by Peter Cropper March 28th, 2011

Beethoven’s String Quartets

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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