HAPPY BIRTHDAY, BEETHOVEN
By Steven Ledbetter
LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Trio in E-flat, Opus 1, No. 1
The piano trio, consisting of piano, violin, and cello, grew out of a popular mode of domestic music-making in the classical era, the “accompanied sonata.” We tend to think of the piano as the “accompaniment,” but in the eighteenth-century, it was the other way around. The sonata was conceived for keyboard but could, if desired, be accompanied by violin or cello or both. In such a case, the violin would play along with the top melody line, while the cello doubled the bass line. The main function of this arrangement was the personal enjoyment of the performers in their private music-making, and the flexibility to change instrumentation depending on what instruments the members of the family played. Most piano trios of the period (including those of Haydn and Mozart) consisted of three movements. It was Beethoven who, in his Opus 1, elevated the piano trio to full equality of significance with the more “important” forms like the string quartet by adding the extra movement (here a minuet) and by completely freeing the stringed instruments from their earlier dependence on the keyboard.
Beethoven published a number of pieces early in his career before issuing something that he deemed worthy of an opus number. There has long been the suspicion that Beethoven brought one or more of the three trios eventually published as Opus 1, already finished, with him from Bonn to Vienna in 1792. Although there may be something in this idea, there are also a number of sketches in the so-called “Kafka” sketchbook, dating from Beethoven’s earliest Vienna period, which suggest that much work on them was done in his new home.
These trios were first performed at one of the soirées of Beethoven’s patron Prince Lichnowsky (to whom the published set would be dedicated) in the presence of Haydn late in 1793 or 1794, shortly before Haydn left for England. Haydn spoke warmly of the works, but advised Beethoven not to publish one of them, the trio in C minor, which he felt was too advanced to be accepted by the general public. Beethoven was somewhat angered by Haydn’s remarks and ascribed them to jealousy on the part of the older composer. But perhaps, once the heat of passion had cooled, he looked at the compositions again and decided that they needed further revision. In any case, he did not rush into print. It was another year and a half before their publication, when Beethoven chose to identify them as “Opus 1,” an explicit sign that he was now ready to be taken seriously as a composer.
In many respects the first trio recalls the textures and gestures of the decades just past, starting with a rising arpeggio theme familiar from the time of the Mannheim symphonists in the middle of the century. But Beethoven considerably expands the formal shape of the sonata-allegro first movement, by making his secondary theme a quiet contrast to the brilliance of the first, and a closing theme that alternates staccato rising scales with lyric snippets. This opening movement reveals a personality of striking energy. Most striking, perhaps (and most, strongly pointing to the future), is the extension of the coda into a dramatic new development, raising the dramatic power of the movement’s conclusion.
The Adagio cantabile is cast in a lyric sonata-form movement in A-flat’ building to a passionate climax in the development. The recapitulation is richly ornamented. The Scherzo (Allegro assai) is obsessively monothematic (a trick learned, perhaps, from Haydn, though one that Beethoven took to his heart), yet spirited. The Trio is gentler in character, with sustained lines in the strings against fleet piano figures.
The finale (Presto) begins with a jaunty leap of a tenth in the piano to set off in an ebullient mood. This upward-reaching gesture is balanced by the more measured descent of the secondary theme. The movement combines elements of sonata and rondo, maintaining throughout a mood of high good humor and boundless energy.
ANTONÍN DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
Quintet in G major for two violins, viola, cello, and bass, Opus 77
To judge from its opus number alone, the G-major string quintet must have been composed after the Scherzo capriccioso, Opus 66, the Seventh Symphony, Opus 70, and the second set of Slavonic Dances, Opus 72; in short, a work of the mature Dvořák. That is exactly what the composer’s publisher Simrock wanted prospective purchasers to think. Actually the quintet had been written more than ten years earlier than its opus number would suggest. The composer himself called it Opus 18 and objected strenuously, if fruitlessly, to Simrock’s deceit.
