Ludwig van Beethoven, 1770-1827
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
. . .
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
T. S. Eliot
The Four Quartets, Little Gidding
The “late” quartets of Beethoven are also his final compositions. After all the revolutionary piano sonatas, the monumental symphonies including the apotheosis of the 9th, the opera, the Missa solemnis, the brilliant corpus of diverse chamber music and even tentative sketches for a 10th symphony, Beethoven occupied his last few years exclusively with the intimate and exacting genre of the string quartet. With the preceding five quartets Beethoven had already revolutionized this genre as well. Since then, well over a decade had passed including some of the most personally challenging years of his life. Since 1816, according to most accounts, Beethoven was completely deaf. He was now fifty-three years old with but three years left. November of 1822 brought a commission to write “one, two or three” quartets from Prince Nicholas Galitzin, an amateur cellist from St. Petersburg. By mid-1824, Beethoven began work in earnest ultimately finishing five quartets, in order, Op. 127, 132, 130 (including the Grosse Fuge), 131, 135 and the alternate ending for Op. 130. And that was all. With these final works, Beethoven created a fresh world of transcendent music that remains, in the minds and hearts of most, the unsurpassed pinnacle of Western classical chamber music. About the Grosse Fugue alone, Stravinsky famously remarked that it was the first piece of modern music, to remain eternally modern.
The String Quartet No. 15 in a minor, Op. 132 was the second of the late quartets to be written. Sketches indicate that Beethoven planned a four-movement design, but his focus was interrupted by a severe bout of debilitating illness. Upon recovering, he wrote a new movement of “thanksgiving” that became the centerpiece of a rearranged five-movement quartet. It was finished in July 1825 and premiered in the fall.
The quartet opens with something resembling a sonata though highly original in form like most of the late quartet movements. Four long notes in the cello intone an austere and immediately memorable motif made from two pairs of cramped semitones separated by a leap. The motif recurs sporadically throughout the movement in easily discernible permutations as a fateful signpost. (The permuted motif also recurs in the subsequent quartets Op. 130 and 131, binding three of the late quartets into a ponderous, haunting unity). A sudden flight in the violin lands on a second, equally memorable motif that sets the music in motion with a mournful, dark preoccupation in the minor home key. The music gradually shifts into the second key area introducing a third important subject that sings the only extended lyrical theme of the movement, a warm melody in a major key with the achingly human tonality of the lower strings (using a different solo voice with each reappearance). With an astonishing fluidity of changing textures, mercurial shifts and disruptions and a rich expanse of expression from the tragic to the sublime, the allegro pursues a powerful drama of darkness engulfing light with a force and ultimate supremacy that is shattering.
The second movement brings relief with the combined effects of key change to A major and the gentle sway of a triple meter at a moderate pace. A rather “light” and, for Beethoven, tame scherzo becomes a foil for a contrasting trio of ecstatic grace, a delicate celestial music box glinting with a filigree of precious gold. As musicologist Michael Steinberg aptly comments, this is “one of the moments at which Beethoven’s imagination for sonority and texture—the imagination, one is once again startled to remember, of a deaf man—is unsurpassed in freedom and freshness.” The juxtaposition of calculated but spontaneous simplicity with ferocious complexity in the late quartets is one of their chief hallmarks and surely one source of bewilderment for Beethoven’s contemporaries.
Perhaps initially most bewildering, yet ultimately the most sublime, is the vast centerpiece, the slow movement that Beethoven inscribed with a monumental dedication that Steinberg translates as “A Convalescent’s Holy Song of Thanksgiving to the Deity, in the Lydian Mode.” The greatest writers on the classical period stress that the mature quartets of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven each present as distinctive individuals. This is true as well of each individual movement of Beethoven’s late quartets, and among these masterpieces, one finds a few of the most singularly individual and hallowed movements throughout the entire literature (e.g. the Cavatina, the fugue that begins Op. 131, the Grosse Fuge, etc.). The lydian mode evokes the otherworldly sacred church modes of the Renaissance, and the hymn, the ancient song of praise to the deity. The music combines three instantly recognizable elements: a wisp of counterpoint, an austere hymn in four-part unison harmony, and a lightening strike of glittering virtuosity labeled in the score as “a feeling of new strength.” Along a timeline that eludes any mortal reckoning, the music undergoes a slow, organic transformation of heart-rending beauty that feels to be the very embodiment of life infused with divinity. As if sparked into primordial life by bolts of new strength, the tender green shoots of counterpoint grow into a rich lyrical vine embracing the cold stone of hymnody, ultimately blossoming into the most precious song you may ever hear.
Perhaps the shortest movement Beethoven ever wrote bridges this “song of thanksgiving” to the finale. As if from necessity to make us earth-bound again, a bold, proud march heralds the arrival of worldly poise, but once scarcely begun, it frays into a cloud of suspense rent by a passionately urgent recitative from the first violin: something else is coming. Without pause—attaca—the surging finale is upon us, a forceful allegro appassionato reasserting the dark cast of the quartet with the turbulent swirl of the sea. Besides the restoration of A minor, a brisk tempo and a driving 3/4 meter, the sweep of the finale owes much to the ingeniously restless figurations of the cello that rasp relentlessly up and down in choppy chromatic waves that never quite resolve. The cello commands an important role throughout. Threading the episodes comprising this loose rondo form, Beethoven weaves some of his most bold transitions and challenging digressions, a nearly frantic struggle against the tide. As was many times his wont, in the coda, the headlong rush swiftly sheds its gravity to effervesce around the surprising arrival of a major key, a wink, a smile, a sprightly triumph in bold strokes of joy.
© Kai Christiansen and Music at Kohl Mansion.