Ludwig van Beethoven, 1770-1827
Its feels that Beethoven’s “Harp” quartet is somehow overlooked. A definite “middle period” work, it is followed quickly by the more innovative “Serioso” and then the late quartets, and it is preceded by the more landmark “Razumovsky” quartets of just a few years earlier. Even the earliest Op. 18 quartets appear more frequently on concert stages. Yet Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 10 in E-flat Major is a glorious work: full, rich and befitting the middle period character known as “Eroica.” Bountiful, beneficent, lavish and even sensuous, the “Harp” even features a dash of impressionistic pointillism with the first movement’s elegant pizzicato sections giving rise to the quartet’s historical nickname. Each of the four movements is a uniquely shaped touchstone of the multi-movement sonata form types and there is an overarching vector of momentum that joins these movements into a miraculous unity of purpose, design and expression. With its prevailing vitality, heart, invention and accessibility, one is almost tempted to call this Beethoven’s most “perfect” quartet. And yet, it is devilish to play.
The opening sonata form movement displays all of Beethoven’s artistic elaborations. For its long and dramatic introduction, it might be called Beethoven’s own “Dissonance” quartet. The main thematic materials are among his most mellifluous with long lines of counterpoint and dialog sharply contrasted with the harp-like pizzicato and Beethoven’s thunderous interruptions. The development section flows organically from the preceding materials and launches the music into a flight of heroic triumph that matches so much of Beethoven’s music from this period. And just as organically, a long rapturous coda evokes both symphony and violin concerto as a stunning movement artfully plays out its tremendous potential energy.
The slow movement showcases Beethoven’s unearthly sober sweetness as a humble tune somehow becomes a spiritual peak. The form is lovely with another direct pointer to Mozart: a hybrid of rondo, sonata and variations that would reappear in the late quartets with such magisterial mystery. A beautiful song verse repeats with ever elaborated counterpoint and dialog between contrasting episodes of poignant despair making a kind of single braid that holds both in perfect balance.
The Scherzo is brusque, sharp, muscular, stabbing. The tremendous momentum suggests a tarentella, a leaping gypsy dance, perhaps even something Russian. This is characteristic and crucial Beethoven that escalates with the trio as simple scale motives combine in staggering counterpoint to forge mountains of music thrusting upward with tectonic force. The sheer bounding inertia requires Beethoven (and the players) to apply the brakes quite skillfully to manage a nearly miraculous seamless segue into the finale.
While we might lament the absence of a fugue in such an elegant and satisfying quartet thus far, Beethoven opts for high Viennese hijinks to conclude the work, giving us something even better: a fine set of variations, yet another form in which Beethoven bulldozed the erstwhile classical style with his unbridled creative volcanism. It was George Bernard Shaw who remarked that Beethoven could make interesting music from bare sticks of themes and this may be one of the best examples. The series of variations can aptly be compared with the finest of Jazz solo pianists in that each new “chorus” is a miracle of invention and a transformation of mood and character. The theme is a full two-part binary form, a detail that can greatly guide your listening: the “second half” of each variation is where development and ingenuity accelerate every time. But the finest detail lies in Beethoven’s management of the overall shape of the movement. A handful of nearly manic, compressed final variations organically create a coda of perfectly conclusive effect. What’s not to love about the elusive “Harp” quartet?