in a group and each one designed to be a different “solution” to the question “how does one write a string quartet?” Sometime in 1805, Beethoven was asked to provide one of the great arts patrons of his day, the Russian ambassador, Count Razumovsky, with a set of three - hence the quartets' nickname (for those of you wondering what a “Razumovsky” is, see below).

We don't know exactly when this request was made or if, as Beethoven wrote to his publish in July of 1806, he'd already finished one of the three by then, but Jan Swafford, in his recent (and excellent) biography, Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph, mentions specifically he began work on them the day after his brother Carl's wedding to Johanna Reiss, a prophetic event considering how much time would be spent while he was writing the Late Quartets dealing with legal issues over the guardianship of his nephew following his brother's death.

If that's true, it means Beethoven composed all three of the Op. 59 quartets between May 26th and September 6th, 1806, when he again wrote to his publishers and said they were done.

While three months might seem sufficient time to write three string quartets, remember Beethoven was also composing the 4th Symphony, the 4th Piano Concerto and the Violin Concerto during that same summer vacation, not to mention revisions on his opera Leonore (not yet called Fidelio) complete with two new overtures for it (the 2nd & 3rd Leonore Overtures) and other works that same year! Any composer would be delighted to have produced such masterpieces during a lifetime – but in one year?

Part of the “premise” for the quartets was Razumovsky's request to include in each of them “a Russian theme.” Some say Beethoven suggested this as a tribute to his patron but it doesn't seem typical of Beethoven to offer such a “musical device.” And, anyway, there is no outwardly Russian theme in the 3rd Quartet, the C Major. In the 2nd, Beethoven made use of an old folksong called “Slava!” (“Rejoice”) which has become more famous to Western ears through Mussorgsky's using it in the Coronation Scene of his opera Boris Godunov, first composed in the late-1860s, where it doesn't stand out as a quotation. By that, I mean Mussorgsky's music is so authentically Russian, no Westerner would notice this is an old folk-song. With Beethoven, so (if anything) authentically German, the sound of its incorporation within his style sticks out like a sore thumb and in fact the way he uses it, it almost sounds like he's deliberately having fun with it or even making fun of it, turning it into that most academic of formats and so antithetical to folk-song, the fugue – then especially when the tonic/dominant cadence gets so carried away, it sounds like its beating up on it and chasing it out the door. Perhaps by the time he got to the 3rd Quartet, he'd thought, “enough.”

The expansive opening movement, following a very enigmatic introduction – harking back, most likely, to Mozart's “Dissonant” Quartet, also in C Major – is more compact than the other quartets' but on the whole more approachable, too, as if he's letting listeners baffled by the first two off the hook with this one (or so it might seem).

As one of the early reviews said, "Three new, very long and difficult Beethoven string quartets, dedicated to the Russian ambassador Count Razumovsky, are also attracting the attention of all connoisseurs. The conception is profound and the construction excellent, but they are not easily comprehended." Perhaps the comparative tunefulness of the Third's opening brought a sigh of relief?

The second movement (beginning c.8:45), however, could have something Slavic about it – again, more likely Beethoven's impression of something Slavic – in the mood of the theme though its most memorable feature is the cello's steady pizzicato, almost like a tolling bell – and Russians did love their bells. That hasn't kept other writers from hearing something Spanish or even more exotic in it.

The third movement (beginning c.18:38), rather than being a typical scherzo, is more of a throwback to the graceful days of Mozart and Haydn, the previous generation, a minuet marked “grazioso.” But this sets up the finale more perfectly than a typical Beethoven scherzo possibly could.

And yet, this was even more of a throw-back, this time to the highly contrapuntal days of Bach and Handel of the 1740s or so when Fugue was king. (In Beethoven's day, Bach was little known, at least to the general public; Beethoven admitted more than once Handel was one of his favorite composers). The finale starts off with a vigorous (!) fugue and this dense and busy texture – a perpetual motion, at that – dominates the movement to the point it no longer sounds like an academic and old-fashioned dry-as-dust fugue, the kind of thing all students learn to compose but then probably shouldn't. While it's very different from the Great Fugue that originally ended the Op. 130 Quartet, it's still a marvelous show-case of compositional craft combined with musical ingenuity.

Ignaz Schuppanzigh
These quartets were composed with specific players in mind: the members of a string quartet led by Ignaz Schuppanzigh, perhaps the best or at least the best known violinist in Vienna at the time. And this is an important distinction.

Before, Mozart or Haydn – or any number of those other composers the typical American audience is unaware of who were their contemporaries – wrote for what is called “the amateur market.” In the days before ipods and CD-players turning us into passive listeners, people were actively involved in making their own music and it was typical to assume the intended audience for a new string quartet was essentially the four people who played it and maybe their friends and family who sat in the parlor listening to them. (Think Schubert growing up in a household where his older brother played 1st Violin, he would play 2nd Violin and then Viola when another brother became proficient enough to play 2nd, and their father played Cello.)

Even given the level of playing available at a time before “amateur” became a pejorative term, how Beethoven wrote these new string quartets was something new. Not only was the playing level above the average amateur string-player, it required dedicated practice and rehearsal time and also expected more of its listeners. These were, essentially, the first professional string quartets on a “symphonic” scale – and intended for public performance.

And the level of technical challenge for the players led Schuppanzigh, on at least one occasion, to complain about a particular passage: “how do you expect me to play that?!”

While Beethoven's response is famous (and translated variously), we don't know what specific passage, much less piece, it was Schuppanzigh was referring to.

“What do I care for you and your damned fiddle when the spirit moves me?”

No aristocratically employed composer in Haydn's time would have gotten away with that...

The idea of “chamber music concerts” was also something new at the time. Before, an aristocrat might have some “house musicians” who would perform for their guests. Some even had “house orchestras” though now an orchestra like the one Haydn conducted at Prince Esterhazy's was a rare luxury: given the early-19th Century economy, it was more likely the musicians would double as house-servants and staff.

(Imagine the downstairs world of Downton Abbey doubling as a small orchestra to entertain at the Granthams' dinner-parties – what instruments, exactly, do you think Carson, Mrs. Padmore or Thomas might play?)

But Schuppanzigh had created a professional quartet in 1804 (the cellist had once been Haydn's principal cellist back in the day of Prince Esterhazy's employment) and though their public concert-series only lasted through 1808 – it is assumed (and it's odd no one knows this for sure) Beethoven's Op. 59 Quartets where first heard during their 1807-1808 Season – it was an important ground-breaking event in the evolution of “modern music.”

These works were not conceived as amateur music-making but for professional musicians to play for a preferably paying audience. We have begun making the bridge between aristocratic patronage and the free-lance, professional musician.

Count Razumovsky hired Schuppanzigh to form a “house quartet” for him in 1808, intending it to be “the finest quartet in Europe.” It was then that the Count's new quartet played his new Quartets rather frequently at his palace, one imagines.

Speaking of amateur, the Count was a talented violinist himself – being an aristocrat, he was, technically, an amateur, no matter how well he played – and he enjoyed “sitting in” with his quartet to play 2nd Violin. On those occasions he preferred to sit back and listen (and one wonders if he was capable of playing the 2nd Violin parts in Beethoven's newest works), a fellow named Louis Sina played instead (talk about playing 2nd fiddle...). You might wonder if the Count could hold his own in “the finest quartet in Europe,” but then would his employees say, “excuse me, your lordship, but maybe you should sit this one out and let Mr. Sina play?”

It's quite possible if Ignatz Schuppanzigh hadn't existed, the quartets Beethoven wrote for the Count might have been very different. In a way, the violinist is almost as responsible as the patron was in bringing these three masterpieces about. Something to consider...

