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8.554181 - BEETHOVEN: String Quartets Op. 59, No. 1, 'Rasumovsky' and Op. 95, 'Serioso'

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
String Quartet in F major, Op. 59, No. 1
String Quartet in F minor, Op. 95, Quartetto serioso

In 1792 Beethoven left his native city of Bonn to seek his fortune in the imperial capital, Vienna. Five years earlier his patron, the Archbishop of Cologne, a scion of the imperial family, had sent him to Vienna where he had hoped to have lessons with Mozart. His plans were frustrated by the illness and subsequent death of his mother, which made it necessary for him to return to Bonn and before long to take charge of the welfare of his younger brothers. Beethoven's father, overshadowed by the eminence of his own father, Kapellmeister to a former Archbishop, had proved inadequate both as a musician and in the family, of which his eldest son now took control.

As a boy Beethoven had been trained to continue family tradition as a musician and had followed his father and grandfather as a member of the archiepiscopal musical establishment. In 1792 he arrived in Vienna with introductions to various members of the nobility and with the offer of lessons with Haydn, from whom he later claimed to have learned nothing. There were further lessons from the Court Composer, Antonio Salieri, and, perhaps more important, from Johann Georg Albrechtsberger, an expert in counterpoint. He embarked at once on an initial career as a keyboard virtuoso, skilled both as an executant and in the necessary art of improvisation. He was to establish himself, in the course of time, as a figure of remarkable genius and originality and as a social eccentric, no respecter of persons, his eccentricity all the greater because of his increasing deafness. This last disability made public performance, whether as a keyboard-player or in the direction of his own music, more and more difficult, and must have served to encourage the development of one particular facet, the use of counterpoint, stigmatized by hostile contemporary critics as "learned". He died in Vienna in 1827.

In his sixteen string quartets, the first set of six published in 180 land the last completed in 1826 and published in the year of his death, Beethoven was as innovative as ever, developing and extending a form that seemed already to have reached a height of perfection in the later work of Haydn and Mozart. The earliest mention of a string quartet comes in a recorded request of Count Apponyi in 1795. This had no immediate result, but it has seemed possible that Beethoven in these years might have been influenced by Emanuel Aloys Förster, a musician 22 years his senior, whose teaching of counterpoint he admired and recommended to others, while profiting, perhaps, from the example of Forster's own quartets. At the same time Beethoven must have known the later quartets of Mozart and the work of Haydn.

Beethoven's first group of string quartets, the six that make up Opus 18, were written between 1795 and 1800 and published in Vienna the following year. It has been suggested that the novelty of these quartets persuaded Haydn to abandon the quartet on which he was working and not to attempt any others. Apart from an arrangement of a piano sonata for string quartet, the next group of such works by Beethoven is the set of three written for the Russian ambassador in Vienna, Count Razumovsky. The latter's family owed its distinction to the favour shown to two brothers, singers in the Imperial Chapel in St Petersburg, by the Empress Elisabeth Petrovna and by Catherine II respectively. Andreas Kyrilovich Razumovsky, fourth son of the younger brother, was born in 1752 and trained as a naval officer, later serving his country as a diplomat. In Vienna he married, in 1788, Elisabeth, Countess Thun, the sister of the wife of Beethoven's patron and friend Prince Lichnowsky, and in 1792 was first appointed Russian ambassador there, resuming his duties, after a brief interruption, in 1801. He was rich and extravagant in expenditure, building for himself a fine residence, destroyed in afire in 1815, and distinguishing himself as a collector and as a patron of the arts. He played the second violin in quartets and seems to have known Beethoven from the early days of the latter's arrival in the city.

