Exploring Beethoven’s Quartets: Dan Tong writes about op. 18:4, op. 74, op. 130 and op. 133

DanTongPianist Daniel Tong’s musical life is spent performing as soloist and chamber musician, as well as directing two chamber music festivals, teaching and writing. He has appeared at many of the foremost British venues and festivals and is frequently heard on BBC Radio. His London Bridge Ensemble are a bright presence on the UK chamber music scene, performing challenging programmes of intrumental music and song. They were recently nominated for the Gramophone chamber music award and have set up their own festival in Winchester. Daniel’s project, ‘unravelled’ in collaboration with musicologist Richard Wigmore, has seen a series of lecture-recital weekends on Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert and Schumann piano works. Each year he plays with an array of wonderful individual artists, often at his own chamber festival in the Wye Valley. Daniel has given a series of lecture-recitals on Beethoven’s piano sonatas at St Georges in Bristol and performed the complete cycles of piano trios, violin sonatas and cello sonatas. In 2015 and beyond he teams up with Krysia Osostowicz for Beethoven Plus! Starting at Kings Place in London, they will present the ten Beethoven sonatas for violin and piano alongside ten new commissions, inspired by Beethoven’s works. He has recently released his first solo CD of works by Schubert for the Quartz label.


Even for a pianist, with our thirty-two sonatas and host of chamber works, there is something particularly special about Beethoven’s cycle of string quartets. They are pieces that one simply needs to know, at the heart of Beethoven’s life’s statement as a composer. The cycle of piano sonatas may be more complete. The five cello sonatas are perhaps the most perfectly concise and representative series. The symphonies of course are the mightiest of all, each a masterpiece. Each of these cycles inspired and also weighed heavily upon the generations that followed but the cycle of sixteen string quartets has retained a special status and reverence that perhaps eclipses all of them. Why?

For me there are two main reasons. The first is the nature of the medium itself. It suits Beethoven perfectly. It is ‘pure’ music. There are none of the limitations of a piano but no tempting allure of superficial orchestral colour. There is potential for both intimacy and grandeur. There is the ideal balance of voices; the soprano, alto, tenor and bass - all you need with which to say everything. In music, the magic number is four, not three. The second reason is the existence of the five late quartets. Only the quartet cycle possesses a body of Beethoven’s very last, transcendent statements. Without them the series of quartets would be wonderful. With them it is awe-inspiring.

The late quartet on tonight’s programme is the B flat, op. 130 (1825), complete with its intended finale, the Große Fuge. The work originally appeared in this form but a lukewarm reception and nervy publisher persuaded Beethoven to replace the fugue with a slighter final movement. This does so much to change the experience of the work as a whole that the Elias Quartet play op. 130 twice in their cycle, once with each finale - an excellent idea (although personally I’d rather hear it a second time with the fugue at the end!) In fact, if I had to choose one Beethoven work to sum him up as a composer, this would be it. Written on a grand scale, it contains the whole world within it; earthiness, humour, monstrous intellect, heaven and hell, redemption. One may choose one’s own words of course because this music is at once objective and also wonderfully abstract. It defies words.

The opening movement of op. 130 is essentially a rigorous allegro, presenting the counterpoint that will come to its fruition in the huge finale. This allegro is preceded by an adagio introduction that suggests the spiritual element of the work and warns us, with the arrival of the cello’s plaintive throbbing pedal note, that the journey may not be easy. Ever the innovator however, Beethoven integrates these two elements by returning to the introductory material after an initial short burst of allegro and eventually repeating the entire exposition, introduction and all. We begin to realise that the adagio material is in fact no mere introduction, but very much part of the argument, returning again at strategic points at the beginning of the development and coda. There is struggle in the drama, as if the persistent turning semiquavers of the allegro are trying to break free from the grip of the adagio. It gradually becomes clear, when the music elides without ceremony into the recapitulation, that one element cannot exist without the other. The allegro cannot start of its own accord, the adagio cannot finish. Further devices marry the two elements which at first seemed so disparate. A chorale-like second subject recalls the opening adagio with its rising sixth and fall by step. The development section is dominated by a ‘slow’, yearning melody within the allegro tempo. By the time the material of the adagio ‘introduction’ appears one last time in the coda, we welcome it with open arms and the final burst of allegro ends in triumph.

The contemporary public would have expected the standard two inner movements to follow before a spirited finale, along the lines of the other works in this programme. In op. 130 Beethoven gives us no fewer than four inner movements. First earnestness is undermined in typical Beethovenian fashion by a whirlwind scherzo, over in a flash, at first scampering, then with a feeling of popular music in the central section and a comic return to the original material via a brief moment of high drama. A breezy andante follows, eschewing the pathetic for something altogether lighter, sung over the cello’s buoyant accompaniment. The fourth movement is a German dance, in lieu of a minuet, with ornamented reprises and strange dynamic ‘hairpins’ to make as if it were played by a peasant’s squeeze-box rather than the genteel string quartet. There are several ways of interpreting and understanding the movements within this great quartet, but one possibility would be to see the second, third and fourth movements together as one extended dance/scherzo section.

