We hope you enjoy this celebration of the 250th Anniversary of one of civilization's most inspiring champions.
"There have been thousands of princes and will be thousands more; there is only one Beethoven!" - Ludwig van Beethoven
Friends of the Opus 76 Quartet
Whilst entering the Cathedral and finding your seat. Once seated, you may remove it, but must put it on when moving around.
Beethoven op.18 no. 1 will start at 8.00.
The first interval will be at 8.30
Beethoven op.74 will start at 8.40
The second interval will be at 9.10
Beethoven op.133 will start at 9.20.
Performers will be available after the concert should you wish to speak to them. This will take place outside of the Cathedral. When the concert ends, please leave swiftly to allow the cleaning staff to sanitize the Cathedral.
Quartet in F, Op. 18/1
Beethoven’s string quartets are traditionally grouped by their appearance during three general eras in the composer’s musical life. Unlike the works from his middle and late epochs, the early quartets were published as one single opus number (grouping) in two volumes in 1801. Multiples of three works were a typical way to publish chamber music, diminishing over the course of the eighteenth century as each individual piece became more complex: the dozen works of a Handel or Corelli opus became Haydn and Mozart’s six, and Beethoven’s first publications had three. His Op. 18 was his only group of six large-scale works, probably precisely because chamber music aficionados would associate that number with the two previous Viennese masters. Mozart had died earlier the same decade (1791) that Beethoven began work on Op. 18, and Haydn was wrapping up his career as a quartet composer, though he continued with other genres. The model of those two composers, and more particularly specific works by them is well acknowledged, but it’s important to notice that no complete movement of Op. 18 could stylistically have been written by either Haydn or Mozart. These are Beethoven’s quartets, not imitations of his predecessors.
The first quartet went through numerous revisions, with Beethoven as usual refining the signature motive of the first movement to allow it the greatest possibility for expansion. It’s through this piece that the name of Karl Amenda is immortalized. Beethoven’s closest friend for the year the former spent in Vienna, he was a Lutheran theology graduate and violinist. His credentials include being employed by Prince Lobkowitz, the resident Czech nobleman who had an entire orchestra on call, as well as the widow of Mozart to teach her children. Beethoven and Amenda planned a journey to Italy, but the death of Amenda’s brother forced him back to his native Latvia. Beethoven presented him the F major quartet with this inscription:
Take this quartet as a small memento of our friendship, (and) whenever you play it recall the days which we passed together and the sincere affection felt for you then and which will always be felt by
your warm and true friend
Ludwig van Beethoven
Vienna, 1799, June 25
Through an anecdote we know the “program” behind the quartet’s second movement. Having played it to Amenda on the piano, Beethoven asked his opinion. "It pictured for me the parting of two lovers," said Amenda. "Good!" said Beethoven, "I thought of the scene in the burial vault of Romeo and Juliet." Certainly the movement’s dramatic outbursts reflect the despair of that climax to the Shakespeare play. A thespian reading of the music would come naturally to listeners in Beethoven’s Vienna, dominated as it was by theaters. Passages in all of his quartets have corollaries in monologues, interruptions, and other thespian devices.The Amenda story is also a testament to the extensive intermingling between professions and professionals in Vienna’s music world. Today it would be uncommon for a major composer to consult with anyone but another conservatory-trained musician or associate about a new work.
A genuinely funny scherzo follows- the word means joke after all- and a finale that is very much in the style of Beethoven’s earlier string trios. It is nonetheless telling that he never returned to trios, once he began quartets with their richer harmonic texture.
What Beethoven presented to Amenda was substantially different from the final version of Op. 18/1. We have both versions complete, and the later one is always performed as Beethoven warned Amenda by letter at the time of the 1801 publication: “Don’t let anyone see your quartet as I have greatly changed it, as only now do I know how to write quartets properly.” It is possible earlier versions of others from Op. 18 existed at one point too, for the manuscripts don’t survive. Beethoven’s statement is remarkable coming only two years after the first draft, showing how quickly he made the transformation separating excellence from greatness.
Quartet in Eb, Op. 74 “Harp”
1809 was a difficult year to be a resident of Vienna. Napoleon shelled and easily captured the under-defended walls, placing the city under occupation. A well-known story has Beethoven cowering in a cellar (variously belonging to his brother or a poet) trying to salvage what remained of his hearing during the bombardment.
