String Quartet in E-flat major, Op. 127

January 4, 2015 – Emerson 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. He completed the present E-flat major Quartet in early 1825, the A minor, op. 132, that July, and the B-flat major, op. 130, in early 1826. The prince loved the Quartets, but was only able to make one payment before going bankrupt and joining the army.

Beethoven could not stop with three, however, and without commission but out of inner need for expression he added the C-sharp minor Quartet, op. 131, and the F major Quartet, op. 135, increasing the total by 1826 to the five works we know 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.

While pestering Beethoven in 1823 and 1824 about when he would receive his quartets, Galitzin was always quick to say he understood that genius couldn’t be rushed. Beethoven’s problem was not a lack of ideas, but his hectic life as a world-famous composer. He could not concentrate on quartet writing until after completing the Missa solemnis, the Diabelli Variations, and the Ninth Symphony. He finally began the E-flat major Quartet in May of 1824 and completed it the following February.

Beethoven wrote in a jovial manner to the members of the Schuppanzigh Quartet before the premiere exhorting each to “distinguish himself and to vie with his neighbor in excellence.” Unfortunately the players had only two weeks to rehearse, and the new style of this Quartet with its especially advanced independence among the parts led to a poor performance on March 6, 1825. Beethoven then offered to coach Joseph Böhm leading the same three players that had played with Schuppanzigh, but in his completely deaf state the composer could guide only by watching their fingers and bows move. Their two March 26 performances went only marginally better; Beethoven was pleased, but the critics and much of the audience objected to the work as “incomprehensible,” among other complaints reminiscent of the reception that typically greeted his most innovative works.

Opus 127’s majestic opening chords remind us of the grandeur that Beethoven associated with the key of E-flat major—which he had also used for his Eroica Symphony and Emperor Piano Concerto. Almost immediately, however, he shifts to a sweetly lyrical melody and then to a third more energetic idea before his first group of themes is complete. The initial majestic passage is both less and more than a traditional introduction—less in its length and more in its structural role, returning in keys that define the Romantic rather than Classic bent of this work. What is especially remarkable is that the music of this passage opens the development section not as an inciter of instability but in an important new key. Furthermore, its forceful final return occurs toward the end of the development section and not at the beginning of the recapitulation, which in effect disguises the onset of the recap—a new aim of the Romantics. The second movement unfolds as a set of richly expressive variations with a kind of ecstatic continuity that would have been unthinkable in the composer’s earlier periods. Before the theme has even concluded Beethoven begins varying it. This broadly proportioned movement harbors enough space for a marchlike variation, an animated dialogue between the two violins, and a cello and violin conversation, while still leaving the overall impression of a profound, solemn proceeding.

The main theme of the Scherzo injects rhythmic incisiveness and a bit of capriciousness into the work. Introduced by four curious pizzicato chords, this theme plays out primarily in a fugal texture, enlivened by frequent trills and seamless interpolations of chordal or unison passages. The trio is almost demonic in its drive, but occasional moments of harmonic relaxation keep it from utter seriousness. Toward the end of the movement Beethoven reintroduces the trio as if to invoke the extended scherzo-trio-scherzo-trio-scherzo form of several of his earlier works, but he breaks off abruptly, pauses, introduces a snippet of scherzo, then just as quickly calls a halt.

The Finale begins in dramatic unison before breaking out into a more lighthearted folklike theme. Several striking features belie the outward innocence of the movement: one is possibly the most remarkable “false reprise” in the repertory on account of its length, its key (subdominant), and the subtle alterations of the scoring. It sets up an ethereal “proper” recapitulation, which in turn prepares an exquisite, magical coda. Here, beginning with an extended trill, Beethoven spins an intricate web of figural patterns and harmonic shifts that bespeaks his visionary stance in this new phase of quartet writing.

© Jane Vial Jaffe

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