About this Piece
Only three years after Beethoven composed the Opus 11 work that opens this program, he intrepidly stepped off the mountain, so to speak, into the land of the string quartet. Here was the numerical musical unit in which Haydn towered and Mozart met him at the crest. Now, at the turn of the century, it was Beethoven’s time to test his mettle in the form that could place him at the side of his formidable predecessors — if he lived up to their creative, technical, and expressive accomplishments. History tells us that he had the stuff, and beginning with his six quartets of Opus 18 in 1800 to the final quartets of the 1820s, Beethoven developed an astonishingly vital and advanced concept in every musical facet.
In 1810 came the present composition, the first of his quartets to be dedicated, not to a noble patron as the earlier ones had been, but to a very good friend from the middle class — Nikolaus von Zmeskall; and it was the first and only quartet to which he gave a subtitle: “Serioso.”
Beethoven applied the term “serioso” to this work with very good reason. The strongly disturbing context of the music emanates from a depth of despair caused by multiple personal anxieties, possibly the most disturbing being the failed love affair he had just experienced. Add to this his worsening deafness, the precarious state of his health, and financial insecurity, and one has a picture of a man in emotional distress. In a letter to a friend, written in May of 1810, the period he was composing the “Serioso” Quartet, he said, “If I had not read somewhere that no one should quit life voluntarily while he could still do something worthwhile, I would have been dead long ago and certainly by my own hand. Oh, life is so beautiful, but for me it is poisoned forever.” (Beethoven had referred to suicide in his famous Heiligenstadt “testament” of 1802, soon after he learned that his deafness was progressive.)
Did Beethoven, a composer of such high moral tone and concern about the brotherhood of man — did he really intend for his distress to be portrayed in a string quartet? No one can know the answer to that question, but one can conclude that his state of mind dictated its emotional essence. The Quartet's opening has the four instruments in unison erupting in one of the composer's most violent statements — just eleven notes, cramped in musical space and intensity. After a pause, the first violin carries on the rage by leaping about wildly in octaves. The first five notes of the opening become a flashpoint throughout the movement — one of Beethoven’s most condensed sonata-form movements — and slashing scale passages in unison confirm the seething atmosphere. In two contrasting themes, the first introduced by viola, the second by violin, there is a semblance of repose, but fury is again ignited in a brief development based on the first theme. At movement’s end, as if exhausted by the stressful activities, the music quiets and fades away.
The not-so-slow second movement — an Allegretto rather than a customary Andante — juxtaposes a songful theme and a second theme that is treated as an extended and enriched fugato. A taut and propulsive Allegro enters from this second movement without a pause. With its dotted rhythms it has an in turn quiet and ferocious intensity, contrasted by a middle section of a hymn-like nature
A slow and expressive introduction makes way for a finale displaying a wide range of temperament. Anxiety and tension are the most prevalent moods, but somewhat surprisingly they are routed at the very end by a sudden surge of major-key good humor that could be construed as evidence of Beethoven’s highly moralistic sense of triumph over adversity. But the exhilarating conclusion may be nothing more than the result of the composer, having tired of all the sturm und drang, simply abandoning the tensions and transcending them. One thoughtful observer wrote of the finale, that “no bottle of champagne was ever uncorked at a better time.”
After many years as Director of Publications and Archives for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Orrin Howard continues to contribute to the program book.