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Listen: Exploring Beethoven’s String Quartets with Stephen Whiting

Takács Quartet performs the complete Beethoven Quartet Cycle during the 2016-17 at UMS, a tour in conjunction with the release of Dusinberre’s new book Beethoven for a Later Age: The Journey of a String Quartet.

In conjunction with these performances,  U-M Professor of Musicology Steven Whiting gives a series of lectures that explore Beethoven’s String Quartets. Recordings of these lectures will be available on this page.

Part 1:

Part 1 text excerpt. Listen above for full lecture.

Caution is not a word we ordinarily associate with Ludwig van Beethoven, yet he was cautious about engaging a genre associated by Viennese music lovers with his erstwhile teacher Joseph Haydn. Haydn had been the acknowledged master of the string quartet for decades. His works, above all others, had so raised the aesthetic stock of the genre that by 1800 the string quartet was regarded as the highest, noblest, most intellectual kind of chamber music. To paraphrase Goethe, a kind of idealized conversation between four equally intelligent and witty partners.

All through the 1790s, Beethoven studied model quartets by Haydn and Mozart after writing them out in score, because back then, quartets were only published in parts. Not until 1798 did he feel ready to enter the lists with his former master. He accepted a commission from the young Bohemian prince Lobkowitz for a half-dozen string quartets. Cheaper by the half-dozen. The same commission went out to Haydn. Vienna, you must know, invested in music the sort of cultural energy we invest in football. Is somebody keeping track of the score? Haydn was only able to complete the two quartets, later published as Opus 77. Beethoven’s first bundle of six was published as his Opus 18 in the summer of 1801. They served notice on the musical world that Beethoven was more than the latest hot piano virtuoso. He did not return to quartet writing until 1806, after he had revised his opera Leonore, a.k.a. Fidelio, unsuccessfully, as it turned out.

He set to work on a bundle of three quartets, apparently at the behest of Count Razumovsky, the Russian ambassador to the Habsburg court. I say apparently because the commission itself does no longer survive, nor is there any documentation of Razumovsky’s having asked Beethoven to work two or more Russian folk melodies into these quartets. It may have been Beethoven’s idea of a compliment. By common consensus, Opus 59 took the quartet out of the realm of private music-making by skilled amateurs and into the realm of public concertizing by professionals, because the music was just too darn hard for amateurs to play anymore. They are as massively scaled, in comparison with Opus 18, as the Eroica seems in comparison with the first two symphonies or Waldstein and Pathétique seem in comparison with earlier sonatas for piano solo.

Yet, Beethoven always frustrates listeners who grasp artistic development in terms of straight-line evolution. His next string quartet, composed during the French occupation of Vienna in summer 1809, and published as Opus 74, betrays far less symphonic ambition than Opus 59. It returns to the proportions of Haydn and some of the strategies. I am not the first to suspect that this quartet is Beethoven’s homage, and even eulogy, to Haydn, who died in May that year. You’ll hear it this weekend, and you’ll hear its even denser, more compact successor, the F minor Quartetto serioso, composed in 1810. For once, yes, the nickname derives from the composer. The high Opus number, 95, is explained by the delay in its publication until 1816. It is still a middle period work, albeit a thoroughly bewildering one. Then come the five quartets of Beethoven’s third, or late, period.

Continue listening to full lecture via video above.

Takács Quartet performs January 21-22, March 25-26, 2017 in Ann Arbor.