Borletti-Buitoni Trust
28 March 2011

Beethoven’s String Quartets

by Peter Cropper

In May 2011, Elias String Quartet launched a new website which invited 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.

The first quartet of his middle period, Op. 59 No.1, is as revolutionary as his ‘Eroica’ Symphony which was published three years earlier in 1803. He takes the quartet to undreamt of proportions just as he had also done in the symphony. It is twice as long as before and the orchestration is revolutionary. The opening cello solo would always have been higher than the accompaniment and the 1st violin has never played so much at the top of the violin particularly when the cello and viola are still playing on their lower strings. The Scherzo must have shocked the players and listeners. There is no tune just repeated notes like a drum! In the slow movement, Beethoven again tells us that he had in mind his brother’s grave under an Accacia tree but his brother was still alive! This is one of my favorite movements and I cannot remember many occasions when I wasn’t moved to tears, in performance, when the opening tune comes back with the repeated Cs [the bottom note] on the viola. In the slow movement of Op. 59. No.2 we are told that he was depicting the sky at night like a  planetarium. This again is another of his sublime slow movements. In the 3rd Razumowsky he is inspired once more by Mozart in his ‘Dissonance ‘ quartet K. 465. He of course goes one step further by not reaching the home key of C until 14 bars after the Andante introduction to the Allegro.

Op. 74 was nicknamed the “Harp” by players not Beethoven. What a fantastic idea though, to have plucked notes {pizzicati} running between the three lower instruments. I never cease to wonder how many different colours Beethoven demands and achieves from four string instruments. Op. 95 is the shortest quartet but the most angry piece of music that he wrote. The title ‘Serioso’ comes from his tempo marking of the third movement. It was another dozen years before he wrote another quartet,so we reach his late period.

Many people have written about Beethoven’s last five quartets much more eloquently that I could, so I want to share with you some feelings that I have experienced whilst performing them. I think the nearest I can describe the state of mind you have to be in, is a form of meditation. You need the same sort of concentration that you see just before an athlete achieves a phenomenal jump or a world breaking record. Apart from the last quartet, the start of each is like setting out to climb a mountain. Approximately 45 minutes of the greatest intensity with the occasional let up in the scherzando movements. All the slow movements fill me with tears, sometimes with the sheer beauty of the melody [opening of 2nd movement Op.127] or the Cavatina from Op. 130 in which Beethoven shares his love of mankind and all the joys and sorrows that that entails. He has this ability to let you see in to his soul. In the middle section of the Cavatina where he writes ‘beklemmt’ [which means opressed, only much more] above the music, he even manages to make the violin cry. The slow movement in Op.135 is just a scale down and back up, but the way he scores it and the chosen key makes it heart rending.  The first four notes in the cello opening of Op. 132 give us a clue about  the anguish Beethoven was portraying. Two notes squeezed together, then a sighing leap and two more notes squashed together. This four note sequence first appeared in Op.1 and throughout his lifetime but Op.130,131 and 132 are the culmination of this obsession.

To conclude I would say that these wonderful pieces are really symphonies in their own right, but they have the advantage of no conductor and each of the four players contributes their own response to Beethoven. It will be different each time but everyone must reply to each nuance that occurs in that particular performance. I have never had a closer friend in music than Beethoven. I feel him speaking to me. Nobody has ever shared more than he did with these masterpieces.

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