Thesis statement: “This report will simply discuss how Ludwig van Beethoven integrated old and new musical ideas into his work, thus creating an unconventional but transcendent and influential quartet, based on the String Quartet No.9 in C, Op. 59, No.3 “Razumovsky” performed on the concert.”
On 22nd Nov, Shanghai Quartet, one of the world’s foremost chamber ensembles, performed two musical works. They are Ludwig van Beethoven’s String Quartet No.9 in C, Op. 59, No.3 “Razumovsky ” and Antonin Dvorak’s Piano Quintet No.2 in A, B. 155, Op.82. In this report, I will focus on discussing Beethoven’s work.
1Ludwig van Beethoven was a German composer and pianist. A crucial figure in the transition between the Classical and Romantic period in Western art music, he remains one of the most famous and influential icon for all composers. His best-known compositions include 9symphonies, 5 concertos for piano, 32 piano sonatas, and 16 string quartets. 2The String Quartet No.9 in C, Op. 59, No.3 “Razumovsky” was written in around 1805-1806, when Beethoven was aged 35 and was at the height of his productivity. It is called the ‘Razumovsky’ quartets because it is commissioned by a Russian count of that name, who was the Tzar’s ambassador in Vienna, a keen amateur violinist and a confirmed music lover. The quartet consists of the following four movements:
1. Andante con moto – Allegro vivace (C major)
2. Andante con moto quasi allegretto (A minor)
3. Menuetto (Grazioso) (C major)
4. Allegro molto (C major)
I will focus on discussing how Beethoven integrated old and new ideas into the second, third and final movements The second movement brings us to an unconventional territory. Beethoven tried something radical and that is an entire Russian movement. The ‘exotic’ flavor of this movement is easy enough to hear in the augmented second intervals of the opening violin melody, the frequent pizzicato accompaniment of the cello in which as if it imitates a ‘folk’ instrument such as guitar of harp and especially in the long passages of static harmony. Indeed, Beethoven is successful in conjuring up this sense of geographical distance that the movement sounds very similar to the ‘nationalist’ inspiration from decades later, by Romantic period composers like Dvorak or Borodin or Chaikovsky. But the extreme modulations and patient logic of the tonal return betray it back to its time and composer.
While the second movement gives an unconventional feeling and goes for something new during that time, the third movement gestures in the opposite direction. During Beethoven’s ‘middle’ period, he tended to avoid the Minuet and Trio format and try to use the robust Scherzo in his works; but here he returns to the somewhat-old-fashioned form, in a movement with a characteristic rhythmic motive in the opening seamlessly exchanged between instruments. As if to complete the ‘old-fashioned’ mode, the Trio’s uncomplicated dance character and rising ending melodies even bring us back to the world of early Haydn, who is a Classical Period composer. Everything in this quartet has been a surprise so far, and the last movement is no exception. It is led by a gentle coda to the third movement that ends on a question mark.
But then, of all things, we are presented with the start of a traditional fugue, led off by the viola at a furious tempo. Again we have a sense of traveling between the new and the old. Fugues were by now an ancient, learned device; but Beethoven integrates this one into the most extrovert and ‘public’ of moods – as a display of evident virtuosity for the four soloists. What is more, as soon as the four entries have been completed, there are not any formal counterpoints and Beethoven explores instead the grandiose, ‘symphonic’ modes, especially that flamboyant celebration of an enormous C-major space on all four instruments.
All in all, Beethoven is so successful in integrating old musical ideas, coming from the Romantic or even the Classical period, and his new thoughts into this quartet. While I listened to it, it acts like a time machine, bringing us to travel between old and new. No wonder it is regarded as one the most transcendent quartet composed by Beethoven.