Peter Hanson and Emlyn Ngai, violin; Karina Schmitz, viola; Ezra Seltzer, cello
Ludwig van Beethoven, Quartet No. 4 in C Minor, op. 18
Ludwig van Beethoven, Quartet No. 16 in F Major, op. 135
We salute Beethoven’s 250th birthday with performances of an early and late string quartet at Pebble Beach’s Church in the Forest. The Quartet in F Major, op. 135 was the last composition Beethoven completed.
Presented in celebration of the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth, the two string quartets heard today frame a career in which he forever transformed the string quartet as he did the symphony and many other musical forms. The String Quartet, op. 18, no. 4 is one of the outstanding works of his so-called “early” period, and the Quartet op. 135 quartet is his last, composed nearly three decades later in the year before his death.
In 1799, Prince Lobkowitz commissioned Haydn—arguably the most famous living musician at the time—and Beethoven—the most promising composer of the younger generation—to compose sets of string quartets. Haydn had recently completed his Creation and was the acknowledged master of the quartet genre, having produced more than 60 of them during the past three decades. Beethoven came to Vienna in 1792 to establish himself as a virtuoso pianist and composer and studied with Haydn during the following two years. He had not yet produced string quartets, perhaps to avoid premature comparison with the established masters, Haydn and Mozart. Ultimately, Beethoven’s Six Quartets, op. 18, published in 1801, would be his bold entrée into this genre in the new century.
The Quartet in C Minor, numbered no. 4, is actually the last of the six to be composed. This dark and angst-ridden key has a special association with Beethoven, connecting him to the sturm und drang of his predecessors. His previous works in C minor included the last of the Piano Trios, op. 1, and the Pathetique Sonata, and future explorations would produce the Third Piano Concerto, and most memorably, the Fifth Symphony. Drama is already abundant in the opening Allegro ma non tanto, with driving energy and extreme dynamics, occasionally relieved by the lyrical second theme first introduced by the second violin. Lacking a real slow movement, the middle movements seem to swap each other’s character: the Scherzo is relaxed and conversational, while the Menuetto has the power and speed usually applied to Beethoven’s scherzos. The final Allegro takes on the character of Hungarian gypsy music, with a turbocharged coda marked Prestissimo, which in this case means as fast as possible!
Here, my dear friend, is my last quartet. It will be the last; and indeed it has given me much trouble. For I could not bring myself to compose the last movement…And that is the reason I have written the motto: the Difficult Decision—Must it be?—It must be, it must be, it must be!
–Beethoven to his publisher Schlesinger
After the profound series of late quartets including the Grosse Fuga, composed between 1825 and 1826, Beethoven’s quartet swan song seems like a throwback to the more genial, Haydnesque style of the previous century. Humor and irony, and perhaps a touch of the philosophical predominate in this work, evident from the cryptic, meandering dialogue of the opening Allegretto. The scherzo (Vivace) begins with jagged syncopation and a light touch that is completely abandoned in the wild and raucous trio, where the first violin valiantly spars with the other three players, who in solidarity powerfully repeat a five-note motive underneath. Beethoven’s notation, “sweet song of rest and peace” on the manuscript of the slow movement, Lento assai, cantante e tranquillo, needs no elaboration.
The basis for the phrases “Muss es sein?” (Must it be?) and its answer “Es muss sein!” (It must be!) quoted in the finale is explained in an anecdote: A Viennese music lover named Ignaz Demscher had asked for a performance in his home of Beethoven’s Quartet, op. 130, for which he needed the sheet music from the composer. When asked, through a second party, to fulfill this request, Beethoven replied that since Demscher had notably not bought a ticket for a prior performance, he would not yield the parts until the latter paid fifty florins. Hearing this, Demscher exclaimed, “Must it be?” When reported to Beethoven he laughed and replied, “It must be, yes, yes, yes, out with your wallet!” and dashed off a vocal canon with motives representing these phrases. These soon made it into the opening of op. 135’s final movement, with the first phrase, Grave, presented in ominously dissonant tones, with its strongly affirmative answer in the Allegro. The pizzicato passage in the coda seems to say that this “conflict” was all in fun.