Breaking the rules. Non-conformity. Deviating opinions. Orthodox behaviour. If you recognize yourself in these attributes, you must have few friends. You are probably one of those people who are considered demanding, strenuous even. Interacting with you requires a true (physical?) effort, a certain mental flexibility, an iron-grade friendship and unlimited trust. Qualities that are praised in every job description, but when it comes to personal relations, suddenly these qualities are valued much less. Ludwig van Beethoven certainly was a strenous personality. A burden to his friends and patrons. And if that weren’t enough already, he also challenged conventional wisdom about what a string quartet should sound like. Oh, boy!
During the spring of 1806, within six weeks, Beethoven wrote no less than three string quartets, known as the “Rasumovsky Quartets”, a testimony of the composer’s mastery. The first of these, String Quartet in F Major (op. 59, no. 1), is characterized by two elements that must have been considered highly irritating by the music connoisseurs of Beethoven’s time. The first movement begins without the lead violin while the cello plays a song-like melody and the double-bass has an obstinate repetitive part. A powerful introduction into the piece, but not what people would expect. Furthermore, Beethoven disregards the rule that the themes of the sonata* form should be repeated, and the development immediately flows from the exposition.
I like all – or let’s say the vast majority – of Beethoven’s string quartets, but this op. 59 no. 1 is one of my favourites. It combines a certain earnest mood with playful elements, a delicate balance between joy of life and introspection. In a volume of scientific essays dedicated to Beethoven’s works I learned that the composer dedicated all of his string quartets to male persons. A contemporary of Beethoven, the writer Carl Ludwig Junker (not to be confused with the head of the EU Commission), wrote in 1783 that “when we see a woman playing the violin, or the horn or the viola, we have a certain feeling of indecency that seems to weaken the impression of the performed piece itself.” Junker does not hesitate to call women playing the violin or the double bass ridiculous.
Now you may say that those were different times, and that today our perception of both music and women has changed. Is that so? We have made progress, but we are not nearly as far as we could be. When I look at the audience of a Beethoven performance, I see mainly people fitting the stereotype of old, white man with conservative taste and a wife as decorum. And if I look at the conductor – well I haven’t seen or heard a female conductor over here yet.
The volume where Junker is quoted, is dedicated to the question of whether there was a female and a male side to Beethoven’s personality and to his music. If there is anything such as male or female music, the quartet in question, dedicated to Count Andreas Kyrillovitch Rasumovsky, has a definite female connotation. Enjoy.
String Quartet in F major (Op. 59 No. 1) has been recorded by the Vermeer Quartet.
© Charles Thibo