Exploring Beethoven’s Quartets: Misha Donat writes about Op.18:2, Op.127 and Op.59:1

Misha2Misha Donat was a senior music producer at BBC Radio 3 for more than 25 years. He now works as a freelance writer, lecturer and producer, and in recent years has been producing recordings for the Philharmonia Orchestra.  Projects in progress include a Mahler cycle with Lorin Maazel. Misha has written many CD booklets, and he provides programme notes on a regular basis for the Edinburgh Festival, the Aldeburgh Festival, Wigmore Hall, Royal Festival Hall and other venues. He is currently contributing to a new critical edition of the Beethoven piano sonatas edited by Jonathan Del Mar, published by Bärenreiter.



Adagio cantabile – Allegro – Tempo I
Scherzo. Allegro
Allegro molto quasi presto

No series of works by Beethoven better epitomises what we think of as his ‘early’, ‘middle’ and ‘late’ periods than the string quartets, and this evening’s programme contains a representative example from each. The labels are convenient, but the divisions are by no means clear-cut, and the epithet of ‘early’ as applied to the composer’s first set of quartets, Op.18, is in itself misleading. Beethoven was in his thirtieth year when he completed it, and he already had an impressive tally of works to his name. They included nearly a dozen piano sonatas, two cello sonatas, three violin sonatas, three piano trios, and no fewer than five string trios. Beethovens hesitation in approaching the medium of the string quartet reflects his awareness of the rich legacy of Haydn and Mozart. His still sadly neglected string trios were his means of dipping a toe into string quartet waters without invoking direct comparison with his great predecessors.

The familiar numbering of Beethoven’s Op.18 quartets does not reflect their true chronology, and the G major quartet being performed this evening was probably the third in order of composition. As with the F major first work in the series, Beethoven revised it thoroughly before allowing it to be published. One of the most far-reaching changes he made was to tighten the structure of its slow movement, from a five-part form with two contrasting episodes to a simple ternary design. Significantly, the nature of the central section was also altered, to form a miniature scherzo within the ornate surrounding material. The resulting fusion of serene slow movement and lively scherzo was an idea Beethoven had already tried in one of his string trios (the Serenade Op.8). In the quartet, the scherzo episode takes its point of departure from the unassuming phrase with which the ornate Adagio opening section comes to a close.

The key of G major was one that Beethoven chose for some of his wittiest works, and the Quartet Op.18 No.2 is no exception. Even the inclusion of the scherzo-like episode in its second movement didn’t prevent him from following the piece with an actual scherzo, rather than a more relaxed minuet; or from casting the finale in the character of a high-spirited ‘Allegro molto’. The finale’s humour is embodied in its strikingly unconventional beginning, where the phrases of the main theme alternate between the solo cello and the full quartet. At the end of the movement’s first stage Beethoven subverts the expected repeat with a startling switch of key, and the sudden change in harmonic direction casts its shadow over the entire first half of the central development section. When the principal subject makes a return, it does so in a bright C major, before Beethoven - as though anxious to announce that he is in the ‘wrong’ key - makes exaggeratedly emphatic preparations for the actual recapitulation. At the crucial moment, however, the music takes a side-step into another distant key, before the genuine recapitulation is at last allowed to set in.



Maestoso – Allegro
Adagio ma non troppo e molto cantabile
Scherzando vivace – Presto


In November 1822 Beethoven received a commission to compose “one, two or three new quartets”, from Prince Nikolas Galitzin, an important artistic patron in St Petersburg and a passionate admirer of his music. Beethoven promised to have the first quartet ready by the following March, at the latest; but he had reckoned without the amount of work he still had to do on his Missa solemnis and the Ninth Symphony, and in the event he didn’t turn his attention to Galitzin’s series of quartets until the second half of 1824. Perhaps he was prompted to do so by the fact that it was Galitzin who organised the first complete performance of the Missa solemnis, which took place in St Petersburg on 18 April of that year. During the remaining four years of his life Beethoven concentrated exclusively on the string quartet, producing not just three new works, but five. (Prince Galitzin’s series was followed by two uncommissioned quartets, Opp.131 & 135.)

Among Beethoven’s late string quartets the first work in the series, Op.127, and the last, Op.135, are alone in being cast in a traditional four-movement mould. Beethoven had, however, contemplated a more extended plan for Op.127. His sketches show that it was at one stage to have included a piece called ‘La Gaîté’ as its second movement; and that the finale was to have been preceded by a slow introduction beginning in the distant key of E major. Remarkably enough, it was the light-hearted theme of the ‘Gaîté’ movement, initially conceived in the form of a high-lying cello part, that Beethoven transformed into the sublime variation theme of the work’s slow movement.

