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8.570998 - BEETHOVEN, L. van: Piano Quartets, WoO 36 (New Zealand Piano Quartet)
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Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827)
Piano Quartets, WoO 36


Born in Bonn in 1770, Ludwig van Beethoven was the eldest son of a singer in the musical establishment of the Archbishop-Elector of Cologne and grandson of the Archbishop’s former Kapellmeister, whose name he took. The household was not a happy one. Beethoven’s father became increasingly inadequate both as a singer and as a father and husband, with his wife always ready to draw invidious comparisons between him and his own father. Beethoven, however, was trained as a musician, however erratically, and duly entered the service of the Archbishop, serving as an organist and as a string-player in the archiepiscopal orchestra. He was already winning some distinction in Bonn, when, in 1787, he was first sent to Vienna, to study with Mozart. The illness of his mother forced an early return from this venture and her subsequent death left him with responsibility for his younger brothers, in view of his father’s domestic and professional failures. In 1792 Beethoven was sent once more to Vienna, now to study with Haydn, whom he had met in Bonn.

Beethoven’s early career in Vienna was helped very considerably by the circumstances of his move there. The Archbishop was a son of the Empress Maria Theresia and there were introductions to leading members of society in the imperial capital. Here Beethoven was able to establish an early position for himself as a pianist of remarkable ability, coupled with a clear genius in the necessarily related arts of improvisation and composition. The onset of deafness at the turn of the century seemed an irony of Fate. It led Beethoven gradually away from a career as a virtuoso performer and into an area of composition where he was able to make remarkable changes and extensions of existing practice. Deafness tended to accentuate his eccentricities and paranoia, which became extreme as time went on. At the same time it allowed him to develop his gifts for counterpoint. He continued to revolutionise forms inherited from his predecessors, notably Haydn and Mozart, expanding these almost to bursting-point, and introducing innovation after innovation as he grew older. He died in 1827, his death the occasion of public mourning in Vienna.

The three Piano Quartets without opus number, WoO 36, date from 1785, when Beethoven was fifteen, and are in a form rare in repertoire of the time, nearly contemporary, significantly, with Mozart’s two Piano Quartets of 1785 and 1786, supreme examples of an awkward form that was to find further fulfilment in the work of Brahms and later composers. Beethoven’s Piano Quartets may be seen in the light of earlier traditions in which the keyboard had taken the lead in a form of concerto or sonata with string accompaniment. The three quartets were published by Artaria after Beethoven’s death, their authenticity supported by Beethoven’s borrowings from them in his Piano Sonatas, Op. 2.

Artaria arbitrarily changed the order of the three works, which started originally with the Piano Quartet in C major, WoO 36, No. 3. The repeated exposition of the quartet suggests a piano sonata, with the strings in an accompanying röle, although in the development and modified recapitulation they are allowed greater exposure. The movement includes a transitional phrase that finds a place in the first movement of the Piano Sonata in C major, Op. 2, No. 3, the third of a set dedicated to Haydn in 1796. Beethoven had later recourse also to the slow movement of the quartet, the principal theme of which is used again in the Adagio of the Piano Sonata in F minor, Op. 2, No. 1. Interest here moves from the piano to the violin and then to the viola, soon to be joined by the cello. Violin and viola join in the original theme, with attention returning to the piano as the movement draws to a close. It is the piano that announces the main theme of the final Rondo, followed by the violin. The subsequent episode is accompanied at first by plucked strings and a second episode, in the key of A minor appropriate to rondo-sonata form, starts the second half of the movement, which ends with the return of the main theme.

The second work of the group, the Piano Quartet in E flat major, WoO 36, No. 1, offers a more equitable division of labour between the piano and the strings. It opens with an Adagio assai movement, with the piano at first accompanied by the strings, which then lead into a central section in which they enjoy more prominence. The sonata-form second movement, marked Allegro con spirito, is in the unusual key of E flat minor and opens at once. Here some have suggested elements that anticipate the last movement of the C minor Sonate Pathétique of 1799. The quartet ends with a theme and variations. After the Cantabile melody the first variation gives the piano running semiquavers, while the second allows the violin semiquaver triplets. The third variation is an Adagio in which the viola takes the lead and the fourth, returning to the original tempo, is given to the cello. The dramatic fifth variation, dominated by the piano, is in E flat minor, and the sixth, in which the piano again takes the lead in its demisemiquaver figuration, reverts to the tonic major key. With the return of the theme, now marked Allegretto, the violin joins with the piano and the work ends with a brief coda.

The Piano Quartet in D major, WoO 36, No. 2, starts with a call to attention from the piano, then joined by the strings, followed by antiphonal dialogue between the two. The repeated exposition duly moves to a more lyrical second subject and there is a short central development, before a varied recapitulation and coda. The Andante con moto that follows is in F sharp minor, with the opening theme shared by the piano and violin. The strings lead to the ensuing modulation to A major, with the original key restored in the second half of the movement. The quartet ends with a Rondo, its principal theme stated first by the piano and then taken up by the violin, framing the duly contrasting episodes of the form, with the spirit of Mozart, as elsewhere in these quartets, hovering near.

Keith Anderson

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