From The Beethoven Quartet Companion, ed. Robert Winter and Robert Martin (University of California Press, 1994) pp. 227-244
Opus 130, begun in August 1825 and completed in its original form in November of that year, is the third in order of composition of the three quartets that Beethoven composed for Prince Nicholas Galitzin. What can Ignaz Schuppanzigh and the colleagues with whom he gave the first performance have thought when they received the music? What, for that matter, must Galitzin’s reaction have been? Whatever their individual peculiarities of detail, the E-flat quartet and the A-minor would have looked familiar from the point of view of overall design, even with the ‘extra’ march movement in the latter piece. But the B-flat? Here is a first movement of, generally, the sort and scale one would expect. But then the quartet seems to go off into the world of divertimentos or suites, for what follows is an altogether strange miscellany of movements. And, to conclude, a fugue of outsize dimensions and outlandish difficulty.
In this quartet Beethoven continues the formal adventures of his last two piano sonatas, Opp. 110 and 111, written in 1821-22. In Op. 110, after a sonata-form first movement and a scherzo, he gives us an operatic slow movement (the aria preceded, quite properly, by a recitative) and a fugal finale. Well and good, except that he follows that with a second version of the aria and finale, so that he ends up with a six-movement work whose fifth and sixth movements are variations on the third and fourth. Then in Op. 111, as though to compensate for that extravagance, he offers a two-movement design, a sonata movement followed by a hugely expansive set of variations. It is a perfect example of his use of contemplative and broad variations as contrast to a terse and driving sonata form. The six-movement Op. 130 is inspired eccentricity in excelsis.
The first movement seems at first to conform to the familiar pattern of a slow introduction leading to a movement in a quicker tempo. Still, the beginning itself, calm though it is, is strange. It is common enough for slow introductions to begin unharmonized, in unisons or octaves, though this is a less frequent practice with Beethoven than with Haydn. Here Beethoven does begin that way, modestly (just two octaves deep), with a four-note chromatic descent from B flat, the keynote, through A and A flat down to G. The B flat and A are fairly long, the A flat and the G move more swiftly. This implied division of the four into 2 + 2 will be of some consequence later on. The G is not, however, the end of the phrase, for the flow continues unbroken into a half cadence, the second half being fully harmonized. Now it is also common enough for slow introductions to begin with full harmony, but the switch in mid-phrase from austere octaves to rich chords is surprising and also some-how very touching.
Then, demurely, Beethoven answers the first phrase with another—fully harmonized from the beginning—that rounds off the sentence with a full cadence on the tonic. The second phrase begins with the same four melody notes—B flat, A, A flat, G—as the first. With some rhythmic foreshortening and a surprising offbeat accent, Beethoven moves forward to another half cadence, and here, taking the F that is the basis of the last chord as its point of departure, the cello begins a new thought. This has something of an ‘antique’ flavor, though the phrasing and dynamics are distinctly 1820s modern. One by one the other instruments join in, all remembering something of the four-note chromatic motion with which the music began, and move into another half cadence. Two things distinguish the second section of this Adagio from the first—the more contrapuntal texture and the darkening of the harmony as G flats begin to appear here and there. The music has begun to draw some conclusions from the chromaticism of the first four notes.
Suddenly the first violin bursts out in a flurry of sixteenth notes. The Allegro has begun. Under the first violin’s runs, the second violin plays a fanfare in which there is a curious contradiction: the upbeat is loud but the downbeat to which it leads is soft. Beethoven always likes to unsettle our expected ideas about rhythm and accent. All the instruments take up the running sixteenths, but when the Allegro has gone no more than five measures the Adagio interrupts it again. This too lasts five measures, just enough for a rich variant of the opening pair of cadences. The Allegro, with its combination of fanfares and running sixteenths, resumes as though nothing had happened. The next new idea is not in fact new but a revival of a segment in the Allegro tempo.
