Classical Music | Violin Music

Ludwig van Beethoven

String Quartet Op. 131  Play

Miho Saegusa Violin
Kobi Malkin Violin
Alex Link Viola
Karen Ouzounian Cello

Recorded on 08/23/2011, uploaded on 09/27/2011

Musician's or Publisher's Notes

Though the Russian prince Nikolai Galitzin, who was himself an amateur cellist, only commissioned three string quartets from Beethoven, the composer’s mind was obviously overflowing with ideas. Two more quartets followed in 1826: op. 131 in C-sharp minor and op. 135 in F major. Whereas the three Galitzin quartets follow more or less conventional in structure—the E-flat major quartet remains true to the four-movement pattern while both the A minor and B-flat major quartets expand upon it with additional movements—the C-sharp minor quartet is wholly unique, even in Beethoven’s oeuvre. Comprised of seven movements played continuously without break, the resulting effect is that of unhindered imagination, not even pausing for a moment’s rest before resuming a train of thought or beginning a new one. Instead, Beethoven begins the quartet and we are carried along with him though his vivid dream, helpless to travel contrary to the current of his imagination.

The Adagio first movement abandons the traditional sonata form instead for the fugue. The theme, heard first in the violin, is heavy with grief and resignation. Upon hearing it, Richard Wagner stated that the “Adagio reveals the most melancholy sentiment ever expressed in music.” In turn, the theme is uttered by each of the members of the quartet. Like the other fugues of Beethoven’s late period, the first movement is rather free in form but is nevertheless a masterly example of contrapuntal skill and the expressive capabilities of what is generally thought to be an academic form. Following the fugue’s close of bare octaves upon the tonic, the D major second movement is like brilliant sunlight dispersing the clouds of its predecessor. Marked Allegro molto vivace and changing to a flowing 6/8 meter, the second movement is full of energy.

Shifting to B minor (though marked F-sharp minor in the key signature), the brief, recitative-like third movement serves only as an introduction to the expansive fourth movement which occupies the epicenter of the quartet. This movement, Andante ma non troppo e molto cantabile in A major, is a set of grand variations in the manner of the slow movement from the opus 127 quartet, though its imaginative force and profundity is far greater than that earlier work. The theme of the variation movement, which Wagner called “the incarnation of innocence,” is interlaced between the two violins, each taking turns in presenting a portion of the melody. The variations that follow, like the entire quartet, are remarkably original. They go far beyond the mere technical device of melodic variation and touch upon, instead, the succeeding thoughts of an active imagination, each variation wholly new but at the same time developing out of the previous one.

Following the fourth movement is a rollicking scherzo, though in duple rather than the more usual triple meter. At a Presto tempo, the scherzo is riotous at times in its overwhelming joviality. A new melody emerges during the scherzo’s middle section, though the spirit of the movement is never lost. Concluding on fortissimo chords, Beethoven transitions into the sixth moment, another slow movement which, like the third, fulfills the role of the introducing the finale. After the rather rambunctious scherzo, this Adagio movement in G-sharp minor is a sudden turn to introspection—a moment of indecisiveness before the finale. Yet, the hesitating moment is violently cast aside in the tempestuous motif that opens the last movement. Then follows a defiant melody in the violin accentuated by the underlying rhythms of the remaining members of the quartet and at the end of which the fugal theme of the first movement makes a blatant return. In stark contrast to this opening melody is the lyrical and ethereal second theme in E major. The heavenly vision of this theme, however, is dashed by the return of the opening motif and the start of the turbulent development section. Restatements of both themes signal the impending close of the quartet. Each of the instruments furiously rushes toward the closing bars only to be stopped by a handful of measures marked Poco Adagio. Regaining their strength and lighting upon the major tonic chord, the mad dash is resumed and culminates in three colossal C-sharp major chords.      Joseph DuBose

Courtesy of the Steans Institute

Steans Music Institute

The Steans Music Institute is the Ravinia Festival's professional studies program for young musicians.