Melancholia at the Center of a Beethoven Quartet

Golden autumn. © Charles Thibo

There is something like a genealogy of sound: a piece that strikes you by the fact that it reminds you of something that you have heard from another composer. It may belong to an earlier or a later period or both, but you see the lines connecting the dots on the musical chart. Ludwig van Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 6 in B-flat Major (op. 18) is such a piece. I first heard Franz Schubert’s more mature quartets, pieces he wrote under the monumental influence of Beethoven. And I heard Joseph Haydn, Beethoven’s teacher of whom he soon emancipated himself, exploring and transgressing the limits of Haydn’s sound as Schubert explored and went beyond Beethoven’s sound.

Being a pupil of Haydn, Beethoven had many occasions to observe his teacher’s technique, to see how an idea became a melody, how it was to be developed. He also realized that Haydn, who seemed to be able to produce ingenious quartets like that, out of the hat, was the scale against which any future quartet would be judged. Despite being encouraged from as early as 1795 on, Beethoven waited until 1798  when he sat down and tried the genre. He had gained a lot of experience and, more importantly, a lot of self-confidence. Within two years he would compose the six quartets that form Op. 18.

By the summer of the year 1800 he was done with the last bars of String Quartet No. 6 in B-flat Major and, looking back at the first three works of the series, he felt that he had to rework them completely. The two years he spent writing op. 18 were a great opportunity to become more proficient in technical terms, to develop his understanding of the genre, and once he had written the last three quartets he knew what had been wrong with the first three works. A fascinating experience for a fascinating musician!

String Quartet No. 6 and its predecessor, String Quartet No. 5 in A Major, demonstrate Beethoven’s ambition to write programmatic music, not in the modern sense of course, but in the sense that he wanted to express a specific mood through his music instead of “just” reveling in pleasant harmonies to entertain the audience. He sensed he had a message, and the message had to be cast in a musical shape. The quartet focuses on the feeling of melancholia – the last movement is not only named after its tempi*, but also has the name “La Malinconia”.

The subject was a common theme for writers – think of Goethe’s “Werther” – and in music, expressed e. g. in some of C. P. E. Bach’s pieces, at the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century. The last movement certainly is the most remarkable part of the quartet: a slow beginning, adagio, to be performed according to the composer “colla piu gran delicatezza”, the beginning of a melody that is never completed, symbolizing failure and resignation according to the musicologist Jürgen Heidrich. Unexpected pauses, shifts move the first part of the finale to a dramatic climax until a brutal change of tempo (“attacca subito”) and mood  (“Allegretto quasi Allegro”) marks the beginning of the second part, derived from a German dance, the moment when melancholia is overcome.

I hope you will enjoy this quartet; its excellent to prevent autumnal melancholia! It has been recorded by the Vermeer Quartet.

© Charles Thibo

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de Chareli

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