String Quartet in C# minor, Op. 131

April 8, 2018: Danish String Quartet

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. Beethoven had not forgotten the quartet medium in the twelve years since the F minor Quartet, op. 95, but the commission gave him the impetus to turn sketches into finished works. Nevertheless, he could not concentrate on quartet writing until after completing the Missa solemnis, the Diabelli Variations, and the Ninth Symphony, so the project did not begin in earnest until mid-1824.

After composing the B-flat major Quartet, the third of Galitzin’s commission, Beethoven continued writing quartets—not for the prince, who never completed payment for the first three, but out of the inner necessity for expression. Thus he added the C-sharp minor Quartet, op. 131, in seven movements in 1825–26, followed by the F major, arriving at the five works known as the “late quartets.” It should be noted that, too late for Beethoven himself but in the proper spirit, a son of Galitzin paid with interest what was owed on his father’s three quartets into the Beethoven estate.

In May 1826 Beethoven offered the C-sharp minor Quartet to Schott for publication, receiving much more than he was to have received for each of the three “Galitzin” Quartets, but he did not live to see it in print. Nor did he witness a performance, which first took place publicly in 1835. The work did circulate in private performances, however, and it is fascinating to know that Schubert’s dying wish to hear the Quartet came to pass on November 14, 1828, just five days before the younger composer died.

The C-sharp minor Quartet abounds with original features and an otherworldliness that so aptly illustrate the private world of Beethoven’s late period. We have only to listen to the opening notes of the slow fugue that opens the work—a startlingly novel beginning—to realize that we are the privileged eavesdroppers to a bared musical soul. The brooding, contemplative mood immediately sets the movement apart from more customary brisk-paced fugues, and suggests a link with the C-sharp minor Fugue of Bach’s Well-tempered Clavier, which Beethoven had known since his youth. He takes his subject matter through numerous permutations and a wide range of keys, so that when he returns to the home key we experience a sense of recapitulation. Just prior comes a passage of ethereal beauty, in which the transparent texture highlights the two entwined violins followed by a duet between the viola and cello.

Beethoven planned for the entire Quartet to be played without pause, though he was induced by the publisher to put in “numbers,” which correspond to what have traditionally been called its seven movements. Many, however, have commented on the fact that some of these “movements” might better be viewed as introductions or transitions to what follows, so that the first movement serves as a very extended introduction to the second movement, the very brief “No. 3” makes a transition to the Andante variation, and following the scherzo, “No. 6” serves as the slow introduction to the finale. Thus we find a highly original, expanded conception of the traditional four-movement quartet scheme.

“No. 2” opens in a hush that is both gentle and merry, as if emerging from the shadow of the fugue. Here Beethoven turns to sonata style if not to form, since the movement contains no development section, and the mood is dancelike, much as one would find in a scherzo. Through a dramatic octave unison passage he brings about a brief but forceful climax that he immediately breaks into closing fragments. These impart little finality, however, and “No. 3,” like an opera recitative, prepares the next movement.

The central Andante movement consists of a simple lyrical theme and six variations that show an amazing array of textures. Beethoven’s extended coda begins like a seventh variation, but then rhapsodizes, trills, and recalls the main theme in innocent guise, all leading to a dramatic flourish that brings on the subdued conclusion.

The Presto scherzo begins impishly with the cello issuing a little invitation, only to be met with complete silence before the movement takes off. Beethoven’s two contrasting trio sections begin with playful two-note interchanges to which he adds a theme—marked piacevole (pleasing or amiable)—that is clearly related to the theme of the scherzo. He even begins his trio a third time—a joke he had also made in his Fourth and Seventh Symphonies—but abruptly shifts into an amazing coda that reduces trio elements to fragments before the scherzo theme gradually takes over. Even this return of the main theme throws us momentarily off guard because Beethoven asks for it to be played sul ponticello (on the bridge), producing a glassy, almost eerie sound. He exits this novel effect with a quick push to fortissimo (very loud) to end the movement.

The three somber notes that open the relatively brief Adagio plunge us back into the realm of tragedy, here played out in poignant melancholy before erupting in the outcry of the tempestuous finale. After a forceful chord, the finale alternates pregnant pauses with angry unison statements, then takes off at an energetic gallop. Though Beethoven introduces moments of quiet into the first theme area, he saves his main contrast for the second theme, which first makes a long descent, then leaps rapturously to three repeated notes. His development section introduces a new long-note foil for the galloping motive, and makes much of a fragment of the opening unison idea and the scalar descent from the second theme. Following a murmur that grows ever more intense, the recapitulation bursts on the scene with a number of ingenious alterations, chief among which is the expressive return of the second theme in a key far removed from the original. Beethoven’s full-length coda, as in many of his late works, takes us on yet another developmental journey, during which we hear the astounding use of the long notes from the development in powerful octaves. Though Beethoven turns to the major mode of the home key toward the very end, we find little of the victory such a turn signaled in earlier works—the foregoing sense of tragedy in this Quartet cannot be dispelled.

© Jane Vial Jaffe

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