by Peter Cropper March 28th, 2011


Beethoven’s String Quartets

Today, Elias String Quartet launches a new website which invites its audience to share in its journey towards the complete cycle of Beethoven String Quartets.  To launch the site, the quartet asked Peter Cropper – with decades of experience of Beethoven String Quartets behind him as 1st violin of the Lindsay Quartet – to give his own an insight into the breadth of the Beethoven Quartets…

BEETHOVEN’S STRING QUARTETS are universally acknowledged as the most profound group of pieces in Western music. I played each quartet at least 200 times over thirty years and never tired  of them. There was always some new element that was uncovered in each performance. Quartets are a conversation between 4 players sometimes agreeing and sometimes arguing in the sense that we sometimes play the same tune together but we could equally barge in with another idea.

If you are not familiar with the quartet repertoire, then I suggest you first listen to one of the great Haydn quartets, Op.76 No,1 in G. Haydn was the ‘inventor’ of string quartets, [ his first really great ones Op.20 written in 1720] and the opening of this quartet gives you an insight in to the way the medium functions. After a call to attention the cellist asks the other three “What about this for an idea, would you like to play with me?” The others join in, in turn, with an appropriate response and the original idea is developed until  everyone is playing together. It is the journey of this development that makes this music so intriguing.

Haydn and Mozart were the two composers that established the string quartet and it is their legacy that Beethoven inherited. We know for instance that he copied out Mozart’s Quartet K.464 in A, in order to understand how quartets should be written. There were no music conservatories in those days. If you don’t know Mozart’s music well, I suggest you listen to the quartet K 575 in D. This has a very different sonority from previous quartets as each instrument is more soloistic,without losing the continuous sense of conversation and development of the themes between each of the players.

Beethoven is known as the greatest symphonist but it is very important to remember that if he had died at 31 like Schubert, he would only have published his first symphony plus his first two piano concertos. Everything else was chamber music including many piano sonatas, violin sonatas, cello sonatas and string trios. These last were very important to his future fluency in quartet wtiting. The five published between 1796 and 1798 are unjustly neglected as they contain some wonderful ideas and incredibly beautiful music. The first, Op.3 is like a dedication to Mozart as it is modelled on his great Divertimento in Eb K.563.

Beethoven waited until 1800 to publish his first six quartets together as Op. 18. These remarkable pieces represent the end of his first period . Beethoven’s compositions fit very neatly in to three periods the other two known as the middle and late. These early quartets are often overlooked due to the extraordinary music that is going to appear later. However one gets glimpses of the future in several of the movements. Each one has its own individual style revolving around Beethovens’s choice of key which can lead to brightness or tension or humour, even graciousness. The first, Op. 18 No 1 is the opposite of the Haydn I mentioned earlier in that it starts with a six note motif played in unison. It is then fragmented, as each instrument gives its own take on this motif. You never know who is going to play it next! In the slow movement, surely one of the most deeply felt movements from the 18th century, Beethoven tells us that he had in mind the vault scene from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.

The idea of having a programmatic background recurs again in the slow movements of Op. 59 No. 1 and Op.132 and the last movement of Op.135. I think it gives us great insight in to listening to all the other movements as for me Beethoven is always painting a vivid picture of either joy, anxiety, sadness, frustration, fear  or something humorous. Take the last two movements of Op. 18 No.6. In the Scherzo the listener has no idea what the rhythm is or even how many beats there are in a bar, but one is immediately aware of the conflict and fun between the performers. In the last movement titled ‘La Malinconia’, Beethoven tells the players that it must be played with the utmost delicacy. This sort of instruction is so unusual that we realise that he has found a sound world so totally strange, that he is worried that nobody will understand the emotional content. This is an early glimpse of the depth of feeling that Beethoven will share with us later on in his life.

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