The Cavatina that follows is one of Beethoven’s most sublime, personal and spiritual outpourings, unusually (for Beethoven) taking the form of an extended, unbroken melody. The movement is not long, but time stands still. Then the fugue bursts in and demonic chaos ensues (ironically, in a form usually associated with absolute order), its angular dissonance all the more shocking following such repose. Beethoven hints that all is not lost however, with a short peaceful interlude in F major during the fugue’s introduction. This most enormous of all double fugues travels through section after section of gritty counterpoint, pushing tonality to the limit, but the soothing contrast of its spiritual side, particularly in an extended middle section based on that hopeful fragment from the opening, is always there attempting resolution. This is Beethoven’s defiant message at its apogee and indeed, after a quarter of an hour of hard-won struggle it is in glorious triumph that the fugue brings this unique masterpiece to its conclusion.

The C Minor Quartet, op. 18 no 4 was the last of its set of six to be completed in 1800, although there is uncertainty as to whether Beethoven made use of earlier material during its composition. As might be expected, the younger Beethoven is more clearly indebted to the past, especially the influence of Haydn. In op. 18 the formal daring is as yet less extreme than in his later works, nevertheless Beethoven already announces himself with these, his first published quartets, as a master and innovator. The C minor plunges straight into a stormy opening theme without introduction. Haydn and Mozart had done much to establish C minor as a key of particular drama, but it was Beethoven with whom this key became synonymous. The piano trio op. 1 no 3 and Pathetique sonata had already been written. The fifth symphony and final piano sonata, op.111 were still to come, but Beethoven in C minor is always a turbulent world. In this quartet it is also often a curious and disconcerting one.

Perhaps in the first movement it is Mozart who is recalled, rather than Haydn. The driving accompaniments are reminiscent of the D minor piano concerto or Don Giovanni, the lyrical second subject is also operatic with its two different voices and the sneaking footsteps of the coda suggest the ‘opera buffa’. Not unusually for Beethoven, there is really no slow movement. For his scherzo, Beethoven chooses a mock fugue, the most earnest of forms, that moves with a stately gait, ironically almost like a minuet. In contrast, the ‘official’ minuet, normally a moment of grace and lightness, is brooding and unsettled, back in the world of the opening movement’s ‘sturm und drang’. Audaciously, Beethoven marks that the reprise of the minuet be played even faster than the first time. Nothing is what it seems - or behaves as expected. The finale alternates a rumbustious gypsy-style theme with a sunny chorale. Only in the last few bars does Beethoven allow the gypsy music to deflect into the major, but the final bare octaves, although emphatic, leave the listener wavering between major and minor.

Perhaps, of the three works in this programme, it is the Quartet in E flat, op. 74 (1809) that behaves, at least superficially, most as expected. There is an opening allegro with slow introduction, genuine slow movement, energetic scherzo and bright finale. This, however, says nothing of the work of perfection that lies within. The nickname ‘Harp’ was not Beethoven’s but was applied by a publisher in the unfortunate manner of the time. No doubt, however, that the wonderfully energetic pizzicato of the opening allegro does much to dominate and define its gloriously joyful nature. This allegro is preceded by a slow introduction, almost religious in its continual upward aspiration, which behaves (as opposed to that of op. 130) as an introduction is supposed to do; once the allegro has started we hear no more of the introductory material and the exposition repeat concerns the allegro alone. The second subject turns delightful arabesques without challenging the music’s contentment. The moment of true genius however comes in the coda, where the violin’s arpeggiated figuration and a soaring duet in the middle voices lift the music to ecstatic heights.

The second movement, so beloved of Mendelssohn, is one of unrestrained melody in the warm and comforting key of A flat. With the Cavatina from op. 130 to come, this means that today you hear Beethoven in particularly tuneful mood. Again, as in the first movement, moments of conflict are at a minimum amidst the tender tranquillity of the 3/8 lilt. The form is a sonata-rondo, a favourite of Mozart’s, and the reprises of the opening theme are so heavily ornamented and re-scored that they are essentially variations. All of this contributes to a rare expressive freedom alongside a feeling (perhaps pervasive in the whole work) of looking back to the masters of preceding generations.

It is hard to imagine that Mendelssohn wasn’t also a fan of the scherzo of this quartet, with its bustling moto perpetuo. The opening bursts in with a vigorous C minor that cannot but be reminiscent of the fifth symphony, but in truth the stormy character is short-lived and the majority of the movement dances with abandon rather than malevolence. In the trio section church bells seem to ring and, as was often Beethoven’s preference in his middle period (Razumovsky quartets, fifth and sixth symphonies, piano trio in E flat, op 70 no 2 etc.) the movement is extended in length by a second appearance of this trio. The final rendition of the scherzo finds its way back from C minor to E flat major in order to prepare a seamless transition to the finale, a set of variations on a graceful theme. Here Beethoven is at his most inventive and inspired (though he was consistently a master of this form) through five variations that subject the theme to several startling transformations. Only in the second variation, during the viola’s dolce theme, is the original melody really recognisable in the background. Unusually there is no minor variation (although the theme contains a brief glimpse of C minor) - indeed no variation in any other than the home key. Beethoven has no desire to introduce discord at this late stage. In variation six the excitement builds with a surge in tempo and a driving accompaniment, and this final section becomes a combination of coda and further compressed variations before a throwaway ending. To my mind this is a work of ideal proportion, almost entirely untroubled, uplifting and aesthetically beautiful. Not words that, for all his genius, one would always apply to Beethoven. Tonight’s three works, from very different periods in Beethoven’s life, could not be more different and are all, on their own terms, masterpieces.


Copyright Dan Tong 2014