He turned to this unusual medium—a string quintet with double bass—after finishing his one-act opera The Stubborn Lovers early in 1875. He completed the quintet by March and submitted it (anonymously, as the rules required) to a musical competition; the manuscript bore only the inscription “To his country.” Selected unanimously by the judges, the work received its first performance the following March. At that time it had five movements, an Intermezzo in B standing in second place. But Dvořák decided that two slow movements overbalanced the work, so he removed the Intermezzo and later published it separately as the Nocturne for strings, Opus 40.
The judges who first saw the manuscript of the quintet awarded it the prize on account of its “noble theme, the technical mastery of polyphonic composition, the mastery of form and…knowledge of the instruments.” Certainly Dvořák demonstrated a technical mastery in this work, but just as certainly the piece, for all its charm, does not yet come up to the best works of his maturity, which explains the composer’s upset a decade later to have it marketed as if it were brand new.
The player benefiting most from the presence of the double bass is the cellist, who, freed from customary duties of harmonic support, has a much greater opportunity to range widely in the thematic interplay of the lines; Dvořák frequently took advantage of this opportunity. As if to define the unusual ensemble from the very outset, cello and double bass open the proceedings with the bass line descending in octaves, a sonority not possible for a string quartet, or even a quintet (like Schubert’s C-major) for two cellos. Once this unique feature has been established in the ear of the listener, the cello parts company from the double bass and projects its own personality.
Dvořák’s first and last movements are lively, but rather square in the working out of musical ideas, which do not yet feature his characteristic personal profile. He still has some tendency to overwork rhythmic motives, especially when building up to a climax. The bouncy scherzo dances jovially into a gentler trio with some charming irregularities of phrasing. The slow movement that Dvořák kept in the piece stands in third place, where it was left after he removed the Intermezzo. It fits well after the scherzo, since its unfettered lyricism makes it in many ways the high point of the work.
Dvořák was a late-blooming composer, already in his thirties when he wrote this quintet, though his great talent was readily apparent. He always worked diligently to develop and increase his control of the medium and was by this time only a few years from some of his greatest achievements; we can catch clear anticipations of that mastery here.
By Steven Ledbetter
LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Trio in G for violin, viola, and cello, Opus 9, No. 1
Beethoven was not unfamiliar with the stringed instruments (as a teenager he made his living playing viola in the opera orchestra of his native Bonn), but his real instrument was the piano, and his earliest large-scale works, at the age of fifteen, were a piano quartet and a concerto. Later on, his first published compositions to be graced with an opus number were a set of piano trios, which highlighted the keyboard, while his second publication was a set of piano sonatas. By the time he produced these works, he was living in Vienna, where Haydn was the great figure (and, for a short time, Beethoven’s teacher); but Beethoven seems to have avoided a direct comparison with Haydn for a time. He did not compose either a symphony or a string quartet—the two forms in which Haydn was notably preeminent—until after he had made his mark in other ways. And the string quartet, in particular, he approached by way of the string trio.
The string quartet already had a tradition that might well have been overwhelming to a diligent newcomer of the highest artistic standards, but such was not the case with the string trio. Only one undeniable masterpiece of the genre came from the earlier Classical period, and that was by Mozart, who, having died five years before Beethoven published his work, was clearly no longer a rival. Mozart’s Divertimento in E-flat, K. 563, was written in 1788 and published in 1792, the year Beethoven arrived in Vienna. It served as the obvious model for Beethoven’s Opus 3 trio in the same key for the same selection of instruments. About 1795-96 Beethoven began sketching his Opus 9 string trios and the Serenade for string trio published as Opus 8. It was through these works that he worked out the problems of chamber music writing, learning valuable lessons for the future. Still, these compositions are not merely the output of a talented amateur. Already they show the composer’s concern with ideas and issues that remained central to his work to the very end.
The first trio of Opus 9 contains material elaborated with great breadth and imagination in the outer movements and more lyrical and simple ideas in the two inner movements. The slow introduction begins with a flourish followed by a figure in the violin that could be nothing more than a cliché. But Beethoven extends and reworks it, wittily turning its last four notes into the beginning of the principal theme of the Allegro. Sonorous writing for the three instruments contrasts well with the pianissimo of the secondary theme, which hovers around the dominant minor before closing in the major. The powerful development closes on an echo of the slow introduction, leading, in a new key, to the recapitulation. The coda ranges through wide harmonic vistas in a short space.
