String Quartet No.14 in C sharp minor Op.131

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

Performance date: 01/07/2019

Venue: Bantry Library

Composition Year: 1826

Duration: 00:37:24

Recording Engineer: Ciaran Cullen, RTÉ

Instrumentation: 2vn, va, vc

Instrumentation Category:String Quartet

Artists: Borusan Quartet (Esen Kıvrak, Özgür Baskin [violins], Efdal Altun [viola], Cağ Ercağ, [cello]) - [quartet]

Ludwig van Beethoven [1770–1827]

String Quartet No.14 in C sharp minor Op.131 [1826]

Adagio ma non troppo e molto espressivo – Allegro molto vivace – Allegro moderato – Andante ma non troppo cantabile – Presto – Adagio quasi un poco andante – Allegro

It is often assumed that, after the Ninth Symphony, Beethoven retired into a private world to write string quartets for his own satisfaction. Nothing could be further from the truth for Beethoven was being besieged by publishers offering high prices for new quartets. What is more, these offers were over half the price that he got for the Ninth Symphony and you do not have to be a composer to know the difference in the amount of work involved. This public demand for quartets marks a significant social change that took place in Beethoven’s lifetime. In the 1790s most of his chamber music was written for individual patrons with publication being of secondary importance; but by the 1820s publication had become his main source of income. Only in Russia, where society was much slower to change, was an individual such as Prince Galitzin still prepared to pay for a commission. So as publishers were still queuing up after the completion of the three Galitzin Quartets (Op.127, 132, 130/133), Beethoven moved straight from the Grosse Fuge to the opening fugue of Op.131.

There is a perfect symmetry about Beethoven answering the spectacular questions posed by the Grosse Fuge with a second fugue of Bach-like purity. This time Beethoven changed his approach and he repeatedly sketched this quartet’s overall shape and tonal structure in total contrast to the unplanned way in which movements were tacked onto each other in Op.130. The majestic Adagio presentation of his other-worldly theme proceeds with successive entries until gently attaining its full sonority. At the centre of this progression is a still small voice that is the answer to all the storms and earthquakes in Beethoven’s life.

The second movement seems to sneak out of the shadow of the opening fugue so subtly that the listener can find himself in the Allegro without realising how he got there. However it quickly generates some rhythmic ardour, which twice dramatically decelerates. The third hesitation introduces the brief coda, which in turn leads to the eleven bars of the recitative-like third movement, a mock operatic interlude ending with a coloratura flourish from the first violin leading to the aria of the Andante. 

This crucial movement begins dolce in the sudden brightness of A major supported by dynamic pizzicati in the bass. This is the geometric centre of the work and the six variations are each as different in spirit, rhythm and tempo as are the seven movements themselves. The apotheosis comes in the final variation adorned with trills inevitably reminding us of the Arioso of the last piano sonata, though the ending is curiously hesitant and disembodied.

The cello now seizes on a fragment of a theme that sets in process the massive Scherzo. This theme takes off at high speed, suddenly breaks off with descending echoes, slows up for a few bars and experiences some other hold ups, and then without transition or break in tempo or key, the initial theme engenders a new one, related but calmer. The alternation of these two grand episodes provides the frame for the whole edifice, bubbling with irrepressible vitality until the final sul ponticello reprise.

The Adagio provides a brief moment of contemplative calm before the surge of the final Allegro. This huge movement seems to return to before where we began, to the fighting spirit and iconoclastic power of the Grosse Fuge. Richard Wagner describes this movement as the most anguished renunciation of all happiness on earth, but that tells us more about Wagner than Beethoven. What may well have attracted Wagner to this work are the strong motivic connections between the fugue theme of the first movement and the opening gesture of this last movement. The sketchbooks also show that Beethoven planned an eighth movement, where all the anguish is resolved in the peaceful key of D flat in a movement headed sweet song of rest. This eventually became the slow movement of the F major Quartet Op.135, which was begun immediately this work was finished. Beethoven evidently decided that a quiet resolution of this massive and ground-breaking work was inappropriate and he concludes with three devastating chords.