Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827)String Quartet in A Major, Op. 18, no. 5
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827)String Quartet in F Minor, Op. 95
Felix Mendelssohn (1809–1847)String Quartet in F Minor, Op. 80
The Quartet’s four musicians play treasured Italian instruments and bring a fresh pioneering approach to our Beethoven survey, created in honor of the 250th anniversary of the birth of Ludwig van Beethoven whose music continues to inspire people all over the globe. Join us as they perform their final season after 40 years together.
This paired program features four Beethoven quartets from different parts of the composer’s career. Two are from Op. 18, early works that show Beethoven writing in the classical style of Haydn and Mozart but already speaking in his own distinctive voice. Concert One also contains the second of the “Razumovsky” Quartets, Op. 59, while Concert Two includes the “Serioso” Quartet, Op. 95, works written during Beethoven’s “heroic” decade and revealing the forceful personality of the composer at the height of his powers. As an extra, the Auryn Quartet punctuates these works by Beethoven with quartets by Bartók and Mendelssohn.
Concert One premieres Saturday at 5:00 pm MST. Concert Two is available immediately following so you may watch it after an intermission (or watch separately on the following evening).
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An outstanding career spanning four decades has made the Auryn Quartet one of the most sought-after and respected ensembles performing around the globe, and during this long period the Quartet has not changed its personnel. The ensemble continues to impress audiences with its fresh and pioneering approach to all genres of music.
During the period 1982 to 1987, the Auryn Quartet had two main mentors, the Amadeus Quartet, with whom they studied in Cologne, and the Guarneri Quartet, at the University of Maryland. Claudio Abbado was also an important influence on the Quartet’s development, under whose baton they were string principals in the European Union Youth Orchestra.
The Quartet won its first prizes at the London International Competition and the ARD Munich Competition, both in 1982, one year after its inception. The ensemble also won the main prize at the European Broadcasting Competition in Bratislava in 1989. Invitations to international music festivals followed in quick succession: Lockenhaus, Salzburger Festspiele, Edinburgh International Festival, Musiktage-Mondsee, Stavangar, to name a few.
Recent tours have taken the Quartet from Lincoln Center to the Concertgebouw to Wigmore Hall, where they performed a complete cycle of Beethoven’s string quartets. Another vast project was the complete performance of Haydn’s quartets in eighteen-concert cycles in each of the cities of Detmold, Cologne, and Padova.
Since 2003 the Quartet has been sharing its wealth of experience with musicians of the younger generation in the form of a teaching position at the Music Academy in Detmold, where they are professors of chamber music. The four musicians of the Auryn Quartet play on wonderful Italian instruments: a Stradivari violin (1722 Ex-Joachim), a Petrus Guarneri violin, a Brothers Amati viola (1616), and a Nicolò Amati cello.
This is the third time the Auryn Quartet has performed on our Evening Series concerts, with previous appearances in 2011 and 2015.
“The Quartet is written for a small circle of connoisseurs, and it is not to be performed in public.”Beethoven on his Opus 95
BEETHOVEN WAS INSPIRED to write his Opus 18 No. 5 after hearing Mozart’s innovative Quartet in A Major, K. 464 (1785), a technically brilliant yet profound work written to honor Haydn. Seeing the score for the first time in 1800, Beethoven was heard to exclaim: “That’s what I call a work! Mozart is telling the world, ‘Look what I could do if you were ready for it!’ ” To study Mozart’s compositional techniques, Beethoven wrote out a copy of the third and fourth movements of K. 464. Soon afterwards, Beethoven began sketches for his Opus 18 No. 5.
The Allegro opens with a graceful group of themes that evoke Mozart’s songful idiom. A contrasting subject follows in the minor mode. After development of these ideas, the opening material is recapitulated and the movement concludes with a brief coda based on a fragmentary A major scale.
Beethoven most often placed his slow movement after the opening Allegro, but in Opus 18 No. 5 he observed Mozart’s preference for the Menuetto as the second movement. A delicate waltz, the movement is varied by a three-voice canon and a brusquely accented trio section.
The Andante cantabile explores a simple theme, which Beethoven described as “pastoral,” through five increasingly complex variations. Beethoven dramatically moves beyond the eighteenth-century concept of variation traditionally achieved through altered embellishment or rhythm; rather, in Opus 18 No. 5 each variation reveals a new aspect of the theme’s character—lyrical, mystical, or robust. In the substantial coda the theme reappears in its original form against rapid scale figures. Near the end the tempo slows to create a subdued conclusion.
