Late Quartet

1200px-Ludwig_van_Beethoven_-_Sketches_for_the_String_Quartet_Op._131._(BL_Add_MS_38070_f._51r)

(A sketch Beethoven made for his String Quartet no. 14 in C# minor, op. 131.)

The last works Beethoven wrote were a series of six string quartets. Why do you think, in the last two years of his life, he turned to this form?

Richard Taruskin suggests that:

The intimacy of chamber music offered the composer the possibility of a heightened subjectivity, a medium where he could speak his inmost, private thoughts and confide his deepest private moods as if to a music diary. There are pages in the late quartets that can seem almost embarrassing to hear in public, as if hearing were overhearing –eavesdropping on the composer’s afflicted personal existence, invading his privacy. 

The String Quartet no.14 begins with a fugue, which Richard Wagner later called “surely the saddest thing ever said in notes,” and which twentieth-century musicologist Joseph Kerman called the “most moving of all fugues.” Schubert said of the quartet, in despair, “After this, what is left for us to write?” And Schumann wrote that the quartet had a “grandeur . . .which no words can express. [It seems] to me to stand . . .on the extreme boundary of all that has hitherto been attained by human art and imagination.”

Why does Beethoven start with a fugue, breaking with the longstanding convention of writing a first movement in sonata form? Does a fugue contain the same spirit of conflict as sonata form? If not, what does it symbolize/suggest?

And the quartet has seven movements — unusual movements. What is going on here? How do the movements differ from each other? How do they carry forward a single unified idea?

 

 
Movement No. Tempo indications Key Meter Length
I. Adagio ma non troppo e molto espressivo C minor cut time About 7 minutes
II. Allegro molto vivace D major 6
8
About 3 minutes
III. Allegro moderato – Adagio B minor common time About 45 seconds
IV. Andante ma non troppo e molto cantabile – Più mosso – Andante moderato e lusinghiero – Adagio – Allegretto – Adagio, ma non troppo e semplice – Allegretto A major 2
4
About 14 minutes
V. Presto E major cut time about 5​12 minutes
VI. Adagio quasi un poco andante G minor 3
4
About 2 minutes
VII. Allegro C minor cut time About 6​12 minutes

Is Beethoven perhaps playing with time and space again as he moves, in his last years and in failing health, to embrace the infinite?

In his long poem Four Quartets, completed in 1943, American-British poet T.S. Eliot consciously attempted to imitate the late quartets of Beethoven. He writes in the first of his poetic “quartets,” Burnt Norton:

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden. . . .

Time past and time future
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.

Is this what Beethoven is getting at?

Christopher Walken, as a master cellist and master teacher, quotes Eliot as he introduces the op. 131 Quartet to his students:

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