This week’s music brings us to the close of our series on the three periods in Beethoven’s music. As you know, we have been learning about each of these periods through Beethoven’s string quartets. Today we will conclude with the monumental Grosse Fugue, a single-movement work for string quartet that pushed chamber music to its outermost limits. It is for this reason that the Grosse Fugue was sent into space on the Voyager spacecraft as one of the greatest achievements of humanity.
There is perhaps no better way to end our series on the three periods of Beethoven’s music than with the Grosse Fugue. It represents Beethoven’s most daring experimentation phase, in which he takes the conventional forms of musical structure and stretches them as far as they will go. In the Grosse Fugue, Beethoven pushes the four instruments to the brink, waiting until they are on the edge of the cliff before pulling them back. It is the ultimate adrenaline rush, the ultimate risk-taking adventure. It has a jaggedness that we aren’t using to hearing in Classical Era repertoire. It varies between lyric whispers and explosive octave runs in which the four instruments are tangled in combat as they tumble through the air. Yet it’s external chaos belies the perfectly ordered fugal structure that Beethoven underlays the entire work with.
The renowned twentieth-century composer Igor Stravinsky famously said that the Grosse Fugue would forever be considered a contemporary composition. He was right. It is the pinnacle of Beethoven’s generational genius.
This week’s music is Beethoven’s string quartet No. 12 in E-flat major.
None of the three periods within Beethoven’s music made a complete break from the period that came before it. They were natural evolutions from the musical ideas Beethoven had previously explored. This is particularly true of the third period, which ran from 1817 until his death in 1827. This aspect of Beethoven’s work showcases the full flowering of his inventive capacity, complete with all the structural complexities of the heroic period and emotional tension resulting from his near-complete deafness. This maturation, combined with the personal struggles of his later life, makes the music of this late period immensely satisfying to listen to. It is humorous, yet meditative, anguished, yet peaceful, jarring, yet mysterious. It is the string quartet in its most complete form.
That is not to say, of course, that Beethoven did not begin to experiment quite often with musical ideas that would later become mainstays of the Romantic era. He certainly did. For instance, you will hear lyrical violin lines that resemble Mendelssohn more than the Haydn-esque style Beethoven began with. You’ll also hear jarring, shocking moments of explosive power, juxtaposed with serene, almost operatic serenades between the cello and the violins. In short, Beethoven’s late period exemplifies the beginning of the transition to a Romantic era that would create a musical home for Brahms, Wagner, Strauss, Liszt, and many more.
This week’s music, proceeding in our series on the three musical periods of the music of Ludwig van Beethoven, is Beethoven’s string quartet no. 11 in F Minor.
We discussed last week how Beethoven began in his middle period to move away from the classicism of his early years and toward the romanticism of those who would come after him (Brahms, Wagner, etc.). No. 11, the last quartet in his middle period, reveals Beethoven at the cusp of this transition.
You will hear him exploring more lyrical styles in the second and third movements in particular, and there are passages that even sound almost Mendelssohn-esque. You’ll also notice the abrupt, almost violent opening passage of the first movement that is somewhat similar to the thunderous opening of his famous Fifth Symphony, which was also composed during his middle period. By this point in his career, Beethoven was compressing the emotional tension he had learned to create in his early period. As a result, the moments of explosive power and hushed whispering are pushed closer and closer together, until, in his late period (as you will see next week), they are subsumed into one inextricable whole.
We continue our series on the three periods of Beethoven’s music by listening to the string quartet No. 7 in F Major today. This is the first of two quartets that we will hear representing the middle period of Beethoven’s work.
Let’s recap the early Beethoven quartets we listened to over the past two weeks. First, they have a typical classical structure (for the most part): presentation, slow, fast, finale. Second, they are stylistically similar to the compositions of early classical period composers like Haydn. And third, they show Beethoven’s genius with recycling phrases and motifs throughout a piece.
Beethoven’s middle period is where he began to mature and come into his own. It was during this time that he wrote most of the massive symphonic works that we have come to know and love, including his famous Fifth Symphony, his powerful Eroica Symphony, and his first two piano concertos. It is for good reason that his middle period is often referred to as his “heroic” period.
