BEETHOVEN'S STRING QUARTETS are universally acknowledged as the most profound group of pieces in Western music. This week on Intermezzo, host Chris Wolf will feature each of the last five every day at 1 PM. Tune in!

Ask any classical musician and they'll tell you there's always some new element that's uncovered in each performance of a quartet. Quartets are esentially a conversation between 4 players.  Sometimes they agree and sometimes they argue in the sense that sometimes they play the same tune together but you could equally barge in with another idea.

Haydn and Mozart were the two composers that established the string quartet and it's their legacy that Beethoven inherited. We know for instance that he copied out Mozart's Quartet K.464 in A, in order to understand how quartets should be written. There were no music conservatories in those days.

Beethoven is known as the greatest symphonist but it is very important to remember that if he had died at 31 like Schubert, he would only have published his first symphony plus his first two piano concertos. Everything else was chamber music including many piano sonatas, violin sonatas, cello sonatas and string trios. These last were very important to his future fluency in quartet writing.

Prince Nicholas Galitzin commissioned the first three quartets (numbers 12, 13 and 15) and in a letter dated November 9, 1822, offered to pay Beethoven "what you think proper" for the three works. Beethoven replied on January 25, 1823 with his price of 50 Ducats for each opus. Beethoven composed these quartets in the sequence 12, 15, 13, 14, 16, simultaneously writing quartets 15 and 13.

Beethoven wrote the last quartets amidst failing health. In April of 1825 he was bedridden, and remained ill for about a month. The illness—or more precisely, his recovery from it—is remembered for having given rise to the deeply felt slow movement of the Fifteenth Quartet, which Beethoven called "Holy song of thanks ('Heiliger Dankgesang') to the divinity, from one made well." He went on to complete the quartets now numbered Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Sixteenth. The last work Beethoven completed was the substitute final movement of the Thirteenth Quartet, which replaced the difficult Große Fuge.


Monday at 1PM - Beethoven's String Quartet #12 in E Flat, Op. 127 performed by the Takacs Quartet.

From a documentary that came out in 1987 entitled "Classical Vienna" watch the Salomon String Quartet perform an excerpt from opening movement of this quartet. It includes a brief introduction on the quartets of Beethoven.



Tuesday at 1PM - Beethoven's String Quartet #13 In B Flat, Op. 130 performed by the Emerson Quartet

Sometimes Beethoven's ambition got the better of him. The original form  of this quartet consisted of six movements totalling approximately 50 minutes. After the work's first performance, mixed reactions and his publisher's suggestion convinced Beethoven to substitute a different final movement, one much shorter and lighter than the enormous Große Fuge that was the original finale of this work. This new ending was written between September and November 1826—and is thus the last substantial piece of composition Beethoven completed before his death.

Beethoven never witnessed a performance of the quartet in its final form: it was premiered on April 22, 1827, almost a month after his death.

The original finale was published separately under the title Große Fuge as opus 133. Modern performances sometimes follow the composer's original intentions, leaving out the substitute finale and concluding with the fugue.

Violinist Peter Cropper was the leader of the Lindsay Quartet for almost four decades. He died suddenly at age 69 this past June. He wrote that the  Cavatina of this particular quartet moved him to no end. "  . . .the Cavatina from Op. 130 in which Beethoven shares his love of mankind and all the joys and sorrows that that entails. He has this ability to let you see in to his soul. In the middle section of the Cavatina where he writes 'beklemmt' [which means opressed, only much more] above the music, he even manages to make the violin cry."

The Cavatina (fifth movment) is actually the final piece on the "Golden Record", a phonograph record containing a broad sample of Earth's sounds, languages, and music sent into outer space in 1977 with the two unmanned Voyager probes. It's immediately after the gospel blues song "Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground" by Blind Willie Johnson, a blind and a deaf musician side by side. Voyager 1 entered interstellar space in 2012; Voyager 2 is expected to do so around 2016. The performance is by the Budapest String Quartet.

Listen to the recording below.



Wednesday at 1PM -  Beethoven's String Quartet No. 14 in C Sharp Minor, Op. 131 performed by the Cleveland Quartet.

The fourth of the late quartets in the order he composed them, Op. 131 is, by ample testimony, the greatest of them all. It was Beethoven's favorite. Schubert's final musical request was to hear Beethoven's Op. 131. Wagner wrote a florid, poetic tome about the epic greatness of Op. 131. It is not ingenuous to say that this just might be la crème de la crème.

