About this Recording
8.554592 - BEETHOVEN, L. van: String Quartets, Vol. 7 (Kodály Quartet) - No. 15 / Hess 34

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
String Quartet in A minor, Op. 132
String Quartet in F major, H. 34
(transcription of Piano Sonata in E major, Op. 14, No. 1)

In 1792 Beethoven left his native city of Bonn to seek his fortune in the imperial capital, Vienna. Five years before he had been sent to Vienna by his patron, the Archbishop of Cologne, for lessons with Mozart, but the illness of his mother had forced his immediate return home. Before long, after his mother's death, he had been obliged to take charge of the welfare of his younger brothers, a task that his father was not competent to discharge.

As a boy Beethoven had had an erratic musical training through his father, a singer in the archiepiscopal musical establishment, later continued on sounder lines. In 1792 he was to take lessons from Haydn, from whom he later claimed to have learned nothing, followed by subsequent study of counterpoint with Albrechtsberger and Italian word-setting with Salieri. Armed with introductions to members of the nobility in Vienna, he soon established himself as a keyboard virtuoso, skilled as a performer and equally adept in the necessary art of improvisation. In the course of time he was to be widely recognised as a figure of remarkable genius and originality. At the same time he became known as a social eccentric, no respecter of persons, his eccentricity all the greater because of increasing deafness, a failing that became evident by the turn of the century. With the patient encouragement of patrons, he directed his attentions largely to composition, developing the inherited classical tradition of Haydn and Mozart and extending its bounds in a way that presented both an example and a challenge to the composers who came after him.

In his sixteen string quartets, the first set of six published in 1801 and the last published in the year of his death, 1827, Beethoven was as innovative as ever, developing and extending a form that seemed already to have reached a height of perfection. The first quartets were followed in 1802 by an F major arrangement of the Piano Sonata in E major, Opus 14, No. 1, for string quartet. The three quartets for the Russian ambassador in Vienna, Count Razumovsky, followed in 1805 and 1806 and Beethoven returned to the form again in 1809 and 1810. It was not until 1823, however, that he resumed his attention to the string quartet in a remarkable final series of works, starting with the String Quartet in E flat major, Opus 127, completed in 1824. This was the first of a group of three quartets commissioned by Prince Nicolas Galitzin, an enthusiastic patron and himself an amateur cellist, in a letter to Beethoven in November 1822. On 25th January the following year Beethoven replied, accepting the commission and asking for a fee of 50 ducats a quartet, pledging himself at the same time to complete the first quartet by February or March at the latest. In the event Galitzin had to wait until March 1825 before he received the first work, after disguising any impatience he may have felt at a delay which he understood as necessary for a genius.

Beethoven wrote the second quartet, the String Quartet in A minor, Opus 132, in the same year, but work on it was interrupted by illness that lasted from the middle of April well into the following month, necessitating a strict diet and abstention from alcohol and coffee, diagnosed as the cause of his discomfort. To recuperate he moved to Baden, where his peace of mind was disturbed by anxiety over his brother Carl Caspar's son Karl, of whom he had, after litigation against the boy's widowed mother, become sole guardian. By August, however, the new quartet was complete, to be rehearsed and given a first private performance in September, not, as Beethoven had hoped, at his rooms in Baden, but at the Vienna lodgings of the Paris publisher Moritz Schlesinger, who was anxious to secure the work for his company. The first public performance was given in Vienna on 6th November in a benefit concert for the cellist Joseph Linke. The quartet was sent, together with the third of the commissioned works, the String Quartet in B flat major, Opus 130, to Prince Galitzin, in Russia, but the Prince's pecuniary embarrassment prevented any payment, at least in Beethoven's lifetime.

The A minor Quartet starts with a solemn four-note cello motif, the genesis of much else, as the instruments enter in ascending order. This motif, divided between viola and cello, provides the bass of the first violin melody that follows and serves, after the warmer, lyrical second subject, to open the central development section of the movement, the viola entering in canon with the cello. It also marks the return of the material in the equivalent of a recapitulation. The A major second movement scherzo is derived from two figures heard in the opening bars, while the trio section is characterized by the similitude of a bagpipe drone. The slow movement 'Song of Thanksgiving' is a set of double variations, the first theme, in the Lydian mode, marked Molto adagio and the D major second theme marked Andante, with the explanatory note Neue Kraft fühlend (‘Feeling new strength’). Variations of each follow, leading to a final variation of the first modal theme, now marked Mit innigster Empfindung (‘With the sincerest feeling’). A brief A major March provides immediate contrast, linked by a passage of quasi-recitative to the final Allegro appassionato, with its sadly lilting principal theme, admixture of counterpoint and rapid conclusion.

The Piano Sonata in E major, Opus 14, No 1 was written in 1798 and published the following year with a dedication to Baroness Josefine von Braun, wife of the future lessee of the Theater-an-der-Wien, where Beethoven' s opera Fidelio was to be staged in 1805. The string quartet transcription, published in 1802, is also dedicated to her. In a letter to the publishers Breitkopf und Härtel in the latter year Beethoven inveighs against the current fashion for arranging piano music for strings, unless the task were to be undertaken by Mozart or Haydn, or, in this case, himself. Nevertheless the textures of the sonata lent themselves well enough to transcription, both in the accompanied melody of the first subject of the opening Allegro moderato and the dialogue of the second subject. The minor key Allegretto has a contrasting major trio section and is capped by a final Rondo.

Keith Anderson

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