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PROGRAM NOTES: TAKÁCS QUARTET

by Eric Bromberger

String Quartet in A Major, Opus 18, No. 5

LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN
Born December 16, 1770, Bonn
Died March 26, 1827, Vienna
Approximate Duration: 28 minutes

Beethoven’s first string quartets, a set of six written in Vienna during the years 1798-1800, inevitably show the influence of Haydn and Mozart, who had made the form a great one. Scholars have been unanimous in believing that the fifth quartet of Beethoven’s set had a quite specific model: Mozart’s String Quartet in A Major, K.464, composed in 1785. Beethoven greatly admired this particular quartet and had copied out the last two movements as a way of studying them. Carl Czerny reported that Beethoven once took up the Mozart score and exclaimed: “That’s what I call a work! In it, Mozart was telling the world: Look what I could create if the time were right!” For his own quartet, Beethoven took both the key and general layout of Mozart’s quartet: a sonata-form first movement, a minuet movement that comes second, a theme-and-variation third movement, and a sonata-form finale that–like Mozart’s–ends quietly.

But it is unfair to Beethoven to see his Quartet in A Major as just an imitation of Mozart’s masterpiece. Though the two composers were the same age when they wrote these quartets (29), Beethoven was still feeling his way with a form Mozart had mastered, and though he may have chosen Mozart as a model, this music sounds in every measure like young Beethoven. The opening Allegro is built on two nicely-contrasted ideas–a soaring opening theme and a darker, more melodic second idea–and Beethoven asks for a repeat of both exposition and development. The opening of the minuet belongs entirely to the violins, with the second violin gracefully following and commenting on the first’s theme; the trio section–with the theme in the middle voices under the first violin’s drone–is surprisingly short.

Longest of the movements, the Andante cantabile offers five variations on the simple falling-and-rising idea announced at the beginning; particularly effective are the fugal first variation, the first violin’s staccato triplets in the second, the expressive fourth (which Beethoven marks sempre pp), and the exuberant fifth. A long coda leads to a restatement of the theme and a quiet close. The energetic and good-natured finale is in sonata (rather than the expected rondo) form. The opening melody leaps smoothly between instruments, and Beethoven offers a quiet chorale as the second theme. The writing for all four voices is extremely accomplished here, and on the energy of the opening idea the music rushes to its close, which brings a sudden and surprisingly quiet concluding chord.

String Quartet in A Major, Opus 18, No. 5
Approximate Duration: 21 minutes

Beethoven’s manuscript for the Quartet in F Minor is dated October 1810, but almost certainly he continued to work on this quartet for some years after that, and it was not published until 1816. This quartet has a nickname, “Quartetto Serioso,” that–unusually for a musical nickname–came from the composer himself. Well aware of the music’s extraordinary character, Beethoven described the quartet as having been “written for a small circle of connoisseurs and . . . never to be performed in public.” Joseph Kerman has described it as “an involved, impassioned, highly idiosyncratic piece, problematic in every one of its movements, advanced in a hundred ways” and “unmatched in Beethoven’s output for compression, exaggerated articulation, and a corresponding sense of extreme tension.” Yet this same quartet–virtually the shortest of Beethoven’s string quartets–comes from the same period as the easily accessible “Archduke” Trio, the Seventh and Eighth Symphonies, and the incidental music to Goethe’s Egmont, and this music’s extraordinary focus and tension seem sharply at odds with those scores. In fact, this quartet in many ways prefigures Beethoven’s late style and the great cycle of quartets written during his final years.

The first movement is extraordinarily compressed (it lasts barely four minutes), and it catapults listeners through an unexpected series of key relationships. The unison opening figure is almost spit out, passing through and ending in a “wrong” key and then followed by complete silence. Octave leaps and furious restatements of the opening figure lead to the swaying second subject, announced in flowing triplets by the viola. The development section of this (highly modified) sonata-form movement is quite short, treating only the opening theme, before the movement exhausts itself on fragments of that theme.

The marking of the second movement, Allegretto ma non troppo, might seem to suggest some relief, but this movement is even more closely argued than the first. The cello’s strange descending line introduces a lovely opening melody, but this quickly gives way to a long and complex fugue, its sinuous subject announced by the viola and then taken up and developed by the other voices. A quiet close (derived from the cello’s introduction) links this movement to the third, a violent fast movement marked Allegro assai vivace ma serioso. The movement is in ABABA form, the explosive opening section alternating with a chorale-like subject for the lower three voices which the first violin decorates. Once again, Beethoven takes each section into unexpected keys. The last movement has a slow introduction–Larghetto espressivo–full of the darkness that has marked the first three movements, and this leads to a blistering finale that does much to dispel the tension. In an oft-quoted remark about the arrival of this theme, American composer Randall Thompson is reported to have said: “No bottle of champagne was ever uncorked at a better moment.” In contrast, for example, to the near-contemporary Seventh Symphony, which ends in wild celebration, this quartet has an almost consciously anti-heroic close, concluding with a very fast coda that Beethoven marks simply Allegro.

