Exploring Beethoven’s Quartets: Jonathan Biss writes about op. 18:6, op. 59:2 and op. 135

JonathanBissmodPianist Jonathan Biss is established as an artist at the highest level in the USA and in Europe and appears on regular basis with orchestras such as the Boston Symphony, Chicago Symphony, New York Philharmonic, Philadelphia Orchestra and San Francisco Symphony orchestras. In Europe, he has appeared twice with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, with the London Symphony Orchestra, London Philharmonic Orchestra and the Budapest Festival Orchestra, Berlin Staatskapelle, Dresden Staatskapelle and Leipzig Gewandhaus. Jonathan Biss is a committed recitalist and chamber musician. He is a regular guest at Carnegie Hall and also plays in the major recital series in the US and in Europe.

Jonathan Biss now records for Onyx Classics and has embarked on a complete Beethoven Sonata cycle on disc. The first and second volume were both received with great warmth and the third volume will be released in January 2014. He has also recorded Schumann and Dvorak Piano Quintets with the Elias Quartet again for Onyx. Jonathan Biss previously recorded by EMI Classics with a fine discography of four award-winning recordings on this label. An alumni of the Curtis Institute, he joined the faculty in 2012. This season, Biss together with the Curtis Institute, have partnered with Coursera, the provider of online teaching courses, and created a free, online course which Biss taught on Beethoven’s piano sonatas. It was entitled “Exploring Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas” and the course ran from September-October 2013 and attracted more than 30,000 people. He has been recognised with numerous awards, including the 2002 Gilmore Young Artist Award, Lincoln Center’s Martin E. Segal Award, an Avery Fisher Career Grant and is a laureate of the Borletti-Buitoni Trust. He was the first American chosen to participate in the BBC’s New Generation Artist programme.

Jonathan has written two downloadable books, one on Beethoven and one on Schumann. His website is www.jonathanbiss.com.



Listening to a concert of Beethoven string quartets will invariably elicit a complex mix of emotions from me: awe, gratitude, a sense of profound fulfillment, jealousy. This last, most ungenerous one might embarrass me, but it is decidedly there: after all, given the amount of my life I have devoted to working on Beethoven’s piano sonatas, it is somewhat dispiriting to be reminded that he was the author of another body of music which delves even further into the unknown, which leaves even further behind the conventions of musical language, replacing them with a dialogue with infinity.

Not dialogue, actually, but…tetra-logue, is it? Therein lies the magic of the string quartet: it is music produced by four people. Four people who may operate as a unit, but who equally can bring their individual voices to bear. That is what is unique about the string quartet as an instrument: with some doing, it can achieve the same magnificent unity as a piano, whereas the piano can never really approximate the “bustling severalness” (to borrow the phrase of a viola-playing colleague) of the string quartet. It can be still and rollicking, harmonious and conflicted, sacred and profane. It can do everything Beethoven asks of it, and Beethoven asks everything of it.

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The three quartets on this program come from three distinct points in Beethoven’s life. The first and third represent his final thoughts from periods of concentration in the genre; the second is at the center of a trinity of masterpieces composed while he was writing other masterpieces in various other genres. While the language grows undeniably more advanced throughout the program, it would be a great pity if that led one to overlook the marvelous work that opens it: the B flat major, opus 18 number 6.

The boldness of the six quartets that comprise opus 18 has always amazed me: early in life, Beethoven already placed some of his greatest ambitions in a form that his teacher Haydn had not only invented, but taken to unimaginable heights. (That Beethoven wrote great piano concerti in the immediate post-Mozart era might seem similarly audacious, but in fact he wrote fewer in his whole lifetime than there are quartets in opus 18.) And while these works might be rather conventional in structure and general conception, they don’t sound a bit like Haydn – in fact, they don’t sound like anything but Beethoven. The opus 18 quartets resemble the piano sonatas of their era to a greater extent than can be said of the middle or late period works, where the concerns become so remarkably specific, not just genre to genre, but piece to piece. In these early works there is a consistent emphasis on virtuosity, of both compositional and instrumental varieties – Beethoven’s titanic personality was already fully-formed by the time he wrote his first quartets, but the desire to dazzle, to show all that he could do, is palpable in the music.

