Beethoven's 16 string quartets constitute a towering achievement that has inspired and intimidated composers for nearly two centuries. Compared to Haydn's 68 quartets and Mozart's 27, Beethoven's output was modest. Moreover, his production was sporadic, usually being prompted by commissions from aristocratic friends. Regardless of who was paying the piper, however, he showed little inclination to let either his benefactors or the Viennese public call the tune. Despite their lucid Classicism, one contemporary described the six Op. 18 quartets of 1798-1800 as "very difficult to perform and not at all popular." The increasingly contrapuntal style of Beethoven's middle-period quartets elicited similarly ambivalent reactions. Most challenging of all were his last five quartets—opp. 127, 130, 131, 132, and 135—together with the orphaned finale known as the Große Fuge (Great Fugue), Op. 133. These knotty, inward-looking masterpieces stretch the formal and expressive language of the Classical string quartet almost to the breaking point.
In 1824, returning to the intimate chamber music medium that had occupied him so fruitfully at the outset of his career, Beethoven had come full circle. His renewed interest was sparked by a commission from Prince Nikolai Golitsïn, a cello-playing Russian nobleman in Vienna, for "one, two, or three new quartets" on exceptionally generous terms. Whether or not Beethoven made a conscious decision to devote his final years almost exclusively to string quartets, there is little doubt that he regarded these extraordinary creations as the capstone of his life's work. The language of the late quartets—with its radical discontinuities, far-flung tonal relationships, and bold reconfiguration of musical time and space—exerted a seminal influence on composers as diverse as Schumann, Bartók, and Shostakovich. How, and how much, Beethoven's deafness may have affected his music and outlook on life is a matter of conjecture. But an unmistakable thread of inwardness and stubborn willfulness unites the works on tonight's program.
Beethoven brought his Quartet in C-sharp Minor, Op. 131, to fruition in the first half of 1826, though he seems to have started work on it some months earlier. It followed hard on the heels of the Quartet in B-flat Major, Op. 130, whose weighty finale was eventually detached and published separately as the Große Fuge, Op. 133. One might almost say that the C-sharp-Minor Quartet, with its majestic fugal introduction, begins where its immediate predecessor left off. Beethoven is said to have regarded Op. 131 as his supreme achievement in the genre, yet in delivering the manuscript to his publisher, he joked that he had cobbled the quartet together "from pilferings from one thing and another." The score is dedicated to Baron Joseph von Stutterheim, the commander of the military regiment in which Beethoven's suicidal nephew Karl had recently found refuge.
The four-note motto that we hear at the beginning, migrating downward from one voice to another, bears a distinct family resemblance to the contrapuntal subject of the Große Fuge. The long-breathed fugue of Op. 131 unfolds in one extended paragraph, its aching intensity accentuated by the unusual choice of key. (Beethoven had used C-sharp minor only once before, in the "Moonlight" Piano Sonata.) After briefly coming to rest on a unison tonic, the players shift gears up a half-step, to D major, for the perky Allegro molto vivace in 6/8 time. Two emphatic chords herald the Allegro moderato, which turns out to be little more than a prelude to the quartet's centerpiece, marked Andante ma non troppo e molto cantabile (Not too slow, and very songlike).
Beethoven puts his genial A-major tune, with its characteristic off-beat pulse, through a series of dazzlingly ingenious variations. At times, indeed, the musical argument is so tightly packed that the theme disappears altogether, only to resurface at the end in the inner voices, where it provides a foundation for the first violin's dancing trills. After a quiet cadence—the only full stop in the entire quartetthe music races off in a skittering Presto, brimful of humor and surprises. Another short bridge, this time a languorous Adagio in G-sharp minor, brings us back to the home key. A terse, slashing up-and-down motif sets the pace for the concluding Allegro, which is characterized by further sharp contrasts of mood and tonal register.
The Quartet in B-flat Major, Op. 130, was the last of the three quartets that Beethoven wrote for Prince Golitsïn in 1825. Despite the chronology suggested by their opus numbers, it was composed after the Quartet in A Minor, Op. 132, with its majestic and deeply felt slow movement that Beethoven had offered as a "sacred song of thanksgiving from a convalescent to the divinity" upon recovering from a severe intestinal ailment. In fact, the most lighthearted of the Op. 130 Quartet's six movements—the lively "danza tedesca," or German dance—was originally earmarked for the A-Minor Quartet. It is also one of two movements—the other being the darkly urgent Presto—that Vienna's illustrious Schuppanzigh Quartet encored by popular demand at the first performance of the piece on March 21, 1826.
The version of the B-flat-Major Quartet heard on that occasion climaxed in a titanic fugue, analogous to the one Beethoven had placed at the tail end of his three Op. 59 quartets. The finale was designed as a counterweight to the quartet's first movement—a "serious and heavy-going" piece, in the composer's own estimation. Both adjectives apply in spades to the dense, closely argued, and somewhat enigmatic Große Fuge, which one bewildered reviewer confessed to finding as "incomprehensible as Chinese." When Beethoven's publisher complained that the fugue would scare off potential customers, he obligingly replaced it with a more conventional finale. The Große Fuge was subsequently issued as a freestanding opus, in versions for both string quartet and four-hand piano, with rehearsal letters inserted in the score, at the publisher's insistence, to keep unwary amateur players from losing their way amid the thickets of counterpoint.
The B-flat-Major Quartet begins with a slow, richly textured introduction. A flurry of 16th notes in the first violin seems to signal the start of a conventional sonata-form Allegro. But the bursts of almost manic energy are repeatedly interrupted, and that, together with the sharp contrasts of rhythm, dynamics, and tonality, gives the opening movement a decidedly mercurial character. The second-movement Presto, in rounded A-B-A form, similarly veers between extremes: The jaunty, triple-time midsection in B-flat major is sandwiched between statements of a nervous, tautly compressed tune in the parallel minor key. In the third movement, weaves an intricate tapestry of themes and motifs with a combination of elegance and whimsy.
The quartet's loosely structured, suite-like format continues with a slightly buffoonish German dance in G major. A series of swooning phrases in 3/8 meter, neatly apportioned into three groups of eight bars each, give way to smoothly interlocking roulades and a display of acrobatics by the first violin before returning at the end in fragmented form. The tender, ravishingly melodious Cavatina, bathed in the warming glow of E-flat major, serves as a prelude to the final movement.
The uncompromising intensity and exceptional length (741 measures) of the quartet's original finale make heavy demands on the listener, though the Große Fuge is unlikely to faze anyone who knows the quartets of Schoenberg or Bartók. The subject of the fugue—a sequence of half-steps separated by wide leaps—is both simple and, once heard, impossible to miss. The four players present it in unison at the beginning, with dramatic accents and pauses. A quiet interlude of a more searching character leads to the fugue proper, which breaks out at a gallop in jagged, energetic rhythms. "Partly free, partly in strict counterpoint," as Beethoven indicates in the score, the fugue is divided into clearly defined sections of varied textures, meters, and tonalities. As in any fugue, part of the fun is listening for the theme as it darts in and out of the tightly knit musical fabric, like a golden thread.