The Razumovsky Quartets, Opus 59, were first performed under the violinist Ignaz Schuppanzigh, with whom Beethoven may have had lessons and with whom he was certainly on friendly terms. Schuppanzigh later, from 1808, led Count Razumovsky's own quartet. The new quartets were each to have had a Russian theme, but this provision was not completely carried out. The works were received with amazement, even at times amusement, by those who first heard them, finding here a further example of Beethoven's music-madness. The quartets are certainly unexpected, in contemporary terms, and certainly very much longer and more demanding than any audience at the time might have expected, however familiar the idiom may now sound.>

The Quartet in F major, Opus 59, No. 1, starts with a cello melody that is to have the greatest importance in much of what follows. The movement is in broadly classical form, with exposition, development and recapitulation, and in the first section there is, once the opening subject and the material connected with it have been dealt with, a second theme, in C major, and a closing passage that makes further use of the principal theme. This last continues to hold importance in the complex development, which itself includes a fugal exposition, a passage in which, starting with the second violin, instrument after instrument enters in imitation Fragments of the first subject have long suggested its return and it does finally appear in full recapitulation, again introduced by the cello. The second subject is now entrusted to the viola, while it is again the opening figure of the principal theme that forms the substance of the coda. The second movement, a very individual scherzo, tested the credulity of its first audience with what seemed to be a first theme, played by the cello, all on one note. The key is now B flat and the second violin answers the cello, the first violin the viola, in music that continues with sudden shifts of key and interruptions, all in an innovative tripartite form, like the first movement. There is an extended first subject group, followed at length by an F minor second subject. The effect of the movement depends on the strange juxtapositions of remoter harmonies, something that even finds a place in the harmonic contradictions of the closing bars. The F minor slow movement starts with the first violin's theme of tender introspection, echoed by the cello. Again in the three sections of sonata form, the second theme is in C minor, so that the whole movement continues largely in a mood of meditative melancholy, occasionally lightened by a brief shaft of sunlight, before the first violin leads the way to a concluding trill that serves to introduce the finale. A place is at last found for a Russian theme in the last movement. This is entrusted to the cello and in its initial suggestion of a modal D minor contradicts the F major key of the quartet. Here again two subjects are introduced in an exposition, the second of some harmonic ambiguity. The exposition is repeated, as it had not been in the first movement, and the development follows, with its harmonic changes, over an opening first violin trill. The material of the exposition returns, now with a fugal section to introduce the final section, which leads the way to the Russian theme, now played perhaps slower than it would ever have been sung, much as earlier it been heard at a much faster speed. This brief Adagio ma non troppo is capped by a short final Presto for the nine bars that provide a clear F major ending to the work.

Since his arrival in Vienna in 1792 Beethoven had enjoyed a warm friendship with Nikolaus Zmeskall von Domanovecz, an official in the Royal Hungarian Court Chancellery on whose advice in practical matters he often had to rely, whether for the provision of properly prepared quill pens, a recipe for boot polish or advice on how to dismiss an unsatisfactory manservant. In October 1810 he wrote down his Quartet in F minor, Opus 95, a so-called Quartet to serioso, first performed by Schuppanzigh and his quartet in May 1814 and published in 1816. Zmeskall himself was a competent amateur cellist and had a keen interest in music. It was later in his apartments that some of Beethoven's new compositions were given their first informal hearing. The first movement opens with a brusque figure, melting into a more lyrical element. These form the first subject group, followed by a D flat major second subject, leading to a highly concentrated development and a return to the final part of the first subject group, the second, in the tonic major key, and a strongly marked coda that fades away to a final pianissimo. The key of D major has already been suggested in what has passed, notably in dramatic ascending scales. There now follows an Allegretto in that key, the first theme following the slow descending scale of the cello. This leads in turn to a fugal section, with a subject announced by the viola, followed by second violin, cello and first violin in that order. There is an interruption, based on the opening cello figure, before the counterpoint resumes, now with a quicker accompanying countersubject. The singing first theme returns as the movement draws to a close, much as it began, now preparing the necessary shift of key to F minor for the scherzo. The first thematic material is based on the notes of the descending scale, the opening section repeated and leading to the first of two trio sections that modulate to D major, while the second makes its way back through C minor to the original key, with the return of the abrupt and strongly accented scherzo material. There is a slow, melancholy introduction to the last movement, followed by an Allegretto agitato and the principal theme. There is a secondary theme, introduced by the second violin and these are treated in an abridged sonata form, before the sudden surprise of a rapid F major conclusion that takes the listener into a very different world.

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