About this Piece
Here we arrive at one of the most organically integrated creations in music history. Beethoven's Op. 131 presents us with compositional peculiarities, devices, and methods that both mirror and multiply those of the other quartets on this program. With this quartet we are faced with a work of art that projects our hearing simultaneously into the past, present, and future of compositional processes, evoking multi-dimensional psychological and emotional states transcendent of its era, our era, or probably any other. It has thus been forever contemporary.
How did Beethoven accomplish this feat? First of all, he did away with the traditional four-movement sequence. For this quartet Beethoven composed seven interconnected movements that are played without a break. He maintained strict rhythmic continuity from No. 2 to 3, 3 to 4, and 6 to 7. In addition to this rhythmic continuity, Beethoven employed fermatas on a single note or rest leading from No. 1 to 2, 4 to 5, and 5 to 6, focusing our attention upon what is to come in light of what has preceded.
Aside from the finale, which is a classical sonata form consisting of three sections (exposition, development, and recapitulation), there is really very little development within each movement. In a way, this lack of development lends a kind of stasis to each movement; one hears the same music over and over, perhaps at different pitch levels, but even the harmonic treatment is more circular than progressive. Only the fugue of the first movement - which barely establishes the key of C-sharp minor, avoiding full cadences at every turn - and the last movement employ progressive harmonic structures (and both of these movements share the fugue subject). As a result, each individual movement proceeds by manner of similarity, but the contrasts of material and character from one movement to the next establish a large emotional curve made of conflict and resolution unprecedented in Beethoven's work. Carter's emotional flights were mercurial in their over-all psychology; in this quartet Beethoven prolongs emotional and psychological states in a sustained manner by way of rhythmic consistency and melodic repetition reminiscent of the Baroque doctrine of Affekt; again, an echo of the past.
The depths of emotion Beethoven displays in this quartet seem limitless, but the attendant irony in nearly each movement betrays an overall sense of sadness and detachment: lyrical passages give way to sardonic humor; overtly emotive movements are complemented by seemingly disembodied serenity (as in the opening fugue). It is as if there were a great abyss separating the flesh and blood Beethoven from his creation, as if he were writing music about music in an attempt to conceal his worldly pain.
Beethoven composed Op. 131 during the first half of 1826, but did not live to witness its premiere. As a fulfillment of Schubert's wish to hear the work, it was performed five days prior to his death on November 14, 1828, more than a year after Beethoven's death.
- Steve Lacoste is the Archivist for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.