Quiet eighth notes lead to a broad cadence on B flat, A. Those were the notes with which the movement began, and they take us now into the repeat of the exposition. When the exposition has been played for the second time, the quiet eighths go instead to a similar cadence on G flat, F, and there the development begins. Most strangely. Just as the B flat, A of the first ending lead to a return of the opening Adagio B flat, A, so does the G flat, F of the second ending lead to a return of the opening music but beginning—in the cello—on G flat, F. This gets as far as the first half cadence and there it stops, uncertainly. The two violins, pianissimo, suggest taking up the Allegro, one playing the fanfare, the other the running sixteenths. This, too, peters out almost at once. The three lower instruments resume the Adagio, this time carrying it to a full cadence, but in D major, which is far indeed from the half cadence on G flat four measures earlier. The violins, willing, agree to that key and take up the Allegro there. The Adagio returns once more, and in two measures, whose gestures bring recitative to mind—they also bring the first instruction to play espressivo—the instruments seem to signal pleasure at the violins’ agreement to the idea of D major. Now, with a return to Allegro, the development at last gets under way.
The transition from recapitulation to coda is broader than the corresponding bridge from exposition to development. The difference is slight, just one measure, but it is a sign of Beethoven’s exquisite sense of rhythm and overall energy: enough has happened since the beginning of the development, enough new energy has been built up, for him to feel the need for that extra measure for the ‘grounding’ process before the coda makes final confirmation of the tonic. Once more we hear the first four measures of the Adagio, though this time they go to a deceptive cadence on G minor. Again there is uncertainty—both playful and genuinely hesitant—between Adagio and Allegro. Then, confidently, easily, quietly until the last couple of beats, the music moves toward the final cadence, which is as simple and as unrhetorical as possible. This first movement is expansive; at the same time it strikes us as extremely taut, being densely saturated by a very few ideas. In a way that is characteristic for his late style, Beethoven confronts us constantly with extremes—unisons and densely polyphonic textures, the odd and the straight, the propulsive and the hesitant.
Beethoven fits an incredible amount of delightful detail into these not quite two minutes. Throughout the trio, we do not know—and are meant not to know—which are the upbeats and which the down. The skidding scales that form the transition back to the beginning come near to slapstick. The reprise itself is deliciously varied in texture and details of scoring. There is a tiny, almost whimsical coda; then, unceremoniously, Beethoven kicks this little piece off the stage.
It is a marvel of gentle humor, this movement: poco scherzoso is exactly right, and in its moments of tenderness Beethoven pleads for cantabile and dolce. It is exceptionally rich in texture as well. Its exquisite, beautifully ‘heard’ sounds—heard by a composer who in the literal, physical sense had heard nothing for ten years—are a feature that is exceptionally lovely and almost unbearably moving. One’s first and, if you like, naive reaction to the idea of a deaf composer is to marvel that he can do it at all. The more experienced and knowledgeable person knows that the essential part of composing happens in the imagination, in the inner ear, as it were, and that many composers write at their desks, not their pianos; in that knowledge you can almost underestimate the frustration, the agony, of deafness. But then you are confronted with the near-incomprehensible miracle of the deaf Beethoven. Not only did his musical thought become steadily, incredibly richer with the years, so did his fantasy for the physical details of sound. Not only did he compose more beautiful music for the string quartet and the piano the older he got; the more beautifully, imaginatively, and effectively he composed string quartet and piano music. The end, with its sudden rush of energy, is more than poco scherzoso.
The movement covers a lot of harmonic territory, and I would guess that a model, a very much larger one, that Beethoven might have had in mind, both for harmonic motion and for unbuttoned rustic good humor, was that astounding drinking chorus at the end of ‘Autumn’ in Haydn’s The Seasons. Toward the end, Beethoven plays with the broken-work textures that so amused him in the scherzo of the F-major Quartet, Op. 59 no. 1. Here he is even bolder, because not only does he parcel out the tune at the rate of one measure per instrument, he delivers the measures in the wrong order.
The three lower instruments begin. None is neutral: the cello line has a striking profile, the viola has a strong melody in the middle of the texture, and the second violin part is something we could easily take for a theme in its own right. The two violin lines serve as an example of how tight and organic the relationships among the parts are. The top and therefore most prominent line in the accompaniment, that of the second violin, begins by going from G to B flat and continues to dwell on what is in effect a long, embellished B flat. When the first violin begins the principal melody, it reverses that procedure by beginning with a powerful leap from B flat to G, then staying on what is similarly a long and embellished G.