The “voice” of the 6th quartet is perhaps similar to that of the first five, but it looks to the future in a way that the others do not. (The 5th quartet of opus 18, in fact, is unusual among Beethoven’s works in that it even looks back – it takes Mozart’s quartet in the same key as a clear source of inspiration.) The first three movements, marvelous as they are, conform to the model Beethoven so often used in his early years: a first movement that is energetic to the point of rambunctiousness; a second which locates the intersection of elegance and eloquence; a scherzo of biting humor. Every bit of this is expertly handled and fully satisfying, but none of it really hints at what is still to come: a movement with a slow, solemn introduction – La Malinconia” – which reappears (or, rather, intrudes) later in the movement. This slow material makes the movement longer than any of the three that have preceded it, and turns it into a dialogue between introspection and high-spiritedness which is only resolved in the work’s whiz-bang final moments. Beethoven’s artistic evolution was multifaceted, obviously, but one of its main concerns was the overall shape and balance of the work. Early in life, Beethoven’s model was to give greater weight to the first and second movements, just as Haydn and Mozart did; the third and, when they existed, fourth movements provided a sense of release. By the end of his life, Beethoven had turned this model on its head, writing works that moved, inevitably and inexorably, towards a climactic final moment. (Opus 135, which concludes this program, is a typically spectacular example.) With the quartet opus 18 number 6, this evolution is underway.

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I don’t wish to add to more than a century’s worth of marginalization of Beethoven’s early period, but the truth is that nothing from opus 18 can truly prepare us for size and emotional scope of the three “Razumovsky” Quartets, opus 59. Each of the three is a miracle, and a novel: like so many of the other works from this unusually fertile period, these quartets are epic not only in their length but in their aims.

The epic nature of opus 59 number 2 is established with its first two chords: simultaneously a blow of fate and an unanswerable question, they set the work on its often dark and always riveting path. While I stand by the assertion that the sonatas and quartets of the early period are most alike, the second Razumovsky quartet has much in common with the famous Appassionata Sonata, written in the same year. The works share striking details – the immediate move to the neopolitan in their first movements, for example – but are aligned most meaningfully by the terseness that characterizes their outer movements, and above all, by their ever-present sense of terror. I prefer not to say that one or the other is the greater work, but the quartet’s range of expression is exponentially wider; in the Appassionata, that sense of terror dominates all else.

What Opus 59 number 2 has over the sonata, unequivocally, is its sublime slow movement – the longest Beethoven had written to that point, save for the Funeral March from the Eroica, and arguably as moving as anything he ever composed. In the midst of a work that is otherwise so remorseless, its principal qualities are tenderness and consolation – like so much of Beethoven’s greatest music, it is so lofty, yet so touching. The remarkable warmth of this music is not, however, what one usually associates with the slow movements of the middle period (with the violin concerto a notable exception). More often, they are greek tragedies, as in the fourth piano concerto and Eroica symphony; oases of calm in the midst of turmoil, like the Appasionata; or cries of pain, such as the great Adagio molto e mesto from the first Razumovsky. Opus 59 number 2 ends in remarkable fashion when its final movement, which initially seems somewhat joyous, rushes headlong towards hell, but it is that slow movement, so filled with longing yet so open-hearted, which lingers longest in the memory.

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Beethoven’s farewell to the piano came not with the final three sonatas, or with the Diabelli Variations, but with the Bagatelles, op. 126, which are as delightful as they are moving. Beethoven said farewell to the string quartet in a similar fashion: having written the overpowering series of masterworks that are the quartets opp. 127, 130, 131, and 132, he gives us a work that offers profundity shorn of any traces of monumentality. And 135 really is “farewell”: Beethoven had yet to write the final movement of opus 130, but that’s only because the work’s original finale, the Grosse Fuge proved a bridge too far for players and listeners of the time, and needed to be replaced. And while Beethoven never completed another work, he was sketching a string quintet when he died, which suggests that opus 135 was the work with which he wanted to leave the genre behind.

Opus 135, concise though it is, is many things at once. It is a summation and distillation of what Beethoven had achieved in 15 timeless masterworks – one remarkable passage in the slow movement virtually quotes the opening of Opus 127, while simultaneously evoking the beklemmt passage from Opus 130’s Cavatina. It is one of the first ever programmatic, or at least, literary pieces of music, its finale an essay on the question, “Muss es Sein?” and the inevitable reply, “Es Muss Sein!” Perhaps above all, it is a tribute to the past: With its mix of sly humor, raucousness, and religious beauty, it is, amazingly, the most Haydnesque of all of Beethoven’s quartets.

Yet it is still Beethoven, through and through. One moment, he is digging deep into the earth in the scherzo; the next, he is addressing the cosmos. It is perhaps Beethoven’s greatest gift that his transcendence makes him no less human.


Copyright Jonathan Biss 2014