December 19, 2020
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827)String Quartet in F Major, Op. 18, no. 1
Allegro con brio
Adagio affettuoso ed appassionato
Scherzo: Allegro molto
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827)String Quartet in A Minor, Op. 132
Allegro ma non tanto
Molto adagio—Andante—Molto adagio—Andante—Molto adagio
Alla marcia, assai vivace
One of our favorite ensembles, the Pacifica Quartet, returns to conclude our Beethoven survey with samples of his early and late works.
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Recognized for its virtuosity, exuberant performance style, and often-daring repertory choices, over the past twenty-six years the Pacifica Quartet has achieved international recognition as one of the finest chamber ensembles performing today. Named the quartet-in-residence at Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music in March 2012, the Pacifica was previously the quartet-in-residence at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and received a Grammy Award for Best Chamber Music Performance. In 2017, the Pacifica Quartet was appointed to lead the Center for Advanced Quartet Studies at the Aspen Music Festival and School.
Formed in 1994, the Pacifica Quartet quickly won chamber music’s top competitions, including the 1998 Naumburg Chamber Music Award. In 2002 the ensemble was honored with Chamber Music America’s Cleveland Quartet Award and the appointment to Lincoln Center’s The Bowers Program (formerly CMS Two), and in 2006 was awarded a prestigious Avery Fisher Career Grant. With its powerful energy and captivating, cohesive sound, the Pacifica has established itself as the embodiment of the senior American quartet sound.
An ardent advocate of contemporary music, the Pacifica Quartet commissions and performs many new works including those by Keeril Makan, Julia Wolfe, and Shulamit Ran, the latter in partnership with the Music Accord consortium, London’s Wigmore Hall, and Tokyo’s Suntory Hall. The work—entitled Glitter, Doom, Shards, Memory—had its New York debut as part of the Chamber Music Society at Lincoln Center series.
The members of the Pacifica Quartet live in Bloomington, Indiana, where they serve as quartet-in-residence and full-time faculty members at Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music. Prior to their appointment, the Quartet was on the faculty of the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana from 2003 to 2012, and also served as resident performing artist at the University of Chicago for seventeen years.
Arizona Friends of Chamber Music have welcomed the Pacifica Quartet four times to our Evening Series and three times to our Winter Chamber Music Festival.
“Only now have I learned how to write quartets properly.”—Beethoven, on the revised version of Op. 18, no. 1
BEFORE BEETHOVEN LEFT BONN for Vienna in 1792, his friend Count Waldstein told him that there “he would receive the spirit of Mozart from Haydn’s hands.” Beethoven had hoped to study with Mozart once in Vienna—but since Mozart had recently died, Beethoven undertook instruction from Haydn instead. However, Beethoven, whom Haydn called “The Young Mogul,” was too impatient to appreciate the master’s lessons, and the studies soon ended because of their temperamental differences. But when Beethoven began to write his Opus 18 quartets in 1798, he closely examined the mature quartets of Mozart and especially Haydn for guiding principles. A high point of his “first style period,” Beethoven’s Opus 18 set reveals awareness of the guiding principles of Haydn and Mozart but a steady expansion of their classical boundaries. Beethoven’s originality is evident in all of these six string quartets, each of which opens with a small generative idea that gradually expands to form a large and brilliant design.
Despite Haydn’s position as Beethoven’s early mentor, it was reported that when the aging composer heard these inventive and deeply expressive quartets at Lobkowitz’s concerts, he decided to abandon string quartets and devote his efforts to religious choral music. Since Viennese composers typically avoided competing genres, this observation most probably has truth.
Although Beethoven’s sketchbooks show that the Opus 18 No. 1 was the second of the set to be written, he placed it first because he favored its brilliant inventiveness. He was annoyed that Nos. 2 and 4 received greater favor and moved to profanity by a review in Vienna’s leading music journal: “It is difficult to perform and not at all popular.”
The Allegro con brio opens with a concise idea played in unison by all the strings. A second theme is introduced by the first violin; as in the quartets of Haydn, these two generative ideas expand to create a large and coherent design. The concluding coda introduces a scalar motive that combines with the earlier motives.
Beethoven’s affinity with the growing romantic movement is heard in the profound and intense Adagio (D minor), which develops three expressive themes. According to Beethoven’s friend Karl Amenda, this movement was inspired by the tomb scene from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Beethoven penned the words “Les derniers soupirs” over the original end of the movement in his sketchbook.
The Scherzo movement (F major) unfolds with Mozartean grace. A robust group of octave exchanges introduce the flowing trio section; a repeat of the opening material follows. The Allegro finale, written in sonata rondo form, recalls the spirited finales of Haydn’s quartets. It opens with a witty, rapid figure played in turn by each instrument. Contrasting episodes enter between the virtuoso thematic statements.
DURING THE EIGHT YEARS before Beethoven began his monumental final set of string quartets, he endured a period of spiritual isolation. Because of complete deafness, desertion by earlier patrons, and difficulties with both family and publishers, he often lacked the will to compose. He therefore welcomed the commission from Prince Nicholas Galitzin, a Russian nobleman and amateur cellist, for “two or three string quartets, for which labor I will be glad to pay you what you think proper.” From May 1824 until November 1826, only four months before his death, Beethoven devoted all his energies to the creation of works for Galitzin (Opp. 127, 130, 132, and 133), as well as two other quartets written without commission (Opp. 131 and 135). Each of these transcendent works explores a musical universe expanded by an unprecedented fluidity of structure that allows each work to develop according to the demands of Beethoven’s vision.
Beethoven’s Opus 132 is the second of his last six monumental string quartets. During this late phase of his career, Beethoven had negotiated with the London Philharmonic Society, which hoped to lure him to England as composer-in-residence. Frustrated by the low fees offered, Beethoven reluctantly terminated these discussions and focused on his generous commission from Galitzin. However, as he became deeply involved with the quartets’ creation, Beethoven gradually grew oblivious to his benefactor. He ignored Galitzin’s correspondence and indeed appeared to forget his existence. The Prince was infuriated to learn that the premiere of Opus 132 (1825) was held without his having been notified.
During the composition of Opus 132, Beethoven had become seriously ill, most probably with liver disease, and was confined to bed for an entire month. His sketchbooks show that he had intended to construct Opus 132 in a traditional four-movement format. However, upon recovery he decided to add a central movement, the “Convalescent’s Holy Song of Thanksgiving to the Deity,” as an expression of gratitude for his restored health. The inclusion of this fifth movement, a statement of his humble yet fervent appreciation for life, contributes a deeply spiritual dimension to the entire quartet.
The quartet’s slow introduction begins with a four-note motif in the cello—an ascending half step followed by an upward leap. (One of the many constructive links among these organically unified quartets, this motif resembles themes heard in the Opus 130 and Opus 131 quartets, which were sketched at the same time but actually completed after Opus 132.) This portentous motif returns between the three main thematic ideas of the Allegro, a sonata form movement remarkable in its flexibility. The second movement is a wistful scherzo that grows from two melodic cells. After a pastoral musette suggesting a bagpipe drone, the opening material returns.
Beethoven wrote his third movement in the ancient Lydian mode, which corresponds to the modern F major scale without the B flat. Constructed as a five-part aria, the movement alternates between the hymn and faster sections that programmatically depict the invalid’s strength returning (“Neue Kraft fühlend”). A brief march movement follows. After a rhythmically free violin recitative, the rondo finale, “fast and impassioned,” reaches an exuberant conclusion as the mode changes from A minor to A major.
Notes by Nancy Monsman