At this point he wants to be softly conciliatory again. The German dance has ended on an eccentrically scored G-major chord, three of whose four notes are Gs. (The fourth note is a B, but the normal thing would be for one note to be a D so as to complete the G-major triad.) The cavatina begins on an equally eccentrically scored E-flat chord, two of whose three notes are also Gs. (The normal thing would be to have a B flat to complete the triad and, if any note is to be doubled, for that to be the keynote, E flat.) From G major to E-flat major is a fair distance, but with this extra and unusual emphasis on G, Beethoven emphasizes the common ground of the two keys. G obviously matters. We may remember that it was important at the very beginning of the quartet, being the last note of the unison descent by semitones in the first measure and also the note that gets the prime emphasis in the next new idea. And we are far from having heard the last of it.
Suddenly the level drops down to the completely different world of pianissimo. The three lower instruments play agitated triplets, all on E flat. Then the cello shifts to D flat and thus moves the harmony away by a great distance. Over these triplets—sempre pianissimo, Beethoven warns—the first violin begins a music, stammering and hesitant, that is unlike anything else he ever composed. We know from the recitative and aria in the Piano Sonata, Op. 110, from the recitative for cellos and basses in the finale of the Ninth Symphony, not to forget the song we have just heard, how close Beethoven could take instruments to human utterance. This, however, goes beyond. To guide the violinist, Beethoven writes beklemmt. The word carries meanings and associations in the range of oppressed, weighed upon, suffocated, straitened, anxious. You can be beklemmt by the air just before a thunderstorm, by a nightmare, by an agonizing wait. It helps to have a sense of the word, but what you really have to understand is Beethoven. This episode lasts scarcely more than half a dozen measures, but it is a look into the abyss.
As though drawing back quickly from the edge, the music returns to the cavatina. Beethoven powerfully telescopes this transition. The first violin part of the beklemmt speech ends on B flat, and if we had it before us by itself we would expect it to be harmonized with a half cadence on a chord of B flat. In other words, we would now be on the dominant, poised to return to E-flat major and a reprise of the cavatina melody. In actuality, though, Beethoven arranges the harmony so that, by the time the violin reaches its B flat, the other instruments have already arrived on an E-flat chord. We are not expectant, we are there. To arrive at an expected harmonic destination but to arrive at it unexpectedly soon is a device Beethoven used ingeniously and with dramatic power all his life.
The reprise of the cavatina is compressed from thirty-nine measures to eighteen, to which the first violin adds a one-measure gesture of elegiac farewell. In Thayer’s Beethoven biography we read that Karl Holz, the young second violinist in Schuppanzigh’s Quartet, a good friend to Beethoven in his last years, and a truthful witness, recalled that the cavatina ‘cost the composer tears in the writing and brought out the confession that nothing that he had written had so moved him; in fact, that merely to revive it afterwards in his thoughts and feelings brought forth renewed tributes of tears.’
The last chord of the accompaniment is special. Beethoven writes four eighth notes—crescendo from piano and diminuendo to pianissimo—but ties them together. The result, neither a single, sustained chord nor four distinct chords, is a poignant throb. (Beethoven confounds pianists by giving them long sequences of single notes tied in this fashion in the Sonata, Op. 110—a piece, as I have noted, of great vocal ambition.)
The cavatina has floated to silence on an E-flat major chord whose top note is G. This G is now picked up in a grand unison and the work is capped by an uncompromisingly difficult fugue finale that accounts for a little over one-third of the length of the entire quartet. It was on 21 March 1826 that the Schuppanzigh Quartet gave the first performance. Beethoven had learned about fugues when he played The Well-Tempered Clavier as a boy in Bonn. Was he aware it was Bach’s birthday? Surely not—neither he nor anyone else at that gathering.
Some listeners had been exalted and excited by the fugue; rather more were bewildered. The players had great difficulties with it. Professionals pronounced it incomprehensible. Beethoven had never been easily pushed around by publishers, performers, and friends, but this time he was persuaded to take the fugue out of the quartet and to write a new finale in his most noncontroversial vein. We will come to that later.
