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Why are Beethoven’s String Quartets widely regarded as his “greatest compositions”?

As a French horn performance major at the University of Michigan, I’ve been immersed in chamber music of all stripes, from classical duos to contemporary dectets. At U-M, my (brass and woodwind) colleagues and I strayed away from playing music of Beethoven, Haydn and Mozart in our chamber groups, while other (string) chamber groups played only that music. How can they play Beethoven’s music all the time?, I’d think to myself. Doesn’t it get boring? After four years of wondering, I’ve finally discovered that the answer to that question is “no”, and here’s why.

Beethoven was arguably the most critical figure in creating the movement from the classical era to the romantic era. Take a listen and you’ll see that his string quartets are easily the most intimate of his works. That’s because they involve only four voices, each with its own personality. For audience members, Beethoven’s string quartets are a keyhole to Beethoven’s genius during some of his most vulnerable times.

Beethoven took the string quartet to the next level, a level, perhaps, too high for many people of his time. While his predecessors like Mozart and Haydn wrote incredible string quartets as well, Beethoven had something new and exciting to offer in his string quartets. He added a new depth, variation, and complexity. Beethoven’s string quartets are often regarded as “characteristically unique.”

“They are not for you, but for a later age!” So wrote Ludwig van Beethoven about his Op. 59 quartets, which will be performed in Ann Arbor as part of a complete Beethoven string quartet cycle by the Takács Quartet over six concerts (three weekends) in the 2016-17 season.

Beethoven’s quartets are divided into three periods: early, middle, and late. His early quartets, nos. 1-6, are said to be reminiscent of Haydn and Mozart. The first three (nos. 7-9) of his middle quartets (nos. 7-11) are nick-named the Razumovsky quartets, as Count Razumovsky commissioned them. Beethoven’s sad and dismal last few years of life are well-reflected in his late quartets, nos. 12-16. Take a listen to the beginning of nos. 12-15 and you’ll hear that each has a slow, chorale-like opening, not something we hear in the openings of Beethoven’s early and middle quartets.

As I’m writing this blog post, I’m listening to all of Beethoven’s string quartets. For me, what’s prominent in each is genuine emotion. There are also dynamic contrasts that are characteristic of Beethoven’s symphonies. Each of his string quartets sound almost like mini-operas.

Take a listen to the fourth movement of Beethoven’s Quartet in B-flat Major, no. 6 – op. 18. The first section is marked as “La Melancholia Adagio” (played at a melancholy, slow tempo) and within the same movement, the second section is marked “Allegretto quasi Allegro” (played at a quicker tempo in a lighter, more dance-like manner). Within just one movement of one of Beethoven’s quartets, we experience two polar opposite tempos, styles, and emotions.

Here’s a special challenge for you: Try listening to the Takacs Quartet’s recording of Quartet in B flat major – op. 130, movement 5 without shedding a tear. I will say that, as a brass player, sometimes I can’t stay engaged when listening to string music, but the musical genius and emotion that Beethoven poured into his string quartets is impossible for me to ignore.

But what else makes these quartets so impossible to ignore? And what else goes into making these quartets so highly regarded as Beethoven’s best works? The musicians that play them, of course!

How do today’s musicians do justice to Beethoven’s String Quartets?

In the TEDx Talk above, Edward Dusinberre, first violinist of the Takacs Quartet, says that the primary goal of the Takacs Quartet is to “try to communicate a very strong musical character.”

While Beethoven may give hints by writing “specific character instructions” (as Dusinberre calls them), it’s up to the musician to interpret those instructions. Dusinberre mentions that the quartet must work individually and as a group to discover what style works best in effectively communicating a specific character instruction written at the beginning of the piece. This can be done by changing the timbre, articulation, dynamics, tempo, and musical phrasing.

There are only four voices in a string quartet. So, there are only four musicians, which adds to the intimacy of Beethoven’s string quartets.

But passion is what fuels the performance of the Beethoven String Quartet cycle, the same passion that fuels Beethoven’s writing of the piece. Through style, passion and communication, Beethoven’s string quartets are kept alive today. 

The Takacs Quartet has released several albums and recordings of high merit, but the albums that have received the most recognition are their Beethoven String Quartet albums. These albums (one of which was awarded the 2002 GRAMMY for best chamber music recording) have received numerous awards and are highly praised.

Edward Dusinberre’s book, Beethoven for a Later Age: Journey of a String Quartet gives readers insider information on the journey of the Takacs Quartet as well as the journey of Beethoven’s composing his string quartets.

So, the answer is “no.” Beethoven’s music does not get boring for string chamber musicians, because they have learned to enjoy the process of bringing his music to life. As a musician, I am privileged enough to be able to musically tell a story. Beethoven’s string quartets and the Takacs Quartet have taught me — a brass player! — that the key to successfully telling the story is to engage the audience by communicating with them through my musical styles and through my passion.

Ann Arbor audiences can expect to experience this artist-to-audience connection during the Takacs Quartet’s performances of the Beethoven String Quartet cycle with UMS for the 2016-2017 season. As Dusinberre said, “The performance can create an atmosphere on stage where the audience doesn’t feel inhibited [to express themselves]”, an atmosphere that the Takacs Quartet is sure to bring to Ann Arbor.