During this part of his life, Beethoven broke away from the Haydn-esque classicism and began to move toward the emotional expressivity of future composers like Brahms and Wagner. No longer was he content with simple, upbeat melodies; he now felt a drive to encompass transcendent themes like death, celebration, or grief.
The 7th string quartet (titled “Razumovsky” after the Russian duke it was written for) shows the start of this change. The first movement begins with a confident melody that is reminiscent of his early period quartets, but Beethoven soon takes us into a development section much more complex and introspective than anything we’ve heard from him before. Those of you familiar with the Eroica Symphony will hear traces of it in this development section.
I would also encourage you to listen carefully to the third movement (Adagio). Unlike his early period works, Beethoven freely explores the tragic element here with sensitivity and power. This is perhaps one of the first instances of Beethoven’s amazing capacity for communicating sadness through music.
This week’s music, continuing in our new series on the chronological development of Beethoven’s music, is the String Quartet No. 4 in C Minor, performed by the Ying Quartet.
No. 4 is the only one of the six string quartets in Beethoven’s early period to be set in a minor key. It is also unique because it is not structured as most of his string quartets were. As we noted last week, the majority of Beethoven’s string quartets (indeed, the majority of all string quartets ever composed) proceed with four movements that follow the “presentation,” “slow,” “fast,” and “finale” progression. However, No. 4 dispenses with the “fast” movement and replaces it with a C Major minuet that Beethoven referred to as “a joke.”
The first movement is the most well-known part of this quartet. In many ways, it is structured like Beethoven’s famous 5th Symphony (also in C Minor). It oscillates between jagged unison chords and lyrical viola and cello solos. These solos get repeated throughout the movement, but each time they are in a different tonality. Beethoven showcases his mastery of harmony in the modulations between each of these tonalities. Listen for sharp dynamic changes as well; Beethoven was beginning to increase his use of contrasting volume levels at this point in his career.
Ludwig van Beethoven is, of course, a mainstay of classical music. We’ve all heard of him, and chances are we would recognize at least one piece of music he wrote. And for good reason. He wrote enough music that we could probably listen to only Beethoven and be occupied for over a year. Scholars spend decades on a single Beethoven symphony. His music is simultaneously complex and simple, powerful and delicate.
For these reasons (and many more), Beethoven is worth a closer look. There are dozens of ways to study Beethoven’s music, but perhaps the best way is chronologically. Beethoven’s music can be divided into three periods: early, middle, and late. Each period reveals a different aspect of Beethoven’s maturation as a composer and shows just how much he accelerated the development of music in his relatively short lifetime. I thought it might be beneficial, then, for us to learn a little bit about each of these periods in Beethoven’s music through a series on the Beethoven string quartets. He wrote 16 of them, but we will examine 6 of the best. We will spend two weeks on each period, with a different quartet each week. My hope is that, by the end of this series, you will have a deeper appreciation for one of the greatest musical geniuses of all time.
This week we will be looking at the very first of Beethoven’s string quartets, the F Major. As with most quartets, this composition has four movements that can be characterized with the one-word descriptors “presentation,” “slow,” “fast,” “finale.” This quartet fits with the style that was popular at the time, a style that imitated the compositions of Franz Joseph Haydn. Haydn was a renowned composer who served as a mentor to Beethoven and several other composers, and he is often credited with “inventing” the string quartet. His style was light and airy, with dainty flourishes in the violins and simple cello accompaniment lines. Beethoven’s early string quartets adopted this style, and the F Major is a perfect example. You will hear the opening motif with all four voices, after which the first violin launches into the melodic role and stays there for nearly the entire work.
This week’s music is Meiczyslaw Weinberg’s Rhapsody on Moldovan Themes.
