Quartet No.16 in F Major Op.135

Composer: Ludwig van Beethoven (b. 1770 - d. 1827)
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Composer: Ludwig van Beethoven (b. 1770 - d. 1827)

Performance date: 01/07/2016

Venue: Bantry Library

Composition Year: 1826

Duration: 00:23:54

Recording Engineer: Richard McCullough, RTÉ lyric fm

Instrumentation Category:String Quartet

Artists: Vanbrugh Quartet (Gregory Ellis, Keith Pascoe [violins] Simon Aspell [viola] Christopher Marwood [cello]) - [quartet]

The last works of great artists have always
inspired a certain reverence, entirely appropriate in the case of, say, Bach’s
Art of Fugue or Schubert’s C major Quintet, but how can we be reverential in
the face of Beethoven’s last quartet? It has been tried – there is a remarkable
and famous recording by the Busch Quartet where they add three minutes to the
magical slow movement dragging the sweet
song of rest
prematurely into the cemetery. Beethoven had just written four
monumental quartets, each one composed on the back of the previous one and each
one more complex and difficult than its predecessor, so it is hard not to feel
that Beethoven is indulging his anarchic sense of humour in this witty and
delightful work that, in many ways, feels like a homage to his old teacher
Haydn. And we must remember that, when Beethoven was writing this work, he had
no reason to believe that his final illness was only two months away. After he
completed this quartet he moved straight on to the replacement finale for
Op.130, which also harks back to the eighteenth century. He then began a string
quintet in C major, which was still on his desk when he died. Legend has it
that Schubert, who was one of Beethoven’s pallbearers, got his inspiration for
his quintet from hearing about Beethoven’s incomplete score.

The first movement revives a well-worn
Beethoven device, the question and answer session. The viola asks the question,
immediately answered by the first violin: the viola repeats the question, this
time decisively, if not rudely, answered by both violins. These motives now
become part of the witty debate that follows along with the lilting first
theme, while the mood remains light-hearted and seemingly carefree. When
Beethoven was still writing this work, he went to stay with his brother at
Gneixendorf in the country some distance from Vienna. The early autumn weather was idyllic
and he resumed his customary habit of composing outside, humming and waving his
arms, to the bewilderment and amusement of the locals. The Scherzo and its
boisterous Trio fit wonderfully into this slightly mad but good-natured
scenario. The main theme is quite simple but the delightful syncopation gives a
special charm along with the typically gruff interruptions. The Trio reminds
one of the story of the pianist playing a Beethoven sonata and getting stuck
inside a repeat, unable to find the password that will let him out, condemned
to go endlessly round and round. Here we end up with the first fiddle
see-sawing over a persistently repeated quaver accompaniment group that seems
unable to stop.

The mood changes for the slow movement in
that dramatic manner so typical of late Beethoven. This is a stunningly
beautiful Lento in D flat, the still point around which this work revolves. The
music unfolds slowly like the petals of a rose until, at the centre we find the
worm in the bud – questioning and conflict in a ten-bar più lento in which the
theme is brutally dismembered. Finally the petals of the theme fold in again
leaving the questions unanswered.

The last movement has a whole story all to
itself. After the premiere of the Op.130 quartet by the famous Schuppanzigh
Quartet, a well-known and opulent musical amateur boasted that he could arrange
for a better performance in his own house and that he could easily get the
manuscript parts from Beethoven. However when he approached Beethoven through
intermediaries, Beethoven insisted he pay Schuppanzigh fifty florins for the
privilege of using the parts. The horrified musician asked whether it must be, to which Beethoven, intrigued by the philosophical
implications, delightedly responded with the canon Es muss sein (It must be! Yes yes yes yes! Out with your wallet!). For
this finale Beethoven now inverts his
Es muss sein theme to ask the
question Muss es sein? and turns it
into the opening phrase of the slow introduction, which he jokingly entitles The Difficult Decision. But our laughter
is immediately stifled when we are confronted by those ferocious chords in the
fifth and following bars that so clearly echo the outcry at the heart of the
slow movement. The music that follows seems like the laughter of the Gods as
they turn the questions that mortals ask into a sublime and joyful dance. But
Beethoven is not finished with his question and the Grave ma non trotto tratto (Serious but not too drawn out) introduction
returns at the end of the development in a new and trembling version. At the
very end the question is asked once more, whereupon Beethoven responds with an
impudent pizzicato version of the second subject and a mocking violin obbligato.