Monday, May 1, 2017

With Beethoven, from Verona: the 2nd Razumovsky

Beethoven in 1806
Who: The Verona Quartet and pianist Daniel Hsu
What: Beethoven (Piano Sonata in A-flat, Op.110; String Quartet in E Minor, Op. 59 No. 2) and Cesar Franck (Piano Quintet in F Minor)
When: Wednesday, May 3rd, 8pm
Where: Market Square Presbyterian Church
Why: Beethoven! and a great Late-Romantic Piano Quintet (and there aren't many of those around - and this one's not heard all that often) plus it's the final concert of Market Square Concerts' 35th Anniversary Season.

(This post is about the Beethoven Quartet on the program. You can read about Beethoven's next-to-last Piano Sonata, here. And if you're wondering just what a Razumovsky is, you can find out here. There's also a post about the Franck Quintet, here.)

In Mozart and Haydn's day, it was typical for composers to produce sets of quartets usually six or maybe only three in a group (not to mention other kinds of works: even earlier, Baroque composers like Vivaldi published concertos and sonatas by the dozen). Each one was designed to be a different “solution” to the question “how many different ways can one solve the problem of writing a string quartet?” In 1800, former Haydn-student and fan of Mozart Ludwig van Beethoven published his first quartets, a set of six, and the reaction to them was quite favorable among Viennese music-lovers.

Sometime in 1805, then, Beethoven was asked to provide one of the great arts patrons of his day, the Russian ambassador to Imperial Vienna, Count Razumovsky, with a set of three new quartets - hence the quartets' nickname.

We don't know exactly when this request was made or if, as Beethoven wrote to his publisher 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 during what we call his "Late Period" dealing with the guardianship of the only child of that marriage following his brother's death in 1815.

(In fact, the three piano sonatas, Op.109, 110 and 111, were all begun around the time the legal issues were finally being resolved in the composer's favor - so there's an interesting "common chord" between the two pieces on the first half of the program.)

That would mean 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 (Op.60), the 4th Piano Concerto (Op.58) and the Violin Concerto (Op.61) during that same summer, not to mention revisions on his opera Leonore (not yet re-named Fidelio) complete with two new overtures for it (the 2nd & 3rd Leonore Overtures) and several other works including having finished the greatest of his piano sonatas to date, the Appassionata (Op.57), 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.”

In the 2nd, Beethoven made use of an old folksong called “Slava!” (“Glory” or “Rejoice”) which has become more famous to Western ears through Mussorgsky's later using the same theme 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, most Westerners wouldn't even realize this is an old folk-song.

After its famous opening bell sequence, the choral hymn "Slava" begins at 1:04 and concludes at 2:15. This excerpt is from a film of the opera with the National Symphony Orchestra & Chorus (of Washington DC) conducted by its then music director Mstislav Rostropovich whose nickname, by the way, was "Slava". (In this scene, Boris Godunov, here the only adult male without a beard, for some reason, is crowned Tsar of Russia following the death of Ivan the Terrible's son in 1598.)

With Beethoven, so authentically German, the sound of this Russian theme's 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, after forcing it into a canon, when the tonic/dominant cadence gets so carried away, it could almost sound like its beating up on this poor, defenseless tune and chasing it out the door before thinking better of it and relenting...

In this performance of the quartet's third movement by the Alban Berg Quartet, the "Slava" quotation - the scherzo's "trio" - begins at 1:51 until 3:15 when the opening section returns. "Slava" comes back for a second go-'round at 4:08 to 5:30.

Perhaps by the time he got to the 3rd Quartet, he'd thought, “enough.” There is no Russian folk-song quoted in the C Major Quartet.

There would be other Russian Themes however in his future, though correctly they are both Ukrainian in origin: there's the song known in Germany as Beautiful Minka (originally "The Cossack rode over the Danube") and a Ukrainian dance in the sets of "Variations on National Airs" originally for flute and piano which he worked on, believe it or not, simultaneously with the Hammerklavier, written for an English publisher interested in folk songs which appeared as Op. 107 in 1819. But of these, perhaps the less said the better: every composer needed to make some money.

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Here is a performance of the complete Quartet in E Minor, Op. 59 No. 2 (known among friends as the "2nd Razumovsky") with the Dover Quartet - who performed Caroline Shaw, Smetana and Shostakovich for us at Temple Ohev Sholom just this past February - from their 2013 win at the Banff Competition:

There are the usual four standard movements, opening with a dramatic sonata-form movement which starts at 0:54.

The slow movement, which opens with a hymn-like theme, begins at 10:40. There is a story told by three separate friends of the composer's that the idea for this serene music came to him one night while gazing up at the stars, "contemplating the music of the spheres." True or not, it is certainly apt.

The contrasting scherzo begins at 23:55 (the "Slava" quote at 25:53); and the finale, then, at 31:07.

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."

(For a more technical look at the quartet, see below.)

