A fantastic look at why the Op. 131 quartet is so great, by UCLA professor Robert Winter – click here to listen.
This week and next, we’re taking on Beethoven’s Quartet No. 14 in C-sharp minor, op. 131. This seven movement quartet – played without pause from beginning to end – is thought to be Beethoven’s own favorite quartet, and it was performed for Schubert (at his request) on his deathbed. It’s a work that demands so much of an ensemble, and starting the slow, melancholy fugue that begins the work is much like being strapped into an inexorable amusement park ride – once you start, you can’t stop. Not until you reach the double bar at the end.
Many performers think that the op. 131 quartet is Beethoven’s greatest composition for string quartet (as did Richard Wagner). I’m not going to dispute that assertion. It is clearly his most experimental and fantastic quartet (he wrote that it had “less lack of imagination than before”). Understatement of the year, by Herr Beethoven! There are many reasons for this admiration and respect, and I’ll share some of mine here.
Emotional range. This quartet starts with a slow fugue that has as its subject a musical motive that might be best described as despairing. It bravely tries to rise by three notes, then heavily sags down in defeat. It has all the intellectual rigor you’d expect of a fugue, but none of that matters. The air of sadness pervades the movement. It’s immediately followed by the first of two scherzos in the quartet, and it couldn’t be any more different, cleverly set up by a unison C-sharp that evaporates into the a most effervescent D major. The massive set of variations that makes up the third movement encompass an entire world of emotion in its pages. Perhaps most stunningly, the final movement takes us from C-sharp minor to C-sharp major, with a breathtaking coda that somehow manages to convey triumph, resignation, and fierce defiance all at once – while still bringing back the basic materials of the fugue that opened the quartet over 30 minutes earlier. Amazing!
Difficulty. This is one of the supreme tests of a string quartet. Intonation is tested by the keys which allow very little use of open strings, and so provide little resonance to the harmonies. Part writing is intricate and constantly shifting – no one plays an entire melody in the piece, melodies start in one instrument and end in another, often passing through several instruments in succession before their conclusion. There are, as in many of Beethoven’s compositions for strings, many passages which just don’t work well for the instruments. Beethoven says: Too bad!
Risk and reward. It pays to try to take things to their utmost with this quartet. The quality of sound shouldn’t be sacrificed, but passages like the beginning of the last movement should just rage like a wild animal. It’s that pitting of elegance against brutality that really gets to the heart of what Beethoven is playing with in his last compositions. It went on to profoundly influence Shostakovich (who wrote 15 quartets of his own) and Bartók, to name just a few.
Please join us at the University of Portland Mago Hunt Recital Hall on Wednesday, November 2 at 12:30 pm for our free concert of Webern and Beethoven. [map]