Beethoven qualifies the Adagio with the adjective “cantabile” (“singing”), and the violin indeed sings an aria of the most elaborate fioritura supported by the two lower movements. Such instrumental “arias” occasionally appear in the works of all the Viennese Classical composers, but Beethoven was especially fond of them. As if to compensate for the length of the Adagio, Beethoven wrote only a brief scherzo (and made it all the briefer by choosing to eliminate a second Trio that he had originally composed). The finale begins with a staccato rushing phrase that seems at first to have no idea in its head but to get from here to there as quickly as possible. But an answering phrase is a little broader, and the second subject is particularly striking: it begins suddenly in B-flat, but in the course of its spacious, soaring eight bars, it works its way inventively back to the normal D major for the dominant. The development is grandly spacious, and the last part works almost entirely through its harmonic sequences as its dynamics get softer and softer and the phrase seems on the verge of dying away altogether. But the violin, suddenly realizing that it has returned to the tonic, rushes off on its staccato theme again. The close is laid out in string writing so sonorous that it is hard to believe only three instruments are playing.
ROBERT SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Quartet in E-flat for piano and strings, Opus 47
Up until 1840, Schumann had composed entirely for the piano, and almost entirely in miniature. But in 1840, out of overwhelming enthusiasm for finally gaining legal permission to marry his beloved Clara Wieck (over the strenuous objection of her father), he burst forth into new genres: 1840 was almost entirely devoted to songs, 1841 to symphonies, and 1842 to chamber music.
He had always found it something of a strain to think in the large-scale terms necessary for a symphony or a major work of chamber music, but with Clara’s encouragement that he prove himself as a composer in a wider realm, he demonstrated his genius repeatedly in this period. His Piano Quintet, Opus 44, is a dramatic large piece, analogous in its chamber music terms to his symphonic writing of the previous year. He followed it with the Opus 47 Piano Quartet in the same key as a smaller, lyrical pendant and a gem in its own right, full of felicitous Schumannesque touches.
The slow introduction to the first movement prefigures the main motive of the Allegro that follows. At the end of the exposition, Schumann brings back the slow introduction, as if he is going to repeat it along with the entire exposition, but at the next-to-last note it suddenly veers off into the development, which builds steadily to a furious fortissimo return to the tonic and the opening of the recapitulation.
The scherzo is a headlong rush of eighth-notes twice interrupted for more lyrical Trios; the second of these features is one of Schumann’s favorite rhythmic tricks—a passage so syncopated that upbeats sound like downbeats.
The richly lyrical slow movement features a long-breathed melody offered to each of the strings in turn while the piano decorates and supports. As the viola takes up the song, following a dark middle section, the cellist must tune his bottom C-string down to B-flat to produce a wonderfully deep pedal point in two octaves against the closing phrases of the rest of the ensemble.
The energetic finale begins with a fugato based on a familiar-sounding theme; was Schumann thinking of the Jupiter Symphony? His interest in contrapuntal work is clearly evident in both of the E-flat chamber works with piano composed at this time, and actual fugues or fugatos are a central part of the finale in each case.
SCHUBERT ADDS A BASS (AND A TROUT)
By Steven Ledbetter
LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN
Sonata in F for violin and piano, Opus 24, Spring
Beethoven wrote his F-major violin sonata during the second half of 1800, during which time he also composed the B-flat piano sonata, Opus 22, and the A-minor violin sonata, Opus 23. In the spring of that year he had given his first concert for his own benefit, at which he had introduced the Septet, Opus 20, and the First Symphony, works which contributed substantially to the establishment of his reputation.
He was nearing the end of what scholars have often referred to as the first period, a time of growth and development based on the models of his great forebears. The coming years were marked by his pursuit of the symphonic ideal, by the creation of music filled with an energetic dynamism which, in the minds of most people, comprises their notion of Beethoven.
