About this Recording
8.572221 - BEETHOVEN, L. van: String Quintets, Opp. 29 and 104 / Fugue, Op. 137 (Fine Arts Quartet, Sharon)

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827)
Music for String Quintet


The political mood change in Europe in the early years of the nineteenth century was paralleled by a no less significant intellectual one that swept through the world of music in the form of non-militant idealism. It even spawned a special type of ‘rescue’ opera, exemplified by Luigi Cherubini’s Les deux journées and Beethoven’s Fidelio, where we witness the triumph of courage, steadfastness and humanity over adversity and oppression.

The music of both Cherubini and Beethoven is frequently distinguished by driving rhythms, incisive accents and strong dynamic contrasts. Cherubini was greatly admired by Beethoven, who declared his Paris-based colleague to be Europe’s foremost composer, which (Beethoven aside) was probably true: Mozart was dead, Haydn was easing into quiet retirement, and the music of Schubert, Weber, Rossini and the Italian bel canto composers was still in the future. Apart from Cherubini, the only other established composer to rival Beethoven was Johann Nepomuk Hummel.

On the whole Beethoven got on well with both Cherubini and Hummel, though his volatile temperament caused friction from time to time. He once famously wrote to Hummel: ‘Don’t come to me anymore! You are a false dog and may the hangman do away with all false dogs.’ Next day, however, his headstrong pride gave way to unctuous humility, and he addressed Hummel: ‘You are an honest fellow and I now realise that you were right…Kisses from your Beethoven, also called dumpling.’

With little other artistic competition at this time, Beethoven was professionally secure, yet he was beset by resignation and despair. He was becoming increasingly deaf, and his personal life was a mess. The most moving evidence of his loneliness is to be found in the so-called Heiligenstadt Testament of 1802, which is a heartfelt plea to his brothers to try to understand the predicament caused by his loss of hearing. It begins: ‘O you men who think or say I am hostile, peevish or misanthropic, how greatly you wrong me. You do not know the secret cause that makes me seem so to you.’

His social isolation was matched only by his hopeless emotional isolation, which is hinted at in an appendix to the Heiligenstadt Testament: ‘O Providence—grant me, some time, a pure day of joy…Oh when, O Divine One, can I feel it again in the temple of nature and of mankind—Never? No, oh, that would be too hard.’ In 1801 he had written about ‘a few blissful moments’, when he believed that he might achieve happiness through marrying Countess Giulietta Guicciardi, the dedicatee of the ‘Moonlight’ Sonata. She was one of his aristocratic piano pupils, but their relationship faltered on account of Beethoven’s humble social standing. In 1803 Giulietta married Count Wenzel von Gallenberg, a Viennese nobleman and musical dilettante. His lacklustre attempts at composing were mocked in the musical press for their slavish adherence to Cherubini, whose opera Les deux journées had recently enjoyed its successful Viennese première under the German title of Der Wasserträger (The Water Carrier). Many years later Beethoven said of Giulietta: ‘I was loved by her, and more than her husband ever was. Yet he was more her lover than I.’

It was from amid such political uncertainty, intellectual vitality and personal adversity that Beethoven publicly unveiled so many great works in 1802. These include piano sonatas, violin sonatas, piano variations, the Second Symphony and the String Quintet in C major, Op. 29. Remarkably, all these predominantly happy works were composed while Beethoven was mourning the loss of his hearing, reconciling himself to a life of celibacy, and pondering the possibility of suicide.

The String Quintet owes its existence to a music-loving count whose previous commissions included Beethoven’s famous ‘Spring’ Sonata for violin and piano. Count Moritz von Fries was the head of a successful banking firm, but he also involved himself in work outside his company, and was to become an intermediary between Beethoven and the Scottish publisher George Thomson. It is, perhaps, surprising that Beethoven agreed to this arrangement because the count had inadvertently landed him in deep trouble over the publication of the Quintet. Being both the dedicatee and commissioner of the work, Fries owned a manuscript of it, and this he naïvely gave to the Viennese firm of Artaria for publication. Beethoven was embarrassed that his patron had been duped by the smooth-talking ‘archscoundrel Artaria’, for he had already promised the work to the rival publisher Breitkopf.

When listening to the opening movement of the Quintet, one is irresistibly reminded of the youthful string chamber music of Brahms, still more than half a century off. Surely, too, the spirit of Dvořák’s early string quintet of 1861 owes as much to this Quintet as it does to anything by Mozart or Schubert. But perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the first movement is its innovative key relationships, which defy the dictates of strict classical sonata form: Beethoven wrote the lyrical second subject in the unexpected key of A major rather than the formally ‘correct’ key of G major. The spacious slow movement, deeply expressive and full of rich tone-colours, is followed by a scherzo that is not dissimilar in mood to that from the Second Symphony. The genial trio section is but a small step away from Schubert, and might well have inspired the younger composer a decade or so later. The finale is unparalleled in originality, and its rushing semiquavers, punctuated by sudden loud interjections, have earned it the German nickname ‘Der Sturm’. Bewilderment is the best way to describe the initial impact of a totally unexpected slower section that has all the wit of a Rossini comic aria. Taking the Quintet as a whole, one is puzzled by its shameful neglect. The late Robert Simpson was right to say that ‘fine works for this medium are not so plentiful that chamber players can afford to ignore it as often as they do.’

1817 was an unproductive year for Beethoven, but in August a certain Herr Kaufmann presented him with a string quintet transcription of the well-known Piano Trio in C minor, Op. 1, No. 3, from 1795. Beethoven was unimpressed with the gentleman’s prosaic efforts, but he did concede that there were sufficient imaginative details to make it worth his while to revise Kaufmann’s work and to introduce some improvements. He was sufficiently happy with the end result to allow Artaria to publish it as Opus 104. For the rest of that year Beethoven composed virtually nothing, save for a very brief Allegretto for string quartet (which was recently rediscovered in Cornwall) and the slightly longer Fugue in D major, Op. 137, for string quintet.

Beethoven, like most composers, considered proofreading to be a particularly onerous job, yet it was a necessary one, given the number of annoying printing errors that occurred. In 1817 the publisher Tobias Haslinger proposed a collected edition of the composer’s works. The project did not get off the ground until after Beethoven’s death, and it was never completed, but it did include this uncommissioned Fugue in D major, which Beethoven seems to have written for Haslinger as an inducement to ensure that printing errors in the edition were reduced to a minimum.

© Anthony Short

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