STRING QUARTET IN A MINOR, OPUS 132
I. Assai sostenuto – Allegro
II. Allegro ma non tanto
III. Molto Adagio – Andante “Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit, in der lydischen Tonart”
IV. Alla Marcia, assai vivace
I’ve felt a personal connection to 132 ever since I first heard it when my high school conductor gave me a recording by the Concord String Quartet. My teacher’s brother, Mark Sokol, was first violinist of the Concord and a chamber music legend who subsequently became one of my teachers and a formative musical influence in my life. I had played many of Beethoven’s early and middle quartets but this late work was a revelation. The quartet is full of jarring contrasts; contemporary listeners thought the work so odd that many assumed the deaf composer had begun a descent into madness. The first movement switches abruptly between angry and joyful passages. In many ways, such contrasts are the real theme of the work more than any actual melody. The second movement begins with a rolling minuet and an angelic middle section which devolves into a country bumpkin-like melody played by the viola.
The third movement is the core and spiritual heart of 132 and perhaps the most personal statement Beethoven ever wrote. He suffered from terrible health, a result of a delicate constitution exacerbated by German peasant food (think blood sausage, pig’s knuckles, and way too much wine). While writing 132, he became so ill that a priest had to be called. Somehow he miraculously pulled through and in gratitude inscribed the manuscript with “Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit, in der lydischen Tonart” (Holy prayer of thanksgiving to the Godhead in the Lydian mode). The movement alternates celestial solemnity with earth-bound, foot-clomping dance sections he titled "Neue Kraft fühlend" (feeling new strength) that become increasingly more ecstatic until reaching the ending. This is some of the most blissful music ever written.
The fourth movement follows with a short march and a fiery cadenza that flows directly into the fraught last movement ending with a virtuosic sprint by the cello at its upper-most range. It is an extraordinary work and, along with Beethoven’s other late works, heralded the end of the Classical era of Haydn and Mozart and ushered in the Romanticism of Schubert, Schumann, Brahms.
Program notes by David Yang