Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827)
String Quartet No. 13 in Bb Major, Opus 130 I. Adagio ma non troppo
III. Poco scherzoso: andante con moto ma non troppo
IV. Alla danza tedesca. Allegro assai
V. Cavatina. Adagio molto espressivo
VI. Große Fuge
Cover of first edition of Opus 130 published in Berlin in 1827
The centuries have smoothed out the corners but listen closely to Opus 130, our final late work of the summer, and you’ll notice how jarring and full of incongruities it is. From the first measure, 130 starts quietly, swells up, and then drops off. Such unexpected shocks occur on a larger scale throughout the movement as well with the slow sections alternating explosively with boisterous 16th note passages only to abruptly settle down again. Movements II through V act as miniature studies of the different sounds and colors at a quartet’s disposal. The second movement starts with a fleeting murmur followed by a whirling middle section at the edge of control. Movement III is leisurely and slightly silly (poco scherzoso means “a little joking”) except for times when storms threaten. In the blink of an eye, however, the clouds part and the sun returns. The fourth movement is a swinging German peasant dance (tedesca means “German” in Italian) with tiny kicks and bows between partners. How perfect to have this folksy, down-to-earth movement before what is Beethoven’s perhaps most profound and personal single movement: the Cavatina. Of movement V, Beethoven said: "When I think of the Cavatina, it still brings a tear to my eye." Decades ago I attended the final New York recital in Carnegie Hall of the Tokyo Quartet’s legendary first violinist Peter Oundjian, the guiding light and soul of the ensemble. After fourteen years he was retiring and it was a deeply emotional experience for all members of the quartet. They played the Cavatina as an encore and by the end of the movement the players on stage (and many in the audience) had tears streaming down their faces.
The Cavatina from Opus 130
was chosen as the final piece on the golden record sent from Earth on the unmanned Voyager probes to represent humanity.
And finally, six movements in, we find ourselves standing at the colossal gates of the Große Fuge. It is as if we have undergone a year-long trek through hostile jungle and frozen arctic wastes to arrive at a solitary temple perched high atop a mountain. This is where the real test and inner struggle is to begin.
I won’t attempt a road map of any sort to the Große Fuge since everyone hears it differently. Scholars violently dispute its meaning and theorists differ on its fundamental structure. Mark Steinberg described the Große Fuge as “teetering at the boundary between chaos and order.” Worried the piece would not sell due to the frightfully difficult final movement, Beethoven’s publisher Artaria urged him to replace it and, in an extremely rare moment of artistic backtracking (and with the financial incentive of an entirely new fee), Beethoven substituted a new movement shorter and lighter in tone. This summer we are performing the quartet as originally intended and fully intact. Opus 130 wanders all over the map from reverent to angry to rustic to desolate to transcendent and is a prodigious test of the physical, emotional, and mental endurance of the musicians.
Audiences in 1825 didn’t know what to make of the quartet and saw it as proof that the deaf old man had gone soft in the head. Yet while one contemporary reviewer described it as "incomprehensible, like Chinese," none other than Igor Stravinsky wrote "It is an absolutely contemporary piece of music that will be contemporary forever." What makes a work of art a masterpiece is that the more you look, the more you see (or hear). Like interpreting ancient holy scrolls, playing and listening to Beethoven is a life-long journey of discovery.
Now, if you are still here and made it through all the way to the end, first off, congratulations! And if you are interested in listening to the whole, here is a recording: