Beethoven Dissected Part II

by Martin Saving

Beetdis2Last time I presented some general thoughts on analysing the music of Beethoven. This time I will look at the third movement of the Op. 130 quartet in more detail. In the discussion below I will try to avoid becoming too dry and technical, but sometimes it’s unavoidable. The result is really a kind of quasi analysis with mainly sections and themes identified, with my own thoughts on their character. It’s a bonus if the reader has a basic notion of musical notation. I would recommend listening to a recording while reading. There follows a short explanation of some of the terms used:

Motif: A small musical unit characterised by either a certain interval or a rhythm or both.

Tonic: The home key. The tonality where the movement most often starts and ends.

Dominant: The key one fifth up from the tonic. There is often tension in this chord since it “wants” to resolve back to the tonic.

Sonata form: One of the most typical templates for the Classical composers. A first theme is followed by a second, often contrasting theme in the dominant key. These two themes make up the Exposition. This is followed by the Development section where the themes are treated in imaginative ways, shortened, prolonged or perhaps combined. In the Recapitulation the first and second theme return, but this time the second theme is in the home key. The movement ends with a Coda, a kind of farewell section.

Rondo: Equally common template of the Classical era. There are several versions but a typical one would see an A theme followed by a B theme, A returns, a new C theme is presented before A finishes the movement.

Sonata-Rondo: A kind of combination of the two above. One typical example would be a movement with an A theme, a B theme (in the dominant, as in a sonata movement). The “development section” is made up of a return of the A theme in the tonic and a new C theme before the return of themes A and B. There are numerous combinations of the sequence of themes.

Harmonic sequence: A musical motif,short phrase or a succession of chords repeated in different keys. Quite often it moves a fifth step each time.

Modulation: Using a progression of chords to change our sense of being “at home” in one key to another.

Cadence: A progression of chords that (most often) resolves a phrase. The penultimate chord is often a dominant resolving back to the relaxed final chord of the tonic.


The Poco Sherzoso: Andante con moto, ma not troppo of Beethoven’s Op. 130 quartet is perhaps not as famous as the Cavatina, the Grosse Fuge or the Heiliger Dankgesang of Op. 132, but one of my personal favourites. It is (characteristically) unusual for Beethoven’s musical language and has almost Schubertian qualities at times. Schumann did call it an intermezzo, and it does indeed sometimes risk being lost among some of the other, more weighty, movements of Op. 130.

Beethoven wrote the movement swiftly in mid-August of 1825. Whether he initially intended the Op. 130 quartet to be in four or six movements is a matter of debate, but it seems that, after having finished the first two movements, he started sketching what would become the Cavatina but in a key suggesting it would come after the Presto. He then changed his mind and quickly wrote the present Andante.

There are a few examples in Beethoven’s work of movements somewhere between scherzo and slow movements, notable examples being the second movements of the Op. 18:4 quartet and the Eighth Symphony. When you glance superficially at the score you are immediately struck by how busy it seems: different rhythms and ideas are combined simultaneously, flourishes and small grace notes abound, and it never reaches above a humble mf until the very last chord (not including a few fortepiani). A score looking like this would be likely to be a musical failure – had it not been written by Beethoven. The texture has been described as saturated, but the composer judges the limits beautifully. It is perhaps in that way reminiscent of that other genius – Bartok, who created textures that somehow seem impossible to envisage. So swiftly does it at times go by, that your mind reacts as if to a temporally extended impressionistic painting.

I can’t help but associate this music with a sort of Teletubbies landscape full of rainbows, fluffy pets and My Little Ponies (although it is likely to be ever so slightly more profound than that). Sullivan writes that it has a “daylight” atmosphere with “no great passions, no ecstasies and no profound despairs” and Steinberg comments upon its “luxurious sense of time limitlessly available”.

The form of the movement is unusual. Some see it as a sonata-rondo, others as being in a unconventional sonata form. We’ll examine this in more detail below.