With seven movements and typically, the longest duration of any of his quartets, Op. 131 would seem to be Beethoven's most expansive utterance. All seven movements are played without pause creating a single giant continuous structure embracing an initial somber but lyrical fugue, two vibrant scherzi, a colossal theme and variations, connective recitative, and a wisp of heartbreaking adagio that introduces the furious finale, the only full sonata form in the Quartet. The second theme is derived from the subject of the opening fugue, the latent anger and energy of which now explodes. "This is the fury of the world's dance – fierce pleasure, agony, ecstasy of love, joy, anger, passion, and suffering; lightning flashes and thunder rolls; and above the tumult the indomitable fiddler whirls us on to the abyss," Wagner wrote. "Amid the clamor he smiles, for to him it is nothing but a mocking fantasy; at the end, the darkness beckons him away, and his task is done."

For both the first and the last movements, is it revealing to consider that Beethoven had composed the monolithic Op. 133 Grosse Fuge immediately prior. The central theme and variations by itself is among Beethoven's greatest creations. And it is not the technical details that most amaze. It is how the music makes one feel.


Listen to the famous adagio below performed by the Alban Berg String Quartet.






Thursday at 1PM - Beethoven's String Quartet No. 15 in A Minor, Op. 132 performed by the Emerson Quartet

Written in 1825 this quartet was given its public premiere on November 6 of that year by the Schuppanzigh Quartet and was dedicated to Count Nicolai Galitzin, as were Opp. 127 and 130. Beethoven wrote these last quartets amidst failing health. In April 1825 he was bedridden, and remained ill for about a month. The illness—or more precisely, his recovery from it—is remembered for having given rise to the deeply felt slow movement of this Fifteenth Quartet, which Beethoven called "Holy song of thanks ('Heiliger Dankgesang') to the divinity, from one made well."

The number traditionally assigned to it is based on the order of its publication; it's actually the thirteenth quartet in order of composition.

Some credit this quartet as T. S. Eliot's impetus to write the Four Quartets; certainly he was recorded in a letter to Stephen Spender as having a copy of the A minor quartet on the gramophone: 'I find it quite inexhaustible to study. There is a sort of heavenly or at least more than human gaiety about some of his later things which one imagines might come to oneself as the fruit of reconciliation and relief after immense suffering; I should like to get something of that into verse before I die.'

Aldous Huxley in his novel Point Counter Point makes extended reference and description of this quartet in the late chapter concerning the death/suicide of the character Maurice Spandrell.

Here's an interestesting way to view the third movement, "Heiliger Dankgesang," ---accompanied by an animated score.



Friday at 1PM - Beethoven's String Quartet No. 16 in F Major, Op. 135 performed by New Orford Quartet


"Here, my dear friend, is my last quartet. It will be the last; and indeed it has given me much trouble. For I could not bring myself to compose the last movement. But as your letters were reminding me of it, in the end I decided to compose it. And that is the reason why I have written the motto: 'The difficult decision—Must it be? —It must be, it must be!'"

There are numerous interpretations of that final motto ranging from prosaic to profound. What is certain is that the words describe the essence of the music. It begins with a slow introduction, a grave, stormy three-note motive that musically raises a question (must it be?). The extended, fragmented and dire query also features a three-note "knock on the door" that looks inevitably backward to the 5th symphony and forward to Shostakovich's 8th quartet. The Allegro answers the question by inverting the three-note motive into a musically affirmative statement (it must be!), a burst of joyful vigor that is joined by mellifluous sequences and a child-like song of direct, open-heartedness, both of which recall similar epiphanies in the earlier late quartets. Contrapuntal stretches froth the ambrosia into Elysium just before the dire question rears again in disruptive panic, an arrow stunning the heart. The strong, bright affirmation restores peace and energy once more, refines into dainty, courtly pizzicato then swells into a final flush of resolute vigor. It must be. And so it was.

In actually, Beethoven wrote one more "last movement" (his truly final music) thereby sparing the Op. 135 finale from actually being the last movement he could not write. Again, classic Beethoven: he would always end a storm with a smile, a tragedy with a wink. The last, last movement (a replacement finale for the Op. 130 after the Grosse Fugue was extracted) truly completes this tale of Beethoven's final refinement. After all, where is the final fugue? It's there, mustn't it be? It must be. And so it is.

Here is the Hagen Quartet performing the third movement of Op. 135 Lento Assai, Cantante E Tranquilo. Tune in to the complete work at 1PM on Intermezzo.