Exploring Beethoven’s Quartets: Peter Hill writes about Op.18:1, Op.29 and Op.132

PeterhillpicOne of the leading British pianists of his generation Peter Hill is known for his performances and recordings of twentieth-century and contemporary music as well as of the classical repertoire. His complete cycles of Messiaen and of Berg, Schoenberg and Webern have received superlative acclaim. Peter Hill has published writings on musical performance, a book on Stravinsky (Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring, CUP) and three books on Messiaen, among them a ground-breaking biography (Messiaen, Yale) which was awarded the Dusmesnil Prize by the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Paris. As well as recitals Peter Hill gives lectures and masterclasses around the world. He holds an honorary professorship at Sheffield University and is a Fellow of the Royal Northern College of Music.


String Quartet in F major, Op. 18 No. 1

Allegro con brio
Adagio affetuoso ed appassionato
Scherzo: Allegro molto

The qualities that make Beethoven’s late works so extraordinary can often cause us to underrate his earlier music; but if Beethoven, in despair at encroaching deafness, had ceased composing after 1800, he would surely still be remembered as one of the greatest composers of the 18th century. Beethoven approached writing for string quartet with circumspection, aware no doubt of the magnificent quartets by Mozart and Haydn that were known and circulating in Vienna. He was 27 when he embarked on his first compositions for string quartet, by coincidence the same age as Mozart when he began (in 1782) the set of six quartets dedicated to Haydn. Beethoven already had a superb corpus works behind him, including most recently the string trios Op. 9, the three pianos sonatas Op. 10, the Sonata Pathétique Op. 13, and the violin and piano sonatas Op. 12. The suggestion for a quartet was first made to Beethoven in 1795 by Count Apponyi, the dedicatee of Haydn’s quartets Op.71 and 74, but it was to be three years before Beethoven took up the challenge, in the autumn of 1798. The six quartets published as his Op. 18 were to occupy him intensively until the summer of 1800, and were the product of painstaking care. The quartet in F major was among three performed in 1799, but was considerably revised, as is shown by a letter from Beethoven to his friend Karl Amenda written in July 1801, asking him not to lend anyone his copy of the quartet ‘because I have greatly changed it, having just learned how to write quartets properly’.

The F major quartet was the second of the set to be composed, after the D major (Op. 18 No. 3), and placed first in the published set no doubt because it was the most impressive in terms of size and expressive range, and perhaps also because it is the only one to have a slow movement in a minor key. The opening of the first movement bristles with the suppressed energy and explosive contrasts we expect from early Beethoven, while the music’s continuity arises from the perpetual transformation of ideas, in particular the opening motif with its characteristic turn. The slow movement, in D minor, is a tragic operatic scene on the grandest scale inspired as (Beethoven told Amenda) by the tomb scene from Romeo and Juliet. The return of the main melody is given heightened drama by sudden changes of dynamic, and in the coda by the coloratura embellishments of the first violin. The Scherzo is a sturdy dance twitching with humorous effects. The Trio opens by hammering out a rhythm whose four-bar phrase length underpins the swirling scales that follow on the first violin, with a sudden swerve to D flat leading the music into minor tonalities. The finale is Beethoven at his most effervescent, with a skittish opening tune that contrasts with the spiky second theme. First heard against legato undulations on the cello, this second theme is shared in imitation between the violins, and in the development becomes a contrapuntal passage in fugato style; this alternates with a gentler episode which later combines with the first theme to begin the final build-up.


String Quintet in C major, Op. 29

Allegro moderato
Adagio molto espressivo
Scherzo: Allegro
Finale: Presto – Andante con moto e scherzoso

The String Quintet Op. 29 follows Mozart’s example by adding a second viola to the string quartet line up, rather than the additional cello used by Schubert. Composed in 1801 only a year after the completion of the Op. 18 quartets, already the Quintet has a new brilliance of scoring and breadth of conception that look forward to the three Razumovsky quartets of 1806–7.

In the opening Allegro moderato this spaciousness is reflected in the cantabile main theme, exploiting the sonorous possibilities provided by the extra instrument as the theme is rescored at its first repetition. Another possibility is revealed by the second theme (unusually in A major rather than the expected dominant key of G) with the melody first lightly scored, then imitated by the lower instruments. The Adagio molto espressivo is similarly expansive, its Italianate melodies richly ornamented, and coloured and re-coloured by imaginative scoring (the pizzicato chording for the second violin, for example, at the reprise of the main theme).

The Scherzo develops a three-note arpeggio motif from the second bar, at first playfully, later with leaping energy over an emphatic drone bass. The Trio is more relaxed, with a billowing rising arpeggio as its theme; in the second half the tonality swerves from F to D flat, with an insistent unison ostinato pinned by further drone harmonies in the second viola. The Presto finale has acquired the nickname ‘The Storm’ on account of its tensely dramatic tremolos and flickering, disjointed theme. As in previous movements C major is balanced by remoter keys, with A flat for the second theme, charmingly naïve and again somewhat rustic. Even more surprising is the interruption of the storm by a minuet in exaggeratedly whimsical style, first in A, later in C, before a final tonal twist sees Beethoven beginning the sprint to the line with a swerve to A flat, the key of the second theme.