Some have felt that the Quartet in F Minor is composed with the same technique as the late quartets but without their sense of spiritual elevation, and in this sense they see the present quartet as looking ahead toward Beethoven’s late style. But it is unfair to this music to regard it simply as a forerunner of another style. This quartet may well be dark, explosive, and extremely concentrated. But it should be valued for just those qualities.

String Quartet in E-flat Major, Opus 127
Approximate Duration: 37 minutes

When Russian prince Nikolai Golitsyn wrote to Beethoven in the fall of 1822 to commission three string quartets, his request met a sympathetic response: the composer had been thinking about writing string quartets for some time and promised to have the first done within a month or two. After seven years of intermittent activity he had resumed sustained composing in 1820 with a set of three piano sonatas, but other projects now intervened, and despite the prince’s frequent inquiries Beethoven had to complete the Missa Solemnis, Diabelli Variations, and Ninth Symphony before he could begin work on the first of the three quartets in the summer of 1824. This quartet–in E-flat major–was not complete until February 1825. Performed immediately by the string quartet of Ignaz Schuppanzigh, the music was a failure at its première on March 6, 1825. Furious, Beethoven quickly had it rehearsed and performed by a quartet led by Joseph Böhm. The composer attended their rehearsals and supervised their interpretation (though deaf, he could follow their performance by watching the movement of their bows). The second performance was successful, and this quartet was performed publicly at least ten more times in 1825–an extraordinary number of performances for a new work–and always to great acclaim.

That fact is important because it undercuts the notion that Beethoven’s late quartets were far ahead of their time. Certain features of the late quartets did defy quick comprehension, but this was not true of the Quartet in E-flat Major. At first glance, this is the most traditional of Beethoven’s late quartets. It has a relatively straightforward structure: a sonataform first movement, a variation-form slow movement, a scherzo in ABA form, and a dance-finale. But to reduce this music to such simplicity is to miss the extraordinary originality beneath its appealing and gentle surface.

In the first movement, Beethoven seems to set out intentionally to blur the outlines of traditional sonata form, which depends on the opposition of material. Contrast certainly seems to be implied at the beginning, which opens with a firm chordal Maestoso, but this Maestoso quickly melts into the flowing and simple main theme, marked Allegro (Beethoven further specifies that he wants this melody performed teneramente–“tenderly”–and sempre piano e dolce). The powerful Maestoso returns twice more, each time in a different key, and then drops out of the movement altogether; Beethoven builds the movement almost exclusively out of the opening melody and an equally-gentle second subject. Here is a sonata-form movement that does not drive to a powerful climax but instead remains understated throughout: the movement evaporates on a wisp of the opening Allegro theme.

Two softly-pulsing measures lead to the main theme of the Adagio, a gently-rocking and serene melody introduced by the first violin and repeated by the cello. There follow six melodic variations, each growing organically out of the previous one until the music achieves a kind of rhapsodic calm–and the original theme has been left far behind. Four sharp pizzicato chords introduce the scherzo, and these four chords then vanish, never to reappear. The fugue-like opening section, built on a dotted figure and its inversion, leads to a brief–and utterly different–trio section. In E-flat minor, this trio whips past in a blistering blur: Beethoven’s phrase markings here stretch over twenty measures at a time. Beethoven brings back the opening section, then offers a surprise at the ending by including a quick reminiscence of the trio just before the cadence.

The last movement has proven the most difficult for commentators, perhaps because of its apparent simplicity. Marked only Finale (there is no tempo indication), it opens with a four-measure introduction that launches off in the wrong direction before the true main theme appears in the first violin. Of rustic simplicity, this melody has been compared to a country-dance, and the second theme–a jaunty march-tune decorated with grace notes–preserves that atmosphere. The tunes may be innocent, but Beethoven’s treatment of them in this sonata-form movement is quite sophisticated, particularly in matters of modulation and harmony. The ending is particularly striking. At the coda Beethoven re-bars the music in 6/8, moves to C major, and speeds ahead on violin trills, chains of triplets, and shimmering textures. The very end, back in E-flat major, is calm, resounding–and perfect.

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