Weinberg was born to a Jewish family in Warsaw in 1919 and escaped to the Soviet Union when the Nazis invaded Poland. His mother and sister perished in the Nazi concentration camps, and his father (an outspoken Polish nationalist) was killed by the Soviet police. Upon moving to Russia, Weinberg soon faced another threat—state-sanctioned persecution of artists and musicians who did not tow the Soviet ideological line. Weinberg was therefore unable to publish any of his music and was forced to make a living writing music for theatres and circuses. However, these struggles did not stop him from writing seven operas, 26 symphonies, and 17 string quartets. The discovery of these other compositions has led to a resurgence in his popularity, and Weinberg is now taking his rightful place alongside Prokofiev and Shostakovich as one of the greatest composers of the Soviet era.
The Rhapsody on Moldavian Themes is a medley of Russian folk tunes. It is part of Weinberg’s Symphony No. 6, which was written in 1949 as a conciliatory gesture to the Soviet authorities, who were requiring artists to highlight Russian themes in their art. Weinberg supposedly snuck a few Polish and Jewish folk tunes into the rhapsody as well. For example, the fiery finale of the rhapsody is a Jewish klezmer dance. There is no indication that the Soviet authorities caught this subtle insertion.
Our music for this week is the string quintet in C Major by Franz Schubert.
Schubert completed this quintet two weeks before his death in 1828. Rather than write a string quartet, however, he added a cello part and produced a quintet that sounds almost symphonic in its proportions. Listen for the interactions between the two cello parts; Schubert sometimes treats them as a pair of soloists, with violin and viola playing the part of “orchestra accompaniment.”
In writing for this unique mixture of instruments (almost every chamber music composition of his time was for a string quartet, with only one cello), Schubert broke open a new realm of possibilities for composers to experiment with. Before too long, Mendelssohn (https://thisweeksmusic.com/2021/04/30/octet-2-mendelssohn/) and Enescu (https://thisweeksmusic.com/2021/05/08/octet-3-enescu/) had written string octets, and later American composers (like Samuel Barber and Amy Beach) would combine strings, winds, brass, and vocals into even more unconventional ensembles. In short, Schubert’s cello quintet-his last composition before he died-was the start of an era.
This week’s music is Spiegel Im Spiegel by the Estonian composer Arvo Part.
Spiegel im Spiegel is, like Barber’s Adagio for Strings, one of the most powerful pieces of music written in the 20th century. It consists of a single solo line (in this performance, violin) over a piano accompaniment. The title of the 1978 piece means “Mirror in the Mirror,” and it describes how the pieces progresses. The melody, which starts with only two notes, is a repeated set of ascending melodic phrases that are mirrored by a descending mirror phrase. The ascents are broken by periodic returns to the central pitch of A. The piano, mirroring these changes with ascents and descents of its own, plays what are called tintinnabula notes, which are bell-like tones that sound above and below the melodic line following a fixed formula.
Arvo Part’s view of musical performance is relevant to the simple style of this piece: “Everything redundant must be left aside. Just like the composer has to reduce his ego when writing the music, the musician too must put his ego aside when performing the piece.” In a way, the musical atmosphere of Spiegel im Spiegel is a reflection of Part’s own view of music.
We are wrapping up our series on the octet with Schoenberg’s Verklarte Nacht, performed by two of the world’s best string quartets.
Schoenberg is one of the most pivotal and polarizing characters in the story of music. His early career include works like Verklarte Nacht, which reveal his unbelievable talent and his complete mastery of tonal harmony. However, later in his career, he came under the influence of the Marxist philosopher Theodore Adorno, a member of the Frankfurt School. Soon afterward, Schoenberg began advocating for the “liberation of dissonance,” and his music devolved into unplayable 12-tone serialism. Today, the only Schoenberg compositions that are performed are those from his early years; audiences have made it clear to musicians that the unintelligibility of Schoenberg’s later works do not interest them.
Schoenberg’s early works are in a league of their own, and Verklarte Nacht may be at the top of that league. It bridges the gap between Romantic and 20th-century music like nothing else. You will hear lush, almost Mendelssohn-esque passages, but you will also hear forecasts to the modernism of Prokofiev and Ives. A critic from the Los Angeles Philharmonic said it best: “Lush, dense, highly chromatic yet still just within the bounds of tonality, [Verklarte Nacht] can be regarded as a very late example of 19th century German Romanticism, a natural product of the trajectory from Beethoven and Schubert to Brahms, Wagner, and Strauss.”