By the way, there were only two musicians in Vienna who played in the premiere of every Beethoven symphony between 1800 and 1825 – one was Ignaz Schuppanzigh.

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So who was this guy named Razumovsky?

Andrei Razumovsky, 1776
Count Andrei Kirilovich Razumovsky was the Russian ambassador to the Imperial court in Vienna, beginning in 1792 after serving in lesser diplomatic posts in Naples, Copenhagen and Stockholm. His father had been Hetman in the Ukraine and had amassed a fortune, building splendid palaces in his country estate in Baturyn and in the capital, St. Petersburg (more about him and his brother, below).

Officially the ambassador only until 1807 when he retired, Razumovsky served as Chief Negotiator for the Russian Empire during the Congress of Vienna (1814-1815), recreating Europe after the defeat of Napoleon, ending a generation of constant warfare that ranged across Europe from Spain to Moscow. For his services in this last diplomatic role, Tsar Alexander I gave him the title of Prince.

Today, he is best known as a friend and patron of Beethoven's who commissioned him to write three string quartets. The count was, as I mentioned, a capable amateur violinist and frequently played 2nd Violin in his own ensemble. After all, he'd played quartets under Haydn's tutoring in the 1790s but when Razumovsky asked Beethoven about lessons in composing string quartets in 1800, Beethoven, who'd just completed his Op. 18 quartets, declined and sent him to Aloys Förster who had been Beethoven's own mentor in the craft.

Called “an enemy of the [French] Revolution but a good friend of the fair sex,” Razumovsky had, as one person described it, the “pinched and malevolent face of a Russian police interrogator.” His manners were impeccable and he “radiated pride in all things: his birth, his rank and his honor, in his bearing [and] in his speech.”

Along with two other of Beethoven's aristocratic patrons – Prince Lichnowsky and Prince Lobkowitz – Count (and later Prince) Razumovsky was one of the most extravagant princes “in a city full of the breed” (as Jan Swafford puts it so delightfully in his recent biography). The palace he built on an imposing hill overlooking a Viennese suburb – finished in 1808 – had a roof garden, a vast library, an art gallery as well as a hall just for the sculptures of Canova, one of the leading artists of the day, to say nothing of a fine music room.

Here, Beethoven was “cock-of-the-walk,” walking confidently through its halls and lording it over Viennese musical society as performer and seeming composer-in-residence. Unlike he relationships with Lichnowsky and Lobkowitz, Beethoven seemed to get on almost placidly with Razumovsky.In addition to these quartets, Beethoven also dedicated his 5th and 6th Symphonies to the count.

But on New Year's Eve, the last day of 1814 when the Congress of Vienna was in full swing (in so many ways), the Count was holding a lavish dinner with both the Austrian and the Russian emperors in attendance along with some 700 guests when, as Swafford describes it:

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“...a baking oven overheated unnoticed and fire got into the heating system. As the guests were eating, the palace erupted in flames... By the time all the fire engines of Vienna arrived along with thousands of Viennese, who enjoyed a good fire, there was nothing to be done. Gone were three blocks of mansion, the great stables and riding school, the chapel, the carpets and tapestries, the old-master paintings, the hall of sculptures by Canova. Razumovsky was found sitting stunned on a bench on his grounds, wrapped in sables and wearing a velvet cap.”
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an older Andrei Razumovsky
Despite the offer of a loan of 700,000 florins from the tsar (remember Mozart, in 1787, considered 2,000 florins a good year's income), Razumovsky never rebuilt his palace and he became something of a recluse, living in near-seclusion until his death in 1836, almost nine years after Beethoven died. Shortly after the fire, he was forced to disband Schuppanzigh's quartet.

It's interesting to note that Countess Lulu von Thürheim, Razumovsky's sister-in-law, kept a kind of tell-all diary about life in Vienna at the time, giving us much daily information about life with the Count and his friends without ever making reference to his musical interests. The name of Beethoven is hardly mentioned.

