Late Beethoven – Part 2: Grosse Fugue

Hello all,

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.

Enjoy!

T

Late Beethoven – Part 1

Hello all,

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.

Enjoy!

T

Middle Beethoven – Part 2

Hello all,

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.

Enjoy!

T

Middle Beethoven – Part 1

Hello all,

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.

Enjoy!

T

Early Beethoven, Part 2

Hello all,

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.

Enjoy!

T

Beethoven, Over Time

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.

Enjoy!

T

Brahms Piano Trio

Hello all,

Our music for this week is the third movement of Brahms’ Piano Trio No. 2 in C Major, performed by the superstar trio of Leonidas Kavakos, Yo Yo Ma, and Emmanuel Ax.

You won’t find a better ensemble than this one. Each of these three musicians is at the top of their respective instrumental fields. Yo Yo Ma rose to fame as a child prodigy and continues to amaze crowds around the world with his bravado and energy. Emmanuel Ax has dominated the world of the piano since winning the Rubenstein International Piano Competition in 1974. Leonidas Kavakos, one of the most versatile musicians and conductors alive today, has been atop the violin world since his victory at the Sibelius and Paganini competitions in 1985 and 1988, respectively. The three of them have been touring the world for several years now, playing the best of the piano trio repertoire to packed audiences around the globe.

The second piano trio of Brahms was composed at the height of his compositional maturity. By this point in his career, he had overcome the massive shadow that Beethoven cast on all who followed him. He was now writing music with the comfort of a well-established reputation behind him, and this confidence comes through in his music. The third movement of the C Major trio exudes confidence while also combining elements of Romanticism and Classicism into a cohesive whole. There are strands of Mendelssohn in the dark emotionality of the movement, but there are also playful sections that remind the listener of Beethoven’s lighter moods.

Enjoy!

T

Top 25 #16 – Moonlight Sonata

Hello all,

The sixteenth installment in our series on the Top 25 Greatest Pieces of Classical Music is the famous Moonlight Sonata by Ludwig van Beethoven.

The Moonlight Sonata is one of Beethoven’s most widely-known pieces, right up there with the Ninth Symphony and the Violin Concerto. He wrote it in 1801 while working as a teacher and court musician for a Hungarian baron. Most people assume that, with a name like “Moonlight Sonata,” this piece was meant to reflect a moon-lit stroll with a lover. However, Beethoven’s journal entries suggest that it was actually a memorial for a dear friend of his who had passed away around that time.

There are three movements in the sonata. Here’s what to listen for:

First is Adagio Sostenuto, which contains the famous Beethoven melody that we all know. Listen for the base line that reverberates throughout the entire movement. It provides a solemn grounding force that carries the melody through its many different permutations.

Second, you’ll hear the Allegretto. This movement could not be more different than the first movement. Think of this part as less of an individual movement and more of an emotional reprieve that Beethoven inserted between the first and third movements.

Third is the Presto Agitato, which starts at 9:14. This movement is the storm that so many Beethoven works are famous for. Listen for two themes – first, a theme composed of flying arpeggios, and second, a more lyrical melody that is reminiscent of the first movement.

Enjoy!

T

Top 25 – #1: Archduke

Hello all,

Our music for this week is the famous “Archduke” trio by Ludwig van Beethoven. It is performed in this 1970 recording by the superstar ensemble of Eugene Istomin on the piano, Isaac Stern on the violin, and Leonard Rose on the cello.

As stated in our tagline, the goal of This Week’s Music is to “make classical accessible.” So often, classical music can seem like a distant or un-relatable genre of music. The hope is that through these weekly messages, classical music will become more tangible and understandable.

One of the components of this learning process is the eventual knowledge of what pieces of music are central to the repertoire. Although there are thousands of hours of amazing classical music, some compositions stand out as the greatest of all time. That is why our next series, which begins today, is titled “The 25 Greatest Pieces of Classical Music.” The goal is to share with you the pieces that I believe are foundation of the genre. At best, you’ll fall in love with some of the greatest music of all time; at worst, you’ll be able to sound cultured at a cocktail party.

I’m sure I will miss a few. With any “Top 10”-type list, personal opinion is bound to play a significant role. However, I welcome suggestions as we go through this series! Let me know if there is a piece that you feel should be included in the Top 25 Greatest Pieces of Classical Music.

This week’s selection, Beethoven’s Archduke Trio, definitely belongs in this list. Even Beethoven himself, when looking back over his compositions, said that it was his best work. As you can probably tell, it was dedicated to Beethoven’s employer at the time, Archduke Rudolph.

The Archduke Trio is all about balance. It is perhaps the only trio in which all three voices are perfectly balanced. In many piano trios, the piano plays a more solo role, with the stringed instruments along for the ride. Beethoven, however, was able to achieve a near-perfect balance of the three. This balance is also evident the compositional ability itself – the harmonic and dynamic contours of the Archduke Trio are likewise perfectly balanced. Even the structure of the four movements contain a lovely balance of emotions, spanning from cheerful to moody and everything in between. Beethoven left no stone unturned.

The Archduke Trio also holds a significant place in the history of music. Until Beethoven composed this trio in 1810, composers had not utilized the form very often. Beethoven’s success with the trio format encouraged other composers to try it. You may remember that we listened to Mendelssohn’s piano trios recently, both of which were inspired by Beethoven’s pioneering of the trio format (https://thisweeksmusic.com/2019/07/12/new-series-mendelssohn-piano-trios/).

Enjoy!

T

Spring Sonata

Hello all,

Our music for this week is the Violin Sonata No. 5 in F Major by Ludwig van Beethoven. It is performed by Oleg Kagan on the violin and Sviatoslav Richter on the piano.

As you listen to more and more classical music, you’ll begin to see patterns in how certain types of pieces are structured. For instance, most symphonies have four movements, most string quartets also have four, most concertos have three, and most sonatas also have three. Beethoven’s sonatas, however, broke this mold, featuring a pseudo-symphonic format that includes four movements. Just like most symphonies, the movements are Allegro (an expository opening), Adagio (a slow middle movement to put the audience to sleep), Scherzo (a fast middle movement to wake the audience up), and Rondo/Allegro (an intense finale).

A word about the musicians: in my opinion, this may be one of the greatest “superstar lineups” to ever perform. Kagan, who we have heard before, was destined to become the greatest of all time but for his tragic early death as a result of cancer. Richter very well may be the greatest pianist to ever live, and we devoted an entire series on him! Together, they are as good a duo as you will ever hear – perfectly together, uniquely individual, and masterfully stylistic. Notice Kagan’s period-correct vibrato – not too narrow (as he might do for a Mozart sonata) and not too wide (as he might do when playing Brahms). Notice Richter’s impeccable phrasing – not too stark (like Shostakovich), but certainly not subtle (as in Bach).

The opening melody of this sonata is beautiful in a way I’m not sure I can describe. It is delightfully sad, wonderfully sad, warmly sad. It is sad in a way that only makes sense when viewed in light of the fact that Beethoven was, at this time, simultaneously soaring to the top of the musical world while also losing the ability to hear his own music. I remember listening to audio cassettes in my childhood that dramatized the lives of famous composers through a child’s eyes, and this was the sonata that played when Beethoven walked alone at night through the streets of Vienna, remembering his youth and fighting back the tears that welled up whenever his silent existence became too much to bear. I’m not sure whether that particular scene ever happened in Beethoven’s life, but I know that it perfectly portrays the atmosphere of this sonata. Perhaps that is the wonderfully ironic miracle of its nickname “Spring” – a glimmer of hope at the end of a dark journey.

Enjoy!

T