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Cavatina from String Quartet in B-flat, Op. 130

December 3, 2023: Brentano String Quartet; Antioch Chamber Ensemble

When Prince Nicholas Galitzin ordered “one, two, or three new quartets” from Beethoven in November 1822, he could hardly have realized that he was instigating a series of works by which all later generations would judge profundity. Though the prince may have sensed something new in the first of the quartets (E-flat major, op. 127) and might have raised an eyebrow when the second (A minor, op. 132) appeared with an “extra” march and recitative before the finale, he must have been astounded by the third (B-flat major, op. 130). Composed between August and November 1825 in its original version, the B-flat Quartet began with an outwardly normal first movement only to be followed by a suite of four shorter movements and capped by a fugue of incomprehensible scope and difficulty.

The prince pronounced himself pleased with the Quartets, but was only able to make one payment before going bankrupt and joining the army. Too late for Beethoven himself, but in the proper spirit, a son of Galitzin paid with interest what was owed into the Beethoven estate. The ever-faithful Schuppanzigh Quartet premiered the B-flat Quartet on March 21, 1826. Despite clamorous applause for other movements, the colossal fugue met with some resistance and the usually headstrong Beethoven was somehow persuaded to detach it and compose another concluding movement. Eventually, however, performances proliferated with the original ending—or sometimes both.

The fifth movement, Cavatina, one of Beethoven’s most introspective and eloquent pieces, borrows its title from the term for an operatic aria. The emotional force of this “prayer” never failed to touch the composer himself. His friend, violinist Karl Holz reported that “the Cavatina was composed amid tears of grief; never had [Beethoven’s] music reached such a pitch of expressiveness, and the very memory of this piece used to bring tears to his eyes.” In an outwardly simple three-part form, the movement climaxes with the heartrending sobs of the first violin—Beethoven marks these “beklemmt” (oppressed, fearful)—before the condensed reprise of the opening. The emotional impact that Holz reported is so widely recognized that the movement is often played as a memorial tribute. 

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