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ClassicsOnline Home » BEETHOVEN: String Quartets Op. 59, No. 3, 'Rasumovsky' and Op. 127
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 - 1827)
String Quartet in C major, Op. 59, No. 3 (Razumovsky)
String Quartet in E flat major, Op.127
Just how when and where the first string quartet came
about is something of a mystery, although music for four voices can certainly
be traced back to medieval times and something like an original version of a
quartet for strings can be traced back to Gregorio Allegri at the beginning of
the seventeenth century.
What is certain is that by the mid-eighteenth century,
quartets were in existence for a combination of two violins, viola and cello by
composers such as Franz Xaver Richter and Luigi Boccherini, not to mention the
start of a large collection of quartets by Joseph Haydn. Haydn was responsible
for the major developments in the quartet during his lifetime. His first string
quartet dates from the 1750s and his last unfinished Opus 103 from
towards the end of his life in 1803.
Haydn developed the quartet along the lines of the
eighteenth century symphony and in that he was followed and imitated by Mozart
and his contemporaries. The quartet was a symphony in miniature; suitable for
playing with friends at home and by amateur music enthusiasts. In the days
before recorded music, this was home entertainment at its best. Haydn and Mozart
together probably account for almost half of the string quartet repertory even
But among the newcomers who were to add to the repertoire
and broadening of both style and form of the quartet, none was to be more influential
than Beethoven. There is no more individual voice in quartet writing throughout
history than his. Beethoven stretched the symphony and the quartet to limits incomprehensible
to his own audience and truly remarkable even to listeners today.
Beethoven's life crossed the frontiers from a sedate
eighteenth century into the turmoil of Romanticism, the onset of Napoleon's
dream of conquering Europe and the beginnings of the nationalist revolutions
that tore the continent apart. Born in Bonn in Germany in 1770, he soon moved
to Vienna. Unlike his predecessors, he was less interested in working for
patrons than composing what he wanted to. His lack of any sort of morality also
puts him in a totally different class from Haydn and his followers, Beethoven was
said to have had countless illicit affairs with women, married or not, and to
have fathered several children. He never settled down and lived a life of disarray
in often the filthiest of lodgings.
Fighting against convention and always ready to develop
new musical ideas, he was seen as a virtually god-like figure by many of his admirers.
Revered still by those who hardly know his music, his name is universal. His
deeply unhappy and somewhat unpleasant character was due to his disappointments
in life, culminating in deafness and illness, but never stopping him from pushing
the limits of music. His piano playing was such that from frustration with the
limitations of old instruments he was often seen to hit the keys so hard that
he broke the strings. Although the quartets never asked their players to take
on similar destructive playing, the journey from the Opus 18 to Opus
135 quartets remains a remarkable voyage of discovery.
The two quartets on this disc come from different periods
of Beethoven's life but are linked by dedications to Russian nobles in Vienna.
The String Quartet in C major, Opus 59 No.3 is the third of the Razumovsky
quartets dedicated to the amateur violinist and Russian ambassador to Vienna.
The first of the late quartets was commissioned by the amateur cellist and Russian
Prince Nikolay Galitzin. Razumovsky was responsible for three of Beethoven's
most popular quartets and Galitzin drew Beethoven back to composing his finest
and most revolutionary quartets.
The third quartet of Opus 59 is in conventional
four-movement form with a minuet in third place. Despite this nod in the
direction of conservative form, the opening of the first movement seems
distinctly discordant and takes a while to reach the main Allegro subject
matter in C major. The slow movement has a lovely melody in the related key of
A minor and the final movement is a fast moving Allegro molto fugue.
The return to writing with string quartets Opus 127
begins the late quartet series, the summation of Beethoven as a composer. The Ninth
Symphony had its first performance in 1824, a year before Opus 127 and
the sublime Missa solemnis was completed in 1823. It is hardly
surprising these late quartets live in a totally new sound world and that the
form is now stretched almost beyond its limits Beethoven creates music of
unbelievable intensity at a time when considered both mad and incapacitated through
Although some of the late quartets dispense with
conventional four-movement plans, the E flat quartet retains the structure and
sticks to the conventions of the Razumovsky with a second movement Adagio and a
third movement Scherzo. The second movement is a particularly beautiful set
of variations whereas the outer movements have many changes of time. The whole
quartet shows Beethoven's new style of giving the individual instruments their
own separate lines which are still able to blend perfectly together.
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