String Quartet in A minor Op.132

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

Performance date: 24/06/2023

Venue: Bantry House

Composition Year: 1825

Duration: 00:43:00

Recording Engineer: Tom Norton, RTÉ

Instrumentation: 2vn, va, vc

Instrumentation Category:String Quartet

Artists: Pacifica Quartet (Simin Ganatra, Sibbi Bernhardsson [violins], Masumi Per Rostad [viola], Brandon Vamos [cello]) - [quartet]

String Quartet in A minor Op.132 [1825]

  1. Assai sostenuto – Allegro.
  2. Allegro ma non tanto.
  3. Molto Adagio [Sacred song of thanks from a convalescent to the Godhead, in the Lydian mode] – Andante [with a feeling of new strength]
  4. Alla marcia, assai vivace – Piu Allegro – Presto.
  5. Allegro appassionato

Glimmers and nothing more the rest is chaos was Tchaikovsky’s opinion of Beethoven’s late quartets, a pronouncement that gives us some idea of just how far ahead of his time Beethoven was. However this quartet was well received at its first performances in September 1825 in Beethoven’s presence in the back room of a tavern in Vienna and publishers were soon competing for the rights. The key to understanding this extraordinary quartet is to know that Beethoven fell seriously ill while writing it and on his recovery he wrote the unsurpassed Adagio, which he originally entitled: Hymn of thanks from a sick man to God on his recovery – feeling of new strength and reawakened feeling. On a more mundane level he wrote a four-part canon for his doctor on the little ditty, Doktor sperrt das Tor dem Tod {Doctor bars the door to Death].

The very first bar conjures up that special world of the late quartets that, pace Tchaikovsky, makes some sense of the chaos. The work begins with an eight bar introduction in slow, sustained half notes. A violin flourish leads into the Allegro, whose first subject seems to undergo continuous development, while the beautiful second theme merely undergoes a continual exposition, which changes only in key and instrumental layout. The movement, which fluctuates between passion and tenderness, closes with some stunning bravura in the first violin.

The scherzo is full of Beethoven’s curious sense of humour. He goes back to an old practice of Haydn in his minuets, the use of canon. Beethoven’s Scherzo is not actually canonic, but the parts delightfully imitate one another in sham canonic style, often at ludicrous distances – the cello below its bass staff, the violin above its treble staff. Enclosed within this curious frame is the captivating Trio, again borrowing from Haydn using the form of a musette to aspire to a country-dance complete with bagpipes and peasant dancing. But Beethoven somehow manages to combine the celestial with the earthly to create a country-dance like no other.

The slow movement – perhaps the greatest slow movement ever written – opens the gates to another world. The three chorales, the hymns of thanks, are separated by the two andantes, feeling new strength.  The fresh cleansing D major strength of the latter is unmistakable. The movement gathers intensity as it progresses, the chorale can be played very slowly as each long-breathed phrase seems to open up visions inconceivable a few moments before. The final return of this section is marked Mit innigster Emfindung [with most fervent feeling] and all words are superfluous.  

From this spiritual summit it must have been hard to decide where to go. The short march that follows is without complication, a very human relief for players and audience. This leads into a vigorous recitative passage that deliberately recalls the instrumental recitative that precedes the Ode to Joy, ‘deliberately’ for the main theme of the final Allegro was an early draft for the finale of the Ninth Symphony – one of Beethoven’s in-jokes that modern scholarship allows us to share.  For this last movement Beethoven returns to the traditional rondo form rarely used in his last works, full of energy and drive as if to indicate his complete return to health. For the ending, the tempo accelerates to presto, the key changes to A major and the work concludes in triumphant affirmation. 

Francis Humphrys