Besides this quartet, the other great works in the key of Eb he wrote this year were related to the war: the “Farewell” piano sonata for the departure- one could even say flight- of his patron Archduke Rudolph, and the “Emperor” piano concerto, so named by a French officer and assigned the opus number just prior to the quartet.
There are no indications of such severe outward turmoil in the music, though it was written mostly after the siege. A French visitor noted the disorder bordering on outright squalor in which Beethoven was living, doubtless one of the reasons the composer was still at this point attempting to marry. The combination of his unpredictable working habits and hearing disability constantly interfered with an orderly household.
Beethoven intended at least one other string quartet, never finished, to be published along with this one. As it happened, Op. 74 became the first quartet of his to be released alone (1810), as was the case for all those to come. It is dedicated like the Op. 18 set to his patron and amateur violinist Prince Lobkowitz. The music’s mostly singing nature came only through the struggle of thirty pages of sketches. The first movement is the source of the eventual nickname “Harp,” which invites diverse reactions. Pizzicato (plucking) of bowed instruments is a common enough device, but has a special prominence in a few moments here. It sounds nothing like an actual harp, which Beethoven only rarely used. More notable is the flamboyant passage for first violin (the uncongenial key notwithstanding) toward the end of the movement, with a sublime duet for second violin and viola underneath.
The second movement resists easy categorization- is it a sentimental and relatively simple song without words, or the precursor to the searching soliloquies of the late quartets, or both? The scherzo leaves no doubt as to its kinship with the famous fifth symphony, both for its key (c minor) and rhythm. Its contrasting section changes the notation of the musical meter without altering the tempo, possibly either for humorous effect as a parody of a composer’s technical exercise, or psychological trick to make the players feel its urgency.
Many composers claimed Beethoven as their musical ancestor; we often forget his influence on Mendelssohn, who clearly loved this quartet and included echoes of it in his earlier Eb major chamber works for strings, including the octet and Op. 12. The final variations, however, look forward to Brahms’ last quartet and sonata.
Quartet in c#, Op. 131
Mozart might be said to be the first composer for whom specific musical keys evoked associated moods or characteristics. Beethoven continued that, and c# minor was a rare but inimitable choice for him in the “Moonlight” piano sonata and this quartet. Both pieces start with slow movements of deep melancholy. But the similarities end there.
Beethoven had just written the Grosse Fuge as the finale to Op. 130. His flow of ideas was too large for any one work, often leading to the same musical motives and processes eliding into the next one. So Op. 131 starts with a fugue, albeit very different from the Grosse Fuge, which is almost savagely aggressive at times. This fugue is more Bach-like, smoothly flowing but for the accents of emotional emphasis. It again focuses on a pair of half steps, the focal point of all the previous late quartets. More practically speaking, publishers had kept asking Beethoven for additional quartets, so it made sense to continue despite the fulfillment of his commission from Prince Galitzin.
Op. 131 occupied the first half of 1826, the last full year of Beethoven’s life. It proceeds through seven movements without pause, a design without parallel in his music. They have no even mildly descriptive titles unlike the two previous quartets. However, this quartet has been the subject of perhaps the most programmatic speculation of any, with writers in the late nineteenth to early twentieth century indulging in purple narratives of psychic states and internal landscapes. It was only in the twentieth century that Beethoven was held up as the patron saint of “abstract” music as opposed to Liszt and Wagner, who also claimed him as their spiritual ancestor. Wagner especially loved Op. 131. Famously, Beethoven called it his own favorite, though he was comically disparaging elsewhere, ascribing to it “less lack of imagination than before.”
Like most of the late quartets, the centerpiece of the c# minor is an extended slow movement in the form of variations, though most listeners would not recognize them as such. The scherzo contains probably the most memorable melodies, plus the special effect of sul ponticello, a glassy and usually undesirable sound produced by bowing close to the bridge. The quartet’s conclusion in major is, like the endings of Op. 132 and 133, fairly surprising and sudden. Even in the quick movements, we can hear Theodor Helm’s 1885 recognition of the late quartets as “wholly divorced from the outside world.”
Although Op. 131 was intended to be printed during Beethoven’s lifetime, it was delayed until summer 1827. Private performances of it include a deathbed reading for Franz Schubert in 1828 at his request, but a public concert record does not appear until 1835 in Vienna. The dedication was switched from friend and merchant J.N. Wolfmayer to a military officer who obtained a regimental place for Beethoven’s nephew Karl after the latter’s suicide attempt, otherwise a stigmatizing factor in Catholic Austria.
Copyright © 2017 Opus 76 LLC