String Quartet in F minor, op. 95, “Serioso”
March 26, 2017: Jerusalem String Quartet
Beethoven’s F minor String Quartet of 1810, the last of his “middle” quartets, is one of a select group of works for which he provided his own descriptive title—other famous instances being his Pathétique Sonata and Eroica and Pastoral Symphonies. He marked his manuscript “Quartett Serioso,” a curious mix of German and quasi-Italian, which apparently meant a work devoid of ostentation whose inner conflicts were expressed by pared-down harmonic, motivic, and formal structures. Unfortunately it could imply that his Harp Quartet, op. 74, written just a year before—and any of his other quartets for that matter—were not “serious,” though surely he meant it as a way to separate his quartet production apart from the proliferation of showy and less weighty quartets by other composers that had begun populating the concert scene.
On another front, the work’s “seriousness” has to do with his having written it without a commission because of a personal compulsion, and dedicating it to a friend, cello-player Nikolaus Zmeskall von Domanovecz, rather than to a highborn patron. This resonates with his late quartets, which, though instigated by a patron, ended up being composed out of sheer inner necessity. Beethoven had already begun using quartet-writing as the place for exploring his most forward-thinking ideas—which had led to such disappointing critical reception of his Razumovsky Quartets, op. 59—but now this testing ground took a turn toward privacy. He waited an unusually long time before having the Serioso Quartet performed and published.
The work received its first performance by the Schuppanzigh Quartet in May of 1814, for which occasion Beethoven apparently revised it. The Serioso was one of several pieces that Beethoven sold to publisher Anton Sigmund Steiner in 1815 in repayment of a debt. The debt must have been substantial because the batch also included the Opus 96 Violin Sonata, the Archduke Trio, the Seventh and Eighth Symphonies, and several smaller works.
A pivotal work, the Serioso takes a look back to the Razumovsky and Harp Quartets but just as clearly points to the late quartets, though it would be fourteen years before he took up the genre again. Concision and new harmonic relationships are paramount here, and often his compression of both boils down to single notes or pairs of notes.
The first movement’s dark, furious unison opening suddenly breaks off, followed by a leaping response characterized by dotted rhythms. The ensuing lyrical elaboration of the opening now pointedly highlights the remote Neapolitan harmony (based on the flatted second scale degree). A prominent pair of half steps in the lyrical passage sets up the somewhat unusual key of D-flat for the lovely second theme. Twice, once at the end of the second theme and once in the midst of the closing theme, explosive ascending scales and daring excursions to remote keys command our attention.
It stands to reason that in such a terse movement Beethoven would not repeat his exposition. Instead he shocks the listener again with a crashing major chord that seems to signal a development. Yet this turns out not to be a thorough “working-out” in the classical sense, rather a brief revisiting of the furious opening and the leaping dotted-rhythmic idea, followed by a suspenseful buildup. Beethoven then begins his drastically shortened recapitulation with the fortissimo unison of the transition to the second theme. A coda of the same length as the development balances out this remarkable rethinking of sonata form.
The Allegretto ma non troppo begins softly and mysteriously, with a melodic shape similar to the first movement’s opening. Any idea of relaxed, lyrical contrast becomes entangled in a wavering between major and minor and an increasing influx of chromaticism that peaks in the middle section’s fugue. This remarkable interior piece unfolds in two sections before the opening music returns in shortened form. Beethoven continues with a serene coda, but instead of ending peacefully makes a directs link to the ensuing tempestuous scherzo.
Beethoven asked that his third movement, a typical place for an irreverent scherzo, be played Allegro assai vivace ma serioso. Propulsive sections with an obsessive dotted rhythm alternate with two trio sections of more lyrical demeanor, which still transmit a restless sense with the first violin’s figurations and unusual harmonic juxtapositions of distantly related keys.
A truly slow, reflective introduction prefaces the agitated sonata-rondo finale. Compact once again, the movement features a dancelike but disquieting main theme that Beethoven varies ingeniously on every recurrence. Its last appearance comes to a halt on a hushed major chord that unleashes one of the most talked about endings ever. A lightening quick coda in the major mode rockets forth in unimaginable contrast to the rest of the movement and to the entire piece. In this Beethoven parallels his own Egmont Overture, written just months before, also in a serious F minor with an F major coda, but whereas that ending represents a hard-won victory corroborated by the story, here Beethoven seems simply to be letting go, albeit in breathtaking style.
© Jane Vial Jaffe