Classical Music | Violin Music

Ludwig van Beethoven

String Quartet in B-flat Major, Op. 130  Play

Angelo Xiang Yu Violin
Miriam Fried Violin
Philip Kramp Viola
Deborah Pae Cello

Recorded on 07/24/2010, uploaded on 10/25/2011

Musician's or Publisher's Notes

    Adagio, ma non troppo — Allegro
    Andante con moto, ma non troppo. Poco scherzoso
    Alla danza tedesca. Allegro assai
    Cavatina. Adagio molto espressivo
    Große Fuge (Grande Fugue Op.133): Ouverture. Allegro — Meno mosso e moderato — Allegretto — Fuga. [Allegro] — Meno mosso e moderato — Allegro molto e con brio — Allegro

Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 13 in B-flat major, though second in order of publication, was actually composed during 1825-6 after the Quartet in A minor, op. 132, making it the last of the quartets composed to fulfill the commission from the Russian prince Nikolai Galitzin. Whereas the Quartet in A minor was Beethoven’s reflection on his recovery from a life-threatening illness, which gave birth to the profound and solemn “Heiliger Dankgesang” that forms the quartet’s centerpiece, the Quartet in B-flat major is quite possibly then the expression of renewed vigor and the composer’s exuberant return to his art. Hardly anywhere in the piece is there a mournful or sad measure. Premiered in March 1826 by the Schuppanzigh Quartet, the original form of the Quartet in B-flat major included the colossal Grosse Fuge as the finale. Opinions of the performance were mixed mostly because of the fugue, which in and of itself nearly eclipsed, artistically and temporally, the rest of the quartet. Urged by his publisher to replace the fugue with a finale less weighty, Beethoven composed an alternate finale in the fall of 1826, making this a rare instance in which Beethoven was swayed by either the opinion of the public or of publisher. Furthermore, the alternate finale was also the last completed composition by Beethoven.

From a technical viewpoint, the Quartet in B-flat is not only the first significant departure from the standard four movement pattern that Beethoven had used thus far (the Quartet in A minor being only an embellishment of this pattern), but also marks a point of fruition of an idea that had long been with him. Beginning nearly three decades before with the Sonata Pathétique, Beethoven experimented with the recurrence of the slow introduction within the sonata form structure. In the first of the Galitzin quartets, opus 127 in E-flat major, he again revisited this idea with the introduction serving a more crucial thematic role. In the B-flat major Quartet, however, Beethoven achieved an unmatched synthesis by fusing the Adagio introduction of the first movement with the Allegro first theme, creating a unified thematic entity that bridged both tempos. Yet, though one of the many striking innovations of the String Quartet No. 13, it is nevertheless only the sign of the greater fluidity of form that Beethoven would achieve in the following Quartet in C-sharp minor.

Comprised of six movements, the Quartet in B-flat major still maintains a semblance of the traditional four movement pattern. The first movement remains in sonata form, though freely handled, followed by a dance movement and then a slow movement—an ordering Beethoven adopted in many of his later works. There then follows another dance and slow movement before the finale. As mentioned before, the sonata form first movement features a dichotomous first theme that bridges both the opening Adagio and the ensuring Allegro melody. Even the Allegro itself is made of two parts—a vigorous motif on the interval of a fourth accompanied by a lively stream of sixteenth notes. The movement’s second theme, in the key of G-flat major, is a lyrical tune beginning on the cello and based on the sixteenth note figures heard earlier. The sonata form structure is treated remarkably freely with the development section being an almost episodic treatment of the first theme.

Following the rather expansive first movement, is a terse scherzo in B-flat minor taken at a bewildering Presto tempo.  Almost entirely performed in hushed tones and with tightly woven part-writing, the second movement is full of excitement. In a much different character, the following Andante begins with a somewhat solemn tone in B-flat major before launching into a blithe melody in D-flat major. This movement, which Robert Schumann called an “intermezzo,” is remarkably free in construction and ranges widely in emotions.

The fourth movement is another dance movement though this time in a decidedly popular vein. Marked “Alla danza tedesca,” meaning “German dance,” the melody is tuneful and unhurried. The middle section becomes more animated with an ascending melody and livelier accompaniment. Finally, an embellished return of the opening rounds out the movement’s ternary design. The following Cavatina is, perhaps, the real gem of the quartet. In E-flat major, it is a movement of breathtaking beauty and heartfelt emotion. It is said Beethoven composed it during a time of great melancholy and the memory of it would bring fresh tears to his eyes. The first violin dominates the movement melodically, pausing only briefly at the end of phrases, at which point the second violin jumps in to preserve the unbroken song. The central portion of the movement descends into the key of C-flat major with a new melody that imparts a near vocal-like quality to the violin. Beethoven specially marked this melody “beklemmt” meaning “oppressed.” Indeed, a feeling of unforeseen weight bears down upon the whole section but the music inevitably lifts itself back to the consoling opening melody.

The published finale of the Quartet in B-flat major, which Beethoven composed in 1826, begins deceptively in the key of C minor with a light-hearted melody in the popular style, which greatly pleased his publisher. The whole of the movement is based upon this melody and is a magnificent display of the extent of Beethoven’s skill at motivic development. Equally astonishing is the rather blithe and cheerful disposition of the movement despite that it was written just prior to the final illness that would claim the composer’s life.    Joseph DuBose

            Angelo Xiang Yu, Violin
            Miriam Fried, Violin
            Philip Kramp, Viola
            Deborah Pae, Cello
courtesy of the Steans Music Institute

Steans Music Institute

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