String Quartet No. 10 in E-flat major, Op. 74, (“Harp”)
Ludwig van Beethoven
Even by the standard of Beethoven’s often tempestuous life and times, 1809 was an eventful year. It began with the offer of a position with Napoleon’s younger brother Jerome, the newly created King of Westphalia, and the counter-offer proposed by three of Vienna’s highest ranking nobles. Beethoven accepted the Viennese arrangement, only to find Napoleon’s army two months later at the gates of the city and the nobles who were to support him fled. This time the Austrians decided to contest the occupation of their capital, which only meant that the French had to bombard it for a day before it surrendered. Beethoven spent the day in his brother Casper Carl’s house with pillows over his ears, trying to protect what little remained of his hearing.
Nonetheless, Beethoven completed three major works during this period, all in the key of E-flat major. His Fifth Piano Concerto, the “Emperor,” was mostly finished before the French assault and occupation. It was dedicated to the Archduke Rudolph, one of the noble trio guaranteeing the composer an annual income. Beethoven also honored Rudolph with the programmatic “Les Adieux” or “Lebewohl” Piano Sonata, its movements depicting sorrow at Rudolph’s depart and absence, and joy at his return.
The third work was this String Quartet, which was dedicated to Prince Lobkowitz, another one of Beethoven’s three guarantors. It has a slow introduction, calm despite two loud interruptions. The main portion of the movement and its coda are marked by accompaniment pizzicato figures that have given the work its “Harp” nickname.
The tender Adagio, with its elegant variation of the main rondo theme, suggests the direction Beethoven would take with the transcendent slow movements of his late quartets. The powerful Scherzo, however, comes straight from the heroics of the Fifth Symphony, including the same obsessively energized four-note rhythmic figure, short-short-short-long.
The finale is a genial, gentle theme with six contrasting variations, alternating athletic vigor with lyrical repose, and a substantial coda pushes the work to a brilliant close. It was premiered at Prince Lobkowitz’ home in the fall of 1809, after the French had left and the Austrian nobility returned.