Class and wit after the fury of the cannons

Music for rainy days.  © Charles Thibo

Damn the critics. In no time at all this quartet changed its status from virtually unknown to among my top ten chamber music works. But let’s hear the critics first. The reviewer of the “Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung” denounced in 1811 the “gloomy spirit” of the piece, the “lack of melodic coherence”; he called it an “unnecessary hodgepodge of hard dissonances”.

In autumn 1809 Ludwig van Beethoven wrote his String Quartet No. 10 in E flat major (Op. 74), underrated up to this day. “De la classe et de l’esprit après la fureur des canons”, I am tempted to say. French is appropriate in this case, for shortly before Beethoven started to compose this quartet, Napoleon’s troops were advancing on Vienna and the composer suffered greatly from the bombardment by French artillery in May 1809.

Light and entertaining

After the capitulation of Vienna, Beethoven retired  to his usual summer residence in Baden, where he composed the string quartet along with the Piano Concerto no. 5 in E flat major “Emperor”, Op. 73. The quartet is dedicated to Count Franz Joseph Maximilian von Lobkowitz, who had commissioned it. It is written in four movements, the three last movements are however performed without a break. True, it has contemplative and inwardly turned moments. Generally speaking  however it is of a lighter, wittier nature than Beethovens’ other quartets and thus its entertaining value should have made it popular.

Especially the multiple pizzicato* in the first movement give the quartet a joyful and dynamic drive. The sound reminded the audience of a harp and the quartet earned the nicknam “Harp Quartet”. It is perfectly suited for this time of the year, at least for me, when the sky is often grey, when the days are dominated by rain showers. I am longing for a ray of sunshine, and Beethoven’s quartet is just that: a source of light and joy.

There is a recording by the Vermeer Quartet that I like very much and that I have listened to many times over the past 48 hours. Though I was disappointed by the live performance of the piece last Friday by the Julia Fischer Quartet at the Philharmonie de Luxembourg, I am grateful the piece was part of the programme, otherwise it might have remained unnoticed by me for many more months.

A ground-breaking technique

Beethoven’s quartet found at least one great contemporary admirer – the very young Felix Mendelssohn. Mendelssohn’s Op. 12, a quartet in E flat major, written in 1823 at the age of 14, is a homage to this piece and its author. Perhaps Mendelssohn understood what others hadn’t seen. Jan Caeyers explains in his excellent biography of Beethoven that String Quartet No. 10 is a key to later chamber music works of the composer. He emphasizes the difference between the lyrical language and the logic of composition, that is the underlying structure.

“Broken triads link the different movements, however they do not define the shape of the themes”, Caeyers says. The coherence between the music, as it is heard, and the structural principles beneath it is realized at a lower, inaudible level that scholars define as “subthemes”. By using this technique for the first time, Beethoven set a new standard for his future compositions and Caeyers does not hesitate to call the quartet in E flat major prophetic.

This is too theoretical? Agreed. Let’s listen to good music and enjoy it.

© Charles Thibo

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de Chareli

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