Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
String Quartet in E minor Op 59 No 2 ‘Razumovsky’
Beethoven’s formidable talent and legendary personality often meant, to the wealthy music lovers of Vienna, that he could do no wrong. No matter what little revolutions he started with his compositions, they were always accommodated as the works of a genius. No questions asked.
This was not the case with his three Razumovsky quartets, composed between April and October of 1806 for the Russian ambassador to Vienna, Prince Razumovsky. The Prince was an intimate friend of Beethoven’s and supported the young composer almost as soon as he arrived in the city.
Although they are relatively standard sounding to 21st century ears, the length and intensity of the Op 59 quartets were quite unlike anything an early 19th century audience would have heard.. The 27th February, 1807 edition of the music newspaper Allgemeine Musikalisches Zeitung reported, “The conception is profound and the construction excellent, but they are not easily comprehended- with the possible exception of the 3rd in C major which cannot but appeal to intelligent lovers of music because of its originality, melody and harmonic power.”
The first movement of Op 59 No.2 opens with two strong chords designed to capture the attention of the chattering audience. Given Beethoven’s reputation as a jokester, it is not difficult to imagine that gaping silence that follows was designed to catch out those who hadn’t yet finished their gossiping. He uses double stops, instrument doubling and full chords to thicken the texture and create a symphonic sound; a far cry from the gossamer textures of Haydn and Mozart.
It is the second movement of this quartet that has become its highlight. Beethoven historian Wilhem von Lenz wrote in 1853 that the movement is “a vision of Paradise where mortal love finds eternal happiness.” More than beauty for its own sake, the movement is typical of Beethoven in that is delves inevitably and without invitation deep into the soul.
An important compositional feature is Beethoven’s use of continuous melody rather than the traditional eight bar phrase divisions. This idea would be developed at every angle and extrapolated into the Gesamtkunstwerk, or total art, of Wagner.
The third movement is the most symphonic of the quartet. This time Beethoven uses open fifths, and syncopated accompaniment to thicken the texture and evoke an almost pastoral atmosphere. The middle section features a fugal treatment of the theme, its erudite whimsy in stark contrast to the rough and ready opening section.
Beethoven finally acquiesces to Razumovsky’s Russian influence in the last movement by setting a folk song called Slava. The tune is popular and was used in later years by Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov and most famously by Mussorgsky in Boris Gudonov.
Beethoven was remarkably adept at varying melody, so it is somewhat surprising that he left the tune untouched throughout the movement. In any case, it makes for a rollicking finale, reminiscent of horses galloping through the forest on a midsummer’s day.