The title page of Opp. 133 and 134 described the piece as ‘Grande fugue, tantôt libre, tantôt recherchée’—in part free, in part studied or worked. (Stravinsky liked to call it ‘die sehr grosse Fuge.’) The beginning, which Beethoven titles Overtura, is as libre as can be. In its thirty measures it changes tempo twice and character more often than that. In music of extreme disjunction, its gestures separated by unmeasured pauses, Beethoven hurls scraps of material about. Pairs of semitones are prominent. Beethoven gives us the figure marked ‘A’ in four versions—powerfully declamatory, wild, lyrical, and in almost tentative pianissimo. From here on it is the task of the composition to demonstrate the coherence of what is presented in so aggressively and violently dissociated a manner.
The tempo slows—Meno mosso e moderato is Beethoven’s instruction—and a more conjunct and lyrical idea in sixteenth notes, first proposed in the Overtura by the viola, is now explored. It is also in a softer key, and this surprise appearance of G-flat major is a reference back to the comparable key change in the first movement. The main fugue theme is still present but tamed. Essentially this is an interlude, more libre than recherchée, and all but ten of its seventy-four measures are pianissimo.
Without preparation the slower music returns, but in a new key, A-flat major. It is completely transformed in character. So reticent before, it is loud (just to make sure, Beethoven marks forte on every single beat), assertive, with the jagged semitone theme appearing simultaneously right-side up (first violin) as well as upside down (viola), and with a new, churning accompaniment in the cello.
In fact, though, this series of unpredictable chords returns us to the home key, B-flat major; thus, in delightful paradox, the purpose of this extremely puzzling passage was something very purposeful indeed. We are also back in the 6/8 Allegro molto e con brio. The crazed anger that possessed this music before is now diffused. It moves now with easy, good-humored grace, even taking the time to slow down for a rapt contemplation of the theme in very long notes and of course in the most hushed pianissimo.
But Beethoven is not yet done with shocks. The music loses momentum, then stops, uncertainly, on a dissonance. Silence. The two violins offer to start the fugue over from the beginning. This is a bad idea. Silence again. Then what about the gentler Meno mosso e moderato? Also not the right thing. The four instruments then unite in strong octaves like those at the beginning of the Overtura, and from there, Beethoven moves swiftly to the end. The resolution of these extraordinary, unprecedented conflicts that the Grosse Fuge has posed is surprising and touching—a mixture of the exalted and the humorous that only Beethoven could have invented.
In September 1826, six months after the first performance, Beethoven sketched a new finale, which he then composed in October and November. It turns Op. 130 into a completely different piece. In the original version everything leads up to the fugue, while in the revised edition, the much lighter finale places the center of gravity on the cavatina. Not surprisingly, Beethoven retains the idea of using the cavatina’s closing G as the point of departure for the finale; this time, however, it is a charming vamp-till-ready that gets the movement going on a piquant, rather Haydnesque harmonic slant. (Schubert liked the effect and emulated it, not without some of Beethoven’s sense of drama, in his last piano sonata.) Beethoven also makes casual reference to the theme of the exiled Grosse Fuge, readily recognizable even though he has shuffled the intervals around. This movement was the last piece Beethoven completed, and it is music of consummate grace, robust humor, warmth, and, in all its modesty, fullness of invention.
My God, why did I wear white? Your father at the wheel, his new wife beside him and you on the back seat, you make your way home from the Lucerne Festival where, from the turn of the opening trill to the wit of the adagio-presto coda, your performance of Beethoven’s tenth violin sonata had been a triumph: A happiness that would soon belong to another lifetime. Between your legs the stain spreads, dissolving your dream of ambivalence. So red is the colour of reality, so red marks my limits. God, what a cataclysm! Thus you came to understand that the exterminating angel is female; yes, that even for you, the other sex is feminine.
Turning towards you I take your hand and hold it in mine on the armrest. At the sight of your feet in their domino-square socks, resting on the footrest –
Wrap a baby in plastic,
Keep him at one remove from the world.
Never look into his eyes,
Never touch him.
Give him nothing
But a wall to bang his head against.
Then see if he doesn’t drown
In the least tenderness.
– I am touched: In your living room overlooking the southern edge of Hampstead Heath, I sat opposite you as you knitted them. We were listening to the second of Beethoven’s late quartets, and I vividly remember, when the cavatina emerged from the danza tedesca, looking at you and saying to myself, ‘I have no right to this happiness’. I was not wrong.