Joseph Kerman, in his legendary book on the Beethoven quartets, uncharacteristically writes when commenting upon this movement that “analytical formulations seem somehow helplessly beside the point”, but although it is easy to see what he means, let us not despond, and look at the movement in more detail:

The movements of Op. 130 are kept together partly because of the fact that the top note ending one movement is the same as the top one beginning the next, often in the same octave. In the case of the Andante, it actually even starts in the key of the preceding Presto, Bb minor. We therefore have a feeling of beginning where we left off. The first bars were marked preludio in one of the sketches and they serve as an intermezzo within the intermezzo. The atmosphere is troubled. The motif that is reccurring in the whole quartet, the half step, greets us in the first violin like a sigh. By going up an octave in the next bar it increases the intensity slightly. Beneath this, the idea of the upcoming theme is introduced by the lower instruments, first the second violin as the highest voice, then the viola. With the gentle help of the dolce upbeat to the third bar in Violin I, we relax into the real theme in the right key, Db major, and the sun comes out:

(Example 1)


The theme, in the viola, has a lilting, dance-like quality and it is vaguely related to the theme of the preceding Presto:

(Example 2)







In the cello a walking base line jauntily accompanies the happy mood. The theme is repeated in the first violin before a slight variation of it (prematurely in the dominant key of the second theme, Ab major), gently smiling and exquisitely amiable, is passed to violin II, and to the first violin again. The first theme is over in a flash, only seven bars long:

(Example 3)






A single bar of pizzicato will lead us into the second theme. It imitates, starting in the cello, the way the first theme finished, and this imitation is in turn imitated by the other voices. The harmony modulates into Ab major (a key that we have temporarily left) and the second theme:

(Example 4)


The second theme has something slightly naïve and playful about it. The group of four semiquavers (with a little eye-twinkling grace note) is passed between the voices much like the transitional bar. It is worth noting how the second theme is related to the first: melodically it bears a clear resemblance, and the semiquavers of the cello in the first theme are taken up as a crucial part of the second:

(Example 5)


The new theme is suddenly interrupted by an open-eyed exclamation, or perhaps a question mark, for we are left hanging in the air for a fraction of a second, suspended. But the cello shyly invites us to come along into a short section related to the first theme, but more fragmented. The cello is indeed too shy to even finish it, but the viola steps in. The texture gets thick with gentle short whiffs and trill like figures reminiscent of butterfly wings, all in pianissimo:

(Example 6)






Suddenly it is all interrupted by a new fortepiano chord, but this one seems more final, as if we were going into a completely new section. But after being held in suspension for a second we realise that we never were meant to leave this sound-world. It’s all quietly laughed off, and the four voices instead imitate each other in a frolicsome manner with staccato semiquavers like puppies playing. With a slight crescendo the first violin is left hanging on a disconcerting Db, a note that could spell trouble. But with a diminuendo the first violin changes heart, and we relax into the first theme:

(Example 7)




But we are not in the home key but in C major. The texture is more active than in the beginning, and the second violin and later the viola shadow the first violin in canon. The cello takes over the theme (in F major) but this time the other instruments accompany with little playful toy-soldier trumpet calls. Two bars follow-s that are rhythmically somewhat like the second theme in reverse. At first there are gentle curtseys on the weak second and fourth beats, but it intensifies slightly by the end, almost impatiently, with every other quaver beat. But the impatience gives way at the very last minute in favour of the next theme:

(Example 8)








The theme in the first violin, marked cantabile and dolce, is a little emotional oasis, thoroughly idyllic and amiable. It is derived from the main theme, and the yearning sighs on the beats leading up to the last seem somehow related to the sighing which opens the movement (but this time it is a whole step rather than a half, and positive rather than negative because of it). The other instruments all do completely different things: the cello does almost the opposite of the first violin with its big leaps and opposing rhythm, the viola provides the harmony in an almost chorale-like manner, and the second violin provides loving off-beat comments with shy euphoria. The theme is interspersed with bars of the running semiquavers:

(Example 9)








The theme returns (in Db major) but is varied and shortened. All the instruments have a go at it in different keys, and a new idea is added: brilliant, ascending scales in demisemiquavers, enhancing the mood of hushed yet euphoric happiness:

(Example 10)






A variant of the two introductory bars that opened the movement follows, and we are again in a state of slight apprehension. But with a similar sense that the sun is appearing out of the clouds, the theme returns, this time in the first violin and in the “correct” key. The second violin and viola provide offbeat comments, like violin I in dolce, whereas the cello plays a version of the semiquaver idea, sempre staccato, even more tinged with Viennese gemütlichkeit. From here on the material of the first part of the movement reappears, with the second theme this time in Db major:

(Example 11)




















When the cantabile theme returns, also in Db major, it doesn’t quite finish but is temporarily halted, hesitatingly, on a trill in mid-air. With a sort of mini cadenza the first violin leads us back onto the right track: a scale marked non troppo presto (not too fast) and of such exquisite beauty that would soften the most hardened of hearts. The scale reintroduces the varied version of the theme that at the beginning led us into the second theme:

(Example 12)








However, instead of repeating the second theme again, the music gets stuck in a kind of clockwork chromatic descent: half-step by half-step it deflates. The skies are cloudy again, and yet another version of the opening bars follows, but without the comfort of the appearance of the theme proper, rather a fragmented version that goes through key after key along the circle-of-fifths:

(Example 13)








The bars that earlier led into the cantabile theme are reintroduced “almost willfully, as if one were trying to convince oneself” (Hatten). But the recovered conviction doesn’t pay off, for the phrase isn’t concluded with a proper cadence, but we are left hanging again on an unexpected pianissimo chord. The second violin, like a record stuck in the groove, plays the half-tone motif, the new short-long rhythm being a fragment of the concluding gesture of the previous bar. Carefully, the upper three instruments try to redirect the music through another bar of clockwork interplay. The harmony is passed through sequentially, as at the end of example 13 (and, interestingly, the theme of the preceding movement), but the record briefly gets stuck again, this time with all instruments playing. Another sequence follows, but this time the music finds its right track and, for a final time, the cantabile theme appears complete with the ascending scales. For the last bars, the lower instruments gently agitate the atmosphere with constant demisemiquavers accompanying the first violin’s final ascent before two subito piano chords shy away from what could have been a triumphant ending. The music is still unresolved on a pause rest, and for a very brief moment we are left wondering. With inimitable humour, Beethoven concludes the movement with the first proper forte, -and a broad smile:

(Example 14)











It is best to let de Marliave conclude this section:

“One can imagine the composer breaking into amused laughter at himself and his own sentimental outpourings – as heartless Bettina Brentano used to laugh at his protestations of love! – and resigning himself with a shrug to the cynical comedy of life.”

In Beethoven’s late style the composer treated the conventional forms more freely and it is hard to analyse the form of some of the movements according to the relatively straight-forward rules to which the previous generation of composers had adhered. This Andante is a good example. The proponents of the idea that this is a movement written in sonata form would say that the (unusually short) first theme begins in bar 3 (Example 3) and the second theme (duly inthe dominant key) would be Example 5. The development section starts, according to this model, at Example 8, and the recapitulation at Example 11. From here on the second theme (and the cantabile theme) return in the tonic key. The very extensive coda would start in the region of the pause on the “mid-air trill” of Example 12.

Problems with this model would include the fact that:

* The proportions of the movement are unusual.

* A large part of the first theme is actually in the dominant key of Ab major (the “slight variation” of the theme of Example 3) so the arrival of the second theme is easily lost.

* The beginning of the development section is “hidden” in a similar fashion.

* A new theme (the most memorable?) appears in the development section (Example 9).

Proponents of the idea that the Andante is in sonata-rondo form would claim that the first theme is theme A, the second theme B, the theme (in the wrong key) of Example 8 is A, the cantabile theme C, and then in succession at the parallel places A, B, A and C reappears before the coda at the “mid-air” trill.

Perhaps Beethoven would laugh the whole discussion off in the same fashion as he ends the movement.


Martin Saving


Sources: “Beethoven – his spiritual development” (Sullivan), “The Beethoven Quartets” (Kerman), “Beethoven’s Quartets” (de Marliave), “Notes on the Quartets (The Beethoven Quartet Companion)”, Steinberg (ed. Winter, Martin), “Beethoven’s Chamber Music” (Watson), “Beethoven’s String Quartets” (Radcliffe), “Plentitude as Fulfillment – The Third Movement of Beethoven’s String Quartet in Bb, Op. 130 (The String Quartets of Beethoven)” (Hatten, ed. Kinderman)

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