String Quartet in A minor, Op. 132

Assai sostenuto – Allegro
Allegro ma non tanto
Molto adagio (‘A Convalescent’s Song of Thanksgiving to the Deity, in the Lydian Mode’)
Alla Marcia, assai vivace – Più allegro
Allegro appassionato – Presto

The A minor is the second of the three quartets commissioned by Prince Nicholas Galitzin, and was composed during the first half of 1825. The celebrated third movement was written at Baden where Beethoven was recuperating from a serious intestinal inflammation. An early hearing of the work was attended by the British composer and conductor Sir George Smart, who recorded that despite his deafness Beethoven took charge of the rehearsal: ‘A staccato passage not being expressed to the satisfaction of his eye … he seized Holz’s violin and played the passage a quarter of a tone too flat … All paid him the greatest attention.’ Smart also heard Beethoven improvise at the piano ‘in a most extraordinary manner, sometimes very fortissimo, but full of genius … He can hear a little if you halloo quite close to his left ear.’

In the first movement an important role is played by the four-note ‘motto’ which links this work with the quartets in B flat (Op. 130) and C sharp minor (Op. 131), indicating the possibility that the three works were conceived as a trilogy. The motto – with symmetrical pairs of semitones, one rising the other falling – has a precedent in Bach’s G minor fugue from Book One of The Well-Tempered Clavier, which Beethoven is reputed to have performed in its entirety by the age of eleven. The motto is heard in the mysterious introduction, swept away by the impassioned cadenza, which leads into the strangely agitated main theme, underpinned by the motto in long notes passed between the accompanying instruments in the manner of a cantus firmus. The central development varies and deepens the relationship between theme and motto, before a double recapitulation, with the theme and contrasting second subject heard in E minor and C major respectively, then balanced by a return to the tonic key. The main theme undergoes a final transformation, with the motto dispersed starkly through the texture – F (cello), E (viola), G sharp (second violin), A (cello) – initiating a powerfully scored coda that seems to hover between desperation and defiance.

If the first movement takes its cue from Bach, the second is a distant echo of Mozart A major Quartet, K464, a work that Beethoven is known to have admired and studied, and which had already influenced the A major quartet, Op. 18 No. 5. The music is somewhere between scherzo and minuet, uneasy in its elegance and obsessive interplay of motif. The Trio is a different kind of dance, an evocation of folk fiddling, at first over a glassy open-string drone, then with the melody broken up over spiky chords, with the changes of harmony tugging at our sense of the barline, so that upbeats become downbeats.

The Molto adagio is like all the great slow movements of Beethoven’s last years a journey of exploration and revelation. The opening resembles a choral prelude, with garlands of counterpoint framing the hymn-like melody, the chording enriched by the available open strings, while Beethoven’s strict adherence to the Lydian mode (F major with a B natural instead of B flat in the scale) entails an irresistible pull away from the tonic key. The section marked ‘Feeling new strength’ is a contrast at every level, a Handel-like minuet gleaming with vitality, and embellished with trills, spiccato runs, skips and syncopations. The first stage of development, at the return of the opening tempo, is to dissolve the austerities of the movement’s opening, the hymn an octave higher, a descant to the fluid weaving of counterpoints. After a reprise of the second section, this time even more richly jewelled, the movement’s final development – in one of Beethoven’s most visionary inspirations – is to reconcile counterpoint and choral. A first attempt leads to a cadence in D, a ghostly echo of the tonality of the ‘Neue Kraft’ music, before the hymn becomes a cantus firmus in the lowest register of the cello, and a climax of shattering power ensues, from which the music recedes via fragmentary reminiscences to its ethereal conclusion.

The vision is abruptly dispelled in a swaggering little march, almost shocking in its self assurance, followed immediately by a melodramatic recitative. Both are stepping-stones to addressing, in the finale, the questions left by the anguished end to the first movement. As the first violin approaches the cadence its line dwells on the paired semitones of the motto, G sharp–A and F–E, the latter taken up by the second violin as part of the insistent accompaniment to the theme of the finale. The restless melody has affinities with the moto perpetuo finale of the D minor piano sonata (Op. 31 No. 2), and before that the last movement of Mozart’s A minor piano sonata K310, in the way it generates its own ceaseless momentum; Beethoven’s sketchbooks show that it was originally intended for the Ninth Symphony. Finally, the motto recurs in another guise in a mysterious passage of counterpoint that leads to a climactic resumption of the theme, in an agitated presto, with the cello in its highest register, before the tonality suddenly melts into the major, and an extended coda, both lyrical and dance-like, that miraculously transforms as it resolves.


Copyright Peter Hill 2013