And yet, if it weren't for these three quartets, Count Razumovsky would probably be forgotten except to historical experts: he certainly got more than he bargained for when he asked Beethoven to write them for him!

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For all his wealth, however, Andrei Kirilovich Razumovsky was a descendant of Ukrainian cossacks – his uncle Alexei was born to a peasant family named Rozum in 1709 and he was a shepherd boy who had a pleasant singing voice. He sang bass in the local church choir where the local sexton taught him to read and write. Then, in 1731, a colonel named Vishnevsky was traveling through the area on his way back to the court of the Empress Anna (niece of the late tsar, Peter I, known as “Peter the Great”) and, impressed by the young man's vocal abilities, took him back to the imperial capital to become a member of the palace chapel choir.

So, how did the nephew of a former Cossack shepherd become the wealthiest man in Vienna who commissioned Beethoven to compose three string quartets for him?

Alexei Razumovsky
In 1732, Alexei Razumovsky's musical abilities caught the ear of Princess Elizabeth (Elizaveta Petrovna), the daughter of Peter the Great and cousin of Empress Anna, who would become Empress herself in 1741. When Alexei lost his voice, he was made an official court bandura player and later a manager of one of Elizabeth's mansions. During the brief reign of the infant Ivan VI, he became a favorite of Elizabeth's and named a knight (Kammerjunker in the old Prussian ranks copied by the Russian court). He was also instrumental in the palace coup that overthrew the child-tsar's regent to proclaim Elizabeth the official ruler. After her accession, he became a chamberlain and “general-lieutenant” and, after her coronation, a “court marshal” (different than what it sounds like in English...) meaning he was in charge of, among other things, organizing and supervising the imperial household. If there was any doubt as to his courtly authority, let's just say his bedrooms were adjacent to the unmarried Empress'. (He was, consequently, nicknamed “The Emperor of the Night.”) Several sources indicated she had secretly married him - morganatically, however, meaning he was not officially her consort nor would any children they might have be legal heirs to the Russian throne.

Kiril Razumovsky, 1758
Even though he was not politically involved in the Empress' court, he had influence. When he was made a Count in 1744 – and the Empress even went on a holiday with him which took them back to his native village where she met his family (imagine that homecoming!) – Alexei suggested restoring the old position of “hetman,” leader of Ukraine's Cossacks, a title which dated back to the 16th Century and which had previously been discredited and discontinued by the Empress' father.

To this position, then, the Empress later named Count Alexei's younger brother, Kiril, born in 1728, shortly before Alexei went off to pursue a career as a singer in the court chapel. Still in his teens and attending a German university, Kiril was named President of the Russian Academy of Sciences and, in 1750, Hetman of the Ukrainian Cossack's autonomous region known as the “Zaporozhian Host” which he continued to hold until 1764 when Empress Catherine the Great dissolved the post (and the Host's autonomy), making Razumovsky a Field-Marshall instead. He would die in January, 1803, in his palace at Baturyn, the old Zaporozhian capital, at the age of 74.

Kiril Razumovsky's Palace, Baturyn
Count Andrei Kirilovich Razumovsky, Beethoven's patron, was born in 1752, when his father was Hetman, the second of five sons. When his father died, Count Razumovsky became one of the wealthiest men in Europe and lived the opulent lifestyle in Vienna, building his own grand palace there – at least until that disastrous New Year's Eve party in 1814. Little is known about the remaining 21 years of his life.

It intrigues me, though, considering how conscious the aristocracy usually is of family lineage and heritage, that Count Razumovsky, for all his wealth and charm, was accepted by the aristocratic families of Vienna who must have known, after all, his father had been born a peasant who achieved his social position all because his uncle had a pleasant bass voice and became Empress Elizabeth's “Emperor of the Night.”

Well, never underestimate the possibilities of a good musical education, I guess...

Dick Strawser

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