The sonata-form finale is propelled by an incisive four-note motto heard at the outset. A theme from Mozart’s own A major quartet is quoted in long note values near the end of the development section.
BEETHOVEN WROTE HIS OPUS 95 string quartet for his friend and confidant Nikolaus Zmeskall, an amateur cellist and composer who frequently hosted informal chamber music sessions in his home. Although the work was initially completed in 1810, Beethoven revised it extensively in 1814 and premiered it that year. Before its publication Beethoven wrote in a letter: “The Quartet is written for a small circle of connoisseurs, and it is not to be performed in public.” Possibly he issued this directive because he realized that the quartet was stylistically far ahead of its time and likely to be misunderstood. Although Opus 95 is chronologically Beethoven’s last middle period quartet, it reveals characteristics of his final set of quartets, begun ten years later. Most notably there is often a similarly terse expression, the result of strongly stated ideas separated by minimal transitions.
Beethoven inscribed the words “Quartetto serioso” on his manuscript and included the word “serious” in the third movement’s tempo marking. There is conjecture that this subtitle, as well as the pervasive mood of tragic intensity in Opus 95, stems from Beethoven’s unfortunate love affair with the much younger Therese Malfatti during this same year. The quartet shows expressive affinities to the Goethe-inspired “Egmont” Overture, also in F minor, which it immediately followed.
Like his other four middle period quartets, Opus 95 opens with a movement in sonata form. However, the brusquely passionate Allegro con brio is the most condensed and elliptical sonata form first movement that Beethoven ever wrote. Pared to essentials, the movement eliminates the customary repeat of the exposition. Its two contrasting themes undergo only a brief development and a truncated recapitulation.
The second movement (D major) develops two contrasting ideas, a cantabile theme and a fugato that suggests the opening movement of the much later quartet Opus 131. The third movement, a scherzo with a contrasting trio section at its center, follows without pause. Abrupt and jagged rhythms anticipate patterns heard in the final quartets. The finale’s poignant Larghetto introduction, thematically related to the third movement, leads to the Allegretto agitato, which develops two restless subjects in sonata-rondo form. After a dramatic ritardando, the mode changes to major and the tempo accelerates to suggest a victorious resolution.
ONE OF MENDELSSOHN’S few autobiographical works, the Opus 80 string quartet expresses his grief over the death of his beloved sister Fanny, a gifted musician and a constant source of inspiration for him. In May, 1847 Mendelssohn returned from a successful but exhausting trip to England, where he had conducted numerous performances of his recently revised oratorio Elijah. Two days later Fanny, in apparent good health, died suddenly of a stroke; she was only 41. “God help us all!” Mendelssohn wrote. “I’ve been incapable of saying or thinking anything beyond that. For many days to come, I’ll be unable to write anything beyond—God help us, God help us!” On the opening page of his Opus 80 Mendelssohn inscribed the initials of this phrase in German, “Hilf du mir.”
Mendelssohn himself would live only another few months, ones that were marred by constant infirmities. The summer of 1847 he and his wife Cécile travelled to Interlaken, Switzerland with hopes that he would recuperate. There he completed a working draft of his F minor quartet and that October, a month before his death, premiered the work at his home. A friend wrote after this occasion: “The passionate character of the entire piece seems to me to be consistent with his deeply disturbed frame of mind. He is still grappling with grief at the loss of his sister.” The quartet was published posthumously in 1850.
Before he allowed a work to be published, Mendelssohn customarily made extensive revisions during the proofreading stage. (“It’s my habit and there’s no cure for it,” he wrote in apology to his publisher.) Since Mendelssohn died before he could review the work in a publishing context, one might conclude that Opus 80 had not reached its definitive form. Possible thematic and developmental omissions are most evident in the quartet’s stark finale. However, the structural simplicity of this movement and the reiterations of its opening idea recall his fervent repetitions of “God help us!”
Profound emotion characterizes each of the quartet’s four movements, three of which are related by their F minor key structure. The sonorous opening movement, in sonata form, develops two themes that are propelled by energetic figures in the accompanying voices. The movement concludes with an agitated coda (Presto).
The Allegro assai is Mendelssohn’s most poignant scherzo. Its syncopated theme, heard first in the violin, moves with persistent accents that suggest agitation. The sustained Adagio (A flat major) recalls Mendelssohn’s earlier Songs without Words. Wide dynamic ranges contribute to the emotional intensity.
The fervent F minor finale develops two restless themes in sonata form. Tremolo passagework in the accompanying voices intensifies its implicit anguish. The movement concludes with an impassioned high-register statement in which the first violin declaims its opening motto in a fortissimo dynamic.
Notes by Nancy Monsman