Beethoven was brilliant at writing for this combination of two violins, a viola and cello, and this week’s Cathy List gives you a quick survey of his early, middle and late styles in this medium:
I love the carefree tune of the A major quartet, something to whistle as you go to a meeting to reassure you all will be well. This is typical early period Beethoven – crisp and clean, you know where you are and can mostly guess what’s round the corner.
Beethoven’s middle period (1800-1815ish) is characterised by chutzpah and lots of music that you can cry ‘hurrah’ at the end. The second track is from one of his ‘Razumovsky’ quartets (composed for a Russian count of the same name). It galops along and has a suitably Russian verve to it.
Another middle period quartet, and my favourite if you were to put a gun to my head, is the ‘Harp’ quartet (listen to 6’02 to hear the plucked harp effect given in the lower three strings). I have the privilege of coaching it at the moment at the Pre-Conservatoire with some great young players who are discovering it for the first time. It starts by questioning and searching. Then you’re off into a world of lightness and wellbeing with everybody equally involved and commenting on each other’s ideas (compare this to the first track with the first violin monopolising the conversation).
Goethe once called listening to a quartet like eavesdropping on ‘four intelligent people having a conversation’. Beethoven exemplifies this intellectual debate. The bit I always look forward to is 8’30, with the first violin rippling away and the tune shared underneath, rising step by step.
The late quartets are some of the most profound works Beethoven wrote, right at the end of his life. By this time he was mainly composing for his own satisfaction and not to please the listener. It was an expression of a spiritual search for him, with lots of slow-paced reflective movements or dense, complex fugues as he wrestled with life’s thornier problems.
I’ve chosen a lighter touch finish with, a late period scherzo with a surprise up its sleeve. Listen to 1’05. A drunken interlude maybe, as some slides happily to the floor in a haze of vodka?
[The ‘Cathy Lists’ were created for my sister-in-law, Cathy, who wanted some help getting into classical music. You can follow the complete playlist here on Spotify.]