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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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As I mentioned at the beginning of the post, the idea of writing a "set" of quartets was to see how one might write quartets differently, rather than churning out cookie-cutter imitations.

In the first of these three quartets, Beethoven opens with a long-arched theme that unwinds in the cello under a repeated F and A in the upper strings which implies an F Major chord but, lacking the root at any significant point in the cello, gives it an odd sense of never quite confirming F Major as the tonic chord until nineteen bars later with the first real cadence and the start of new thematic material! (You can watch a complete performance with the Alban Berg Quartet, here.)

The second quartet, however, opens quite differently, with a peremptory Tonic/Dominant cadence (reminding some of the hammer-like tonic chords that open the Eroica) and, in a few short measures presents several contrasting "cells" with a good of bit of "air," pauses between them that may sound fine to us (used to the cross-cutting of scenes in movies and TV) but which probably sounded wildly kaleidoscopic to Beethoven's first listeners, like one shiny object after another before finally settling down. The third of these cells, by the way, repeating the second, unexpectedly moves it up a half-step to F Major, not a related key to E Minor's tonic (more on this, later) - just another way Beethoven creates anticipation in the sense of both harmonic and structural tension (giving the listener doubts about what exactly is going on here).

These various elements play out through the rest of this fairly standard sonata-form movement. And while F Major shows up occasionally in passing, the second theme is in the standard G Major (the relative major of E Minor, both with one sharp in the key signature). However, when the development begins, we've slipped down a half-step, this time, to E-Flat Major, another unexpected twist. There's also a substantial coda (or closing section) before we finally conclude in the home tonic.

It's not that E Minor was an unusual key but it's one that Beethoven used rarely (the Op.90 Piano Sonata of 1814 is the only other major work in his catalog in this key). What is fairly unusual about it is, all four movements of this quartet are centered on E: the second movement is in E Major, and the other three are all in E Minor. Usually, composers look for some sort of tonal variety at least between the first and second movements before returning to the "home tonic" for the usually briefer last two.

Not only is the slow movement a contrast in tempo (very slow, and then Beethoven particularly marks it "to be played with much feeling," keeping in mind the emotional impact of what we call Romanticism was fairly new, then). As a hymn-tune played with "block chord" harmony, but harmonized differently each time it occurs, it ends "in beatific serenity," taking on a foreshadowing of another great hymn, the Heiliger Dankgesang or "Holy Song of Thanksgiving" at the soul of the Op.132 Quartet.

If the first movement seemed fragmented and disjointed, and the second, with its consistent, indeed persistent sense of rhythm, was flowing and connected, along comes the scherzo with its heavy-footed dance which curiously lacks a sense of down-beat in the melody. This is contrasted by the skitterish accompaniment to the Russian Theme's fugue. Beethoven also takes the unusual step of repeating the middle and final sections so rather than having a traditional A-B-A form, it's A-B-A-B-A.

The original sketches indicate Beethoven was planning a minuet in E Major as the third movement but perhaps chose this folksy-dance as being better suited to the Russian Theme he had found in a collection loaned to him by a friend.

So it might come as a surprise that the fourth movement seems to begin in the unrelated key of C Major. However, as the phrase continues to unfold, it actually does cadence where you'd expect it. This becomes a major feature of the finale, a light-hearted tribute, in a sense, proving he was, after all, a student of Poppa Haydn.

Remember that appearance of F Major in the opening E Minor movement I'd mentioned? This is what theorists call a "Neapolitan Relationship," though why this became associated with Naples, no one seems to remember. Basically, a "flat-II" compared to the tonic's I - in this case, F-natural Major rather than the F-sharp of the E Minor scale. (If your eyes have glazed over by this point, that's fine - just go to the concert and listen to the music and enjoy it; if you're a student of music and enjoy taking things apart the way some people like to talk about car engines or cake recipes, here's a little something for you.)

So this appearance of a strong C Major presence in the last E Minor movement is actually a "flat-II of V" (read that as "flat-2 of 5" - Roman numerals indicates chords in classical harmony)  - in other words, a Neapolitan on the Dominant of E Minor which is B (usually a B Major Chord, harmonically), and a C Major chord is only a half-step above that B.

But consider this: the first of these three quartets, each conceived and written at the same time, over a span of three months or so, is in F Major. The third of these quartets is in C Major.


Now, as a composer, I know how I'd think about that - creating a reference to the previous quartet in this one's first movement and a reference to the next quartet (coming attractions) in this one's last movement.

But of course no one can say how Beethoven thought: was this a coincidence? Was it the natural order of things, in his mind? Was this a pun he might actually expect a few well-versed listeners to notice and perhaps chuckle at? Or was it his way of consciously tying together all three quartets? (And does it?)

Since there's nothing written down to confirm this - assuming one could read it, given the state of Beethoven's sketches - it's mere conjecture. And yet these are the things that sometimes keep music theorists and composers awake at night... Sad, isn't it...?

- Dick Strawser

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