Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Op 95 ‘Quartetto serioso’ 1810
Allegro con brio
Allegretto ma non troppo
Allegro assai vivace, ma serioso
Larghetto espressivo – Allegretto agitato
Beethoven is quoted as saying “The Quartet is written for a small circle of connoisseurs and is never to be performed in public,” and after listening, the reason why becomes quite obvious. The piece is quite out of character compared to other middle period compositions such as Symphonies 7 & 8 and the Egmont Overture.
Op 95 is an experiment with compositional techniques such as metric ambiguity, increased tonal freedom, interesting use of silences and seemingly unrelated outbursts, which he would draw on extensively in his later output.
Another interesting feature of this quartet is the use of fugue, a compositional method that had fallen largely out of fashion. Fugue was dismissed as learned, or academic music by most of Beethoven’s contemporaries, likely because they lacked the training or ability to construct their own.
Also, because it was not to the public taste, pieces composed in this manner did not do well with the publishers.
Beethoven doesn’t mess about in the opening of the first movement and the unison announcement of the theme is like a bull in a china shop. The four-note motif is tossed around the group throughout in various guises. Strategic pauses, thick, symphonic texture and extreme dynamic changes are all typical of Beethoven’s style and represent in a nutshell the difference between his idiom and Haydn’s.
The second movement begins with the cello presenting a perfectly adequate fugue theme but it is not taken up any of the other instruments. A second theme is explored and then the viola tries to start a fugue. Second violin, cello and first violin all take their turn in due course but the construction is fuzzy round the edges and the whole eventually endeavour ends up falling apart. After the opening theme is repeated, another attempt at the fugue is made. In the end, all parties give up and the movement ends with restatement of the opening section.
The dramatic third movement opening immediately destroys the lazy idyll of the Allegretto. Empty space is used to maximum effect here. In the trio, Beethoven creates a violin obbligato from a line that would more traditionally be scored for an inner voice such as second violin or viola. After the scherzo is repeated, a fortissimo dominant seventh chord indicates that the coda is about to begin, except in this case, the trio material is heard again before a final scherzo theme statement brings the movement to a close.
After a short Larghetto, the fourth movement gets underway with an incredibly symphonic sounding Allegretto. The principle of thematische Arbeit is used to great effect and there are interesting antiphonal episodes involving the cello and first violin as well as plenty of melody for the cello on its own. Beethoven never loses his love of the absurd and chooses to conclude nearly twenty minutes of intense, dramatic seriousness with a twenty second frippery.
English musicologist Basil Lam wrote that “comic-opera ending, [is] absurdly and deliberately unrelated to the ‘quartetto serioso’- the true Shakespearean touch that provides the final confirmation of the truth of the rest.” It seems in this case, it is Beethoven that gets the last laugh.