With the single exception of Op.130, all of Beethoven’s late string quartets have a slow movement in the form of a serene set of variations. In Op.127 the variation-theme itself is shared between first violin and cello – a layout Beethoven maintains at the start of the first variation. The second variation, in a more flowing tempo, is an ornate dialogue between the two violins, while the third, in a radiant E major, is at once more tranquil and more condensed - the music now singing with greater breadth (its stillness thrown into relief by the motion of the preceding variation), but the melody shorn of its quasi-repeats. As this variation draws to a close, the music sinks back into its original key and metre for a further full variation, after which the piece progresses in a single arc, suspended for a moment only by the passing shadow of a fragmentary variation in the minor, to its close.

The scherzo begins with a flourish tapped out by the pizzicato strings. Its scoring is as rich as that of the opening movement’s initial chords, though the effect of this toy fanfare could hardly be more different. The scherzo is almost entirely built out of the two tiny ideas presented at the outset by the cello - a jagged four-note motif, and a smooth phrase of three notes incorporating a trill – which appear in every conceivable combination during the course of the piece. The trio is an agitated minore which threatens to make a comeback following the reprise of the scherzo, before it is abruptly cut off. The scheme is similar to the one Beethoven had used in the scherzo of his Ninth Symphony, and both pieces play on the listener’s expectations of encountering the expanded scherzo form he had used so often during the preceding decade, in which the trio was played twice in full, between three statements of the scherzo.

Like the first movement, with its imperious opening chords (they recur twice more during the course of the piece, each time in a different key, and a scoring more sonorous than the last), the finale begins with a form of introduction – a dramatic gesture given out in octaves by all four players, and winding its way downwards to dissolve into the movement’s main theme. But perhaps the most startling event in the piece is its coda, in which the music undergoes a rhythmic transformation. Not only does the coda begin in a sustained pianissimo, and in a translucent C major, but the music’s pulse also slows at precisely the point where we might have expected it to increase. However, the more relaxed tempo allows Beethoven to write notes of smaller value, and the effect is one of quiet scurrying out of which the transformed rondo theme eventually emerges in a resplendent fortissimo.



Allegretto vivace e sempre scherzando
Adagio molto e mesto –
Thème russe. Allegro


Beethoven’s three quartets Op.59, composed in 1806, have become inseparably linked with the name of Count Andreas Kirillovich Razumovsky - the Russian ambassador in Vienna, as well as one of the city’s foremost musical patrons. It was in homage to Razumovsky that Beethoven introduced a Russian folk tune into the first two of his Op.59 Quartets, albeit treating those tunes with a wilful disregard for their original character. Only six years separate the Razumovsky Quartets from Beethoven’s first set of string quartets, Op.18, but in that time his style had changed almost beyond recognition. Not only did the new quartets’ technical demands place them well beyond the reach of amateur players, but the breadth of their canvas was such that it had been exceeded among Beethoven’s instrumental works only by the Eroica Symphony. Not surprisingly, of the three quartets only the more classically-proportioned C major last work was at all favourably received by Beethoven’s contemporaries.

The unusual scope of the Razumovsky Quartets makes itself felt at the very outset of the first work, with its long cello melody unfolding beneath an obstinately unchanging, and largely dissonant, accompaniment that delays any firm establishing of the home key of F major for some twenty bars. It is a beginning that breathes an air of expansiveness, while at the same time unleashing a sense of tension that is not resolved until the movement’s closing pages. The length of the piece is actually reduced by the lack of the traditional exposition repeat, whose omission is highlighted through an implied repeat, in the shape of a reprise of the movement’s opening bars, as though the first stage were indeed about to be heard again in full, before the music instead strikes out along new paths, and the central development gets under way.

Following the scherzo-like second movement - a kaleidoscopic juxtaposition of contrasting material – the slow movement, in the minor, presents one of Beethoven’s great tragic pieces. Its pervasive atmosphere of grief is enhanced by the retention of the minor for its second subject, and the movement’s heading includes the word mesto (sad) - an indication we might more readily associate with the melancholy side of Chopin and Tchaikovsky. Beethoven had, however, used it on one earlier occasion: the slow movement of the Piano Sonata Op.10 No.3.

An elaborate violin cadenza provides a link to the finale, with its Russian main theme. Like the opening subject of the first movement, the theme is given out by the cello beneath a harmonically static accompaniment - in this case, no more than a violin trill. Shortly before the end of the work the Russian tune is momentarily heard in a tempo more in keeping with its original melancholy character, before it is brushed aside with a gesture of impatience.


Copyright Misha Donat 2013