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String Quartet in F, Op. 59, No. 1

April 8, 2018: Danish String Quartet

Beethoven composed his three Quartets, op. 59, in 1805–06 for the Russian ambassador in Vienna, Count Andreas Kyrilovich Razumovsky. The count was an excellent amateur violinist, who played second violin in his own house string quartet, except when Louis Sina stepped in so he could sit back and listen. His first violinist was the illustrious Ignaz Schuppanzigh, whom Beethoven had known since 1794 and who premiered many of the composer’s works.

The three Razumovsky Quartets represent an entirely different world than Beethoven’s six early Quartets, op. 18, published only four years before. In between he had written his never-mailed letter, the heartrending “Heiligenstädt Testament,” which dealt with the anguish of his deafness and solitude, and had composed such innovative new works as the Eroica Symphony, the Appassionata Piano Sonata, and the first version of his opera Fidelio. His radical new style, with its expanded sonata forms, epic themes, complexities, and individualities, met with hostility and derision from early performers and critics. “Perhaps no work of Beethoven’s,” wrote his famed early biographer Alexander Wheelock Thayer, “met a more discouraging reception from musicians than these now famous Quartets.”

The first movement of the present F major Razumovsky Quartet is remarkable for its lush expansiveness. This is already apparent in Beethoven’s first theme, which unfolds lyrically in the cello over pulsing repeated-note accompaniment, then is taken over by the first violin. The shift in register is something that he explores throughout the work and is one aspect, in addition to length, that gives such a spacious impression. Once this theme peaks, Beethoven instantly changes texture and introduces several new ideas before moving on to his new key area.

When the composer eventually launches what sounds like a repeat of the exposition, he suddenly shoots off in another direction, a grand deception clearly playing on the listener’s expectation of that repeat. A famous “first” in the annals of sonata-form, this “non-repeat” considerably alters the structure of the first movement by making it one long sweep and shifting a greater proportion of time and weight onto the development section. Beethoven takes full advantage of the space he created for development by indulging in contrasts of register, new figuration, tension-building, fugal writing, and a mysterious and enormous preparation for the onset of the recapitulation.

Beethoven labeled his second movement “Allegretto vivace e sempre scherzando” rather than calling it a scherzo outright, perhaps because he ingeniously adopts a full-fledged sonata form instead of the traditional scherzo-trio-scherzo or five-fold expansion of that form. Placed second rather than in the more typical third spot in the sequence of movements, this extraordinary scherzo ranks as Beethoven’s most original in form. Again, expansiveness is the ruling feature of the movement, which grows out of the distinctive repeated-note rhythmic pattern of the opening. This idea generates a remarkable number of miniature themes, which Beethoven treats in wonderfully airy “scherzando” textures.

The composer uses the relatively rare description “mesto” (mournful) in his performance direction for his slow movement, thereby acknowledging its tragic qualities. It was here in his sketches that he made the strange notation: “A weeping willow or acacia on my brother’s grave.” He may have been referring to his distress at his brother Caspar Carl’s marriage to Johanna Reiss, who was six months pregnant, or remembering another brother who died in infancy, but the main melody, featuring the first violin and then the cello in high register, is certainly an expressive lament. The movement closes with a florid cadenza for the first violin, in which the darkness seems to dissipate and which leads directly into the finale, a device Beethoven had explored in other middle-period works.

Beethoven incorporated a Russian theme into each of the first two Razumovsky Quartets, making an audible connection to his patron, though it is uncertain whether the idea and the choice of theme was Beethoven’s or the count’s. Here the cello merrily introduces the Russian theme while the violin is still trilling. We wonder what Count Razumovsky thought of Beethoven’s cheerful rendition of the originally soulful melody. The mood has definitely lightened here, though the scope is still grand—a full sonata form, complete with repeat of the exposition. Beethoven crowns the work with an imaginative coda in which he slows the Russian theme, imbuing it with mock sadness, only to sweep it away with his virtuosic final flourish

© Jane Vial Jaffe

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