Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 14 in C-sharp minor, Op. 131
Programme Notes (links at the bottom of the page)
“After this, what is left for us to write?“
(Robert Schumann after hearing Op. 131)
- Adagio ma non troppo e molto espressivo: C♯ Min – 2/2
- Allegro molto vivace: D Maj – 6/8
- Allegro moderato: B Minor to A Maj – 4/4
- Andante ma non troppo e molto cantabile: A Maj – 2/4
- Presto: E Maj – 2/2
- Adagio quasi un poco andante: G♯ Min – 3/4
- Allegro: C♯ Min – 2/2
Beethoven’s Opus 131 was completed in 1826 and is one of a group of the composer’s works that have come to be known as the “Late String Quartets” as they form a group of Beethoven’s last completed compositions.
Comprised of seven movements, the piece is notable for being composed in C♯ Minor, a key visited only twice by Beethoven; this string quartet and the Moonlight Sonata (Op. 27).
“Adagio ma non troppo e molto espressivo” (Stately (but not overly so) and with expressiveness)
The first Adagio in C♯ Minor introduces us to the key and allows the musicians, instruments and audience to open up to the experience of the quartet, setting the scene and allowing all concerned to settle into the moment to the exclusion of all worldly matters. Beethoven has seven movements and approximately forty minutes to get his idea across to us and it’s our duty to do what we can to understand his thoughts and emotional concepts.
This adagio is written as a Fugue whereby a theme is presented by an instrument; in this case the first violin, then each of the instruments enter in turn repeating the theme in accompanying keys while the previous instruments expand on it. This allows the composer to explore every avenue provided by this short piece of music in both melody and harmony.
Towards the end of the movement you’ll notice Beethoven raising both the tension and loudness in preparation for the climax of this first section. He does this by using more challenging intervals between the instruments to produce less “standardised” chords. The listener must concentrate but release is provided as we go by resolutions to the chords in each bar. We’re not left hanging and there’s no mistaking the final chord.
“Allegro molto vivace” (Fast and with liveliness)
The second movement provides an abrupt contrast with its immediate transition to an allegro. The mood has completely switched and we’re listening to a melody not far removed from a sea shanty interspersed with pastoral whimsy. After only a few iterations of this new theme and style Beethoven brings us back for a thoughtful close to the section in preparation for the following “bridge” section.
“Allegro moderato” (Fast but not overly so)
Although this third movement exists in its own right it serves a higher purpose within the greater work as it allows Beethoven to move from the key of B Minor to A Major, moving down a musical path which is known as the “Circle of Fifths”. Adding this section provides a gateway to A Major and therefore overall continuity.
“Andante ma non troppo e molto cantabile” (At a walking pace but not too fast and with a singing style)
The longest of the movements at around fifteen minutes, this andante allows the composer to guide the listener through a number of musical ideas and textures.
Beginning with an introductory section emphasised by pizzicato (plucked strings) from the cello, we’re taken on a swirling Beethovenian journey which exemplifies the influence that Vienna had on him. Watch out for the period of staccato strings where we hear a signature motif of all four instruments playing in unison.
Beethoven has plenty of time and the overall mood of the piece is maintained by the positive-sounding A Major key. Whether the music speeds up or slows down we’re left with the impression that this is an uplifting experience for both composer and listener. The theme visited in the first few bars resurfaces every couple of minutes in a slightly different guise until we find ourselves at the end, punctuated by two pizzicato notes from three of the four instruments.
“Presto” (Very fast)
The serenity of the andante is broken by the aggressive four-note introduction to this presto by the Cello and we’re immediately off with a complex intertwining of melodies as each of the four instruments battles for dominance. The theme is followed faithfully by all three sections as we travel through the music and Beethoven provides us with an interesting and surprising conclusion with a tone colour called “sul ponticello”. Look out for the glassy sounds produced when the musicians play the last few bars in this exciting movement.
“Adagio quasi un poco andante” (Stately and at ease but almost at a walking pace)
Beethoven calms everything down for this penultimate movement. The interaction between the instruments and tone colours produced are accessible and not intellectually challenging, serving as a serene and calming introduction to the final Allegro.
“Allegro” (Fast and bright)
After the ease and fluidity with which the preceding movement calmed and soothed, this allegro jumps straight in with a metronomic regularity of rhythm which demands one’s attention. The music switches between variations of the primary theme exposed in the first minute or so, with smooth interludes which give the listener time to reflect and relax before the senses are piqued again requiring concentration and focus. Keep an attentive ear on the “flavour” of the opposing themes in the movement. You might feel that the faster sections have a northern European (almost Russian) texture while the smooth episodes are clearly Viennese in origin.
Onwards then, to the finale, which Beethoven announces with a slip into a faster section. We prepare for tension and release but it’s a false summit. The composer eases us back down again and we have to revisit the primary theme once more before the capstone of the complete work is placed with three fortissimo chords played by three of the instruments, supported handsomely by the cello.
Click HERE to get the full score from Petrucci (3.8MB)
Click HERE to see a magnificent rendition on Youtube.
…and just in the spirit of impartiality, here’s an excellent recording of “Smash It Up” (Parts 1 and 2) by The Damned.