Beethoven, String Quartet in F Major, Op. 59. No. 1, “Razumovsky”

Ludwig van Beethoven, 1770-1827

String Quartet No. 7 in F Major, Op. 59, No. 1, “Razumovsky”, 1806

Ludwig van BeethovenBeethoven produced his second set of string quartets, Op. 59, in 1806, just about six years after Op. 18. Without intending any injustice to Op. 18, moving to Op. 59 is like Dorothy, erstwhile inhabitant of a black-and-white Kansas, crashing down into the colorful Land of Oz. With Op. 59, we alight into the land of middle-period Beethoven and meet the crème-de-la-crème: The Op. 59 quartets stand next to the august tradition of Viennese chamber music quartets by Haydn, Mozart and earlier Beethoven like the Rocky Mountains rise above the central plains. They are longer, more technically challenging, dramatically and psychologically far more intense and they mark in more ways than one the elevation of quartet performance culture to its first plateau of daunting professionalism. The massive triptych of quartets comprising Op. 59 is the precise chamber music analog of the revolutionary Symphony No. 3 within the category of orchestral music. Written only a few years earlier, Beethoven’s Eroica symphony crash-landed into the Viennese symphonic tradition like a meteor from outer space, an awesome and imponderable monolith of grandeur and shock. This was Beethoven fully emerging, the most unrelenting musical pioneer of all time. The piano sonatas and mixed chamber music of this period all exhibit this “heroic” transformation so that, in a word, music is suddenly happening on a whole different scale of intensity, virtuosity and profundity.

The first quartet of the three, Op. 59, No. 1 in F Major, curiously shares the same key as Beethoven’s first quartet, Op. 18, No. 1, and his very last quartet, Op. 135. It is also the key of the luxurious Pastorale Symphony No. 6. Whatever the deeper reasons or implications of Beethoven’s choice of key, all these works share a kindred warmth, a beneficent sense of well-being and grandeur that links them even across vast expanses of Beethoven’s evolution. The quartet opens with an equally warm and welcome melody from the cello, a long rolling theme with an opening five-note motif that becomes a mantra saturating the musical discourse. The initial line rises from cello to violin to the full ensemble, still rising, until it rests and spills over into rich lines of milk and honey, the open harmonies of hunting horns, a definite evocation of pastoral fecundity. A lavish exposition travels even further through this celebration of joy until it winds around to the beginning, ready to repeat the long and joyous opening gambit. Beethoven begins what sounds like the repeat, but suddenly, in the words of Michael Steinberg, “throws a switch” and sends us off, without repeat, headlong into fresh territory. First comes a heartfelt, searching elaboration of the primary theme colored in so many new ways. Then, like a big dark cloud, a probing fugato of considerable proportions and disturbing affect. Eventually, the beneficence and grandeur return with a somehow more fully realized brilliance and a fleet coda concludes a vast quartet epic of boldly new proportions. The feint at the “expected” exposition repeat is small but revolutionary: here Beethoven is directly and magically altering our sense of time.

monolithThe second movement Allegretto is “the scherzo” marked with an elaborate tempo and mood designation: Allegretto vivace e sempre scherzando (a light but lively allegro always with a sense of play). This is not a blazing scherzo, but a cheeky, standoffish, cool abstraction of a scherzo that sneaks up on you, suddenly yells and scares you half to death and then slaps you loutishly on the back as if it has all been just in good fun. The brusque wit of Beethoven sometimes comes in the form of hammer blows from Thor and, in the case of this movement, a sudden plunge into an apocalyptic cauldron of fire. Beethoven plays with texture using a prescient modern sensibility: separating parts by time, space and range, isolating rather than blending, fragmenting the ensemble into bare sticks of fractured musical utterance. With choppy rhythms and blunt, husky gestures, the humorous disintegration of music suddenly becomes violent, then devastating as Beethoven leads us from humor to a kind of fleeting horror. The visceral might of a well-marshaled string quartet can astonish with its force. The entire scherzo is peculiarly devoid of the seams and joints that make its typical three-part form clear in most other instances. This reinforces the novel, non-repetitive, thorough-composed character of the entire quartet.

Unsettled from a certain ambiguity best described as that from scary clowns, the third, slow movement takes us into Beethoven’s inner sanctum of sacred emotional utterance, a trait first clear in at least two of the Op. 18 quartets and increasingly the case as Beethoven makes his way to the near mysticism of the final late quartets at the end of his life. Again, a peculiarly specific movement direction: Adagio molto e mesto (very slowly with intense melancholy). Delicate, sensuous, Italianate and simple as a lullaby or nursery rhyme, the music leads us deep into indescribable musical territory. The part-writing for the quartet is extraordinary. As in the most celebrated moments of the late quartets, this movement has a heart within its heart, a passage of divine supplication that fairly levitates before it sinks again, unanswered, into the incredibly delicate sorrow that achieves an astonishing lightness and clarity of texture with the uncanny evocation of a Baroque Italian trio sonata. A burst of light again and we make our way into the second half with one of the most delicate fugues Beethoven ever wrought. At this point in this first of the great Razumovsky quartets, we are nested in worlds within worlds.

Beethoven has nearly painted himself into a corner here. How can he get out of this dark sort of oblivion when all emotional and musical momentum has stalled on such epic sorrow? Beethoven connects the third and fourth movements without pause and binds them by a segue: a little musical bridge that gently lifts us like the rising sun and the first restless twittering of birds. A new day sings a fresh, lilting theme that Beethoven labels “Russian”, an unidentified trinket sewn into the musical fabric ostensibly paying tribute to the wealthy Russian Ambassador Count Razumovksy who commissioned the quartets for his private musical salon. (The second Razumovsky quartet contains a similar, better-known Easter egg). Back are the long lines of musical bounty in rich proportions but here celebrated with sparklers and confetti, Peter, jaunty after conquering the wolf. The extended development of the “Russian” theme with counterparts assumes a definite sort of Russian flavor as Beethoven takes us on our last swell of musical and emotional intensity. The final part-writing for string quartet is, again, magnificent and yet another illustration of why the Razumovsky quartets posed a new and frightening challenge to amateur players. The ending holds the listener rapt in a game of delayed gratification as the music briefly equivocates between a gentle calm and the unbridled hurrah of absolute triumph.

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