But even during that time Beethoven also composed works of striking lyricism–the Violin Concerto, for example, or the Fourth Piano Concerto and the Fourth and Sixth symphonies. And that strain of relaxed lyricism appears already in the first theme of the F major violin sonata, a melody that Beethoven may have adapted from the theme of a Clementi piano sonata (Opus 25, No. 4); its open sunny mood is no doubt responsible for the sonata’s nickname “Spring” (which does not come from Beethoven himself). Only the secondary theme—unexpectedly veering to the minor—is in the “energetic” mold.
The slow movement, in B-flat, actually anticipates the singing lyricism of Schubert, especially in its change to G-flat, an unusual key relation for Beethoven at this period.
This is the first of Beethoven’s violin sonatas to have four movements. The “extra” movement is a very short and incisive scherzo. The sonata’s finale is a rondo built on another theme of relaxed lyricism that rounds out the sonata’s winning invitation to pleasure.
FRANZ SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Quintet in A major, D. 667, for piano, violin, viola, cello, bass (Trout)
During the summer of 1819, Schubert took a vacation trip with his friend Johann Michael Vogl to Linz and Steyr, in Upper Austria. Schubert was delighted to discover that his host in Steyr had eight daughters, “almost all pretty,” as he wrote his brother. “You can see that there is plenty to do.” In addition to being decorative, the girls were also musical, and many evenings were spent performing Schubert’s songs and piano pieces. One particularly favored song, Die Forelle (“The Trout”), composed two years earlier, was so popular at these parlor concerts that when a local amateur cellist of some means, Sylvester Paumgartner, commissioned a quintet from Schubert for the same performing ensemble as Hummel’s Opus 87—piano, violin, viola, cello, and double bass—he specifically requested a set of variations on Die Forelle as one of the movements.
The work that resulted has long been Schubert’s most popular chamber composition—neither his most dramatic nor his most far‑reaching, but certainly one of his most lovable (and that is saying a lot!). In a letter to his brother during this vacation, Schubert wrote, “The country round Steyr is unimaginably lovely.” The companionship was pleasant, too, and Schubert always delighted in casual music‑making. All of these pleasures, natural and social, seem to have been captured in this frank and open‑hearted score. So much satisfaction did he find in his circumstances and his composing that he produced not the usual four movements, but five.
The triplet figure stated by the piano at the very beginning of the opening Allegro dominates the entire movement, bubbling along as a foil to the lyrical theme presented immediately after in the strings. The Andante exploits a typically Schubertian indolence—laying out its slow‑movement sonata‑form plan (i.e., one without a development section), in such a way that the second half is simply a repetition of the first half at a different level, calculated to end in the home key. Thus, a tranquil first theme in F major moves, with increasing decoration, to the second in the relatively bright key of D; an immediate restatement in the unexpected key of A‑flat major proceeds in as nearly literal a repetition as possible to bring the second material back in the home key of F. The Scherzo is vigorous and propulsive, becoming only slightly more relaxed in the Trio.
The fourth movement, based on Die Forelle, is by far the best‑known section of the quintet. Schubert’s original song might conceivably have been a folksong imitation (if one considers only the opening stanzas), but when the poet described the trickery by which the fisherman finally catches the wily trout, the composer wrote a more elaborate, expressively modulatory stanza. For the variation set, however, Schubert chose to use only the version of the tune that might be considered most like folksong. The theme—a simple harmonization of the tune in D major—is presented in strings alone; then the first three variations place it progressively in the treble (piano), a middle voice (viola) and bass (cello), while the other parts add increasingly lavish ornamentation. The fourth variation turns to a stormy D minor, which in turn leads to the most far‑reaching of the variations, beginning in B‑flat and hinting at far harmonic vistas before returning irresistibly to D major for the final Allegretto, which is also the only variation in the entire set to use the familiar piano figure that was so much a part of the original song.
The closing movement is lively and exceedingly simple, once more creating its second half by copying the first half at a pitch level designed to return to the home key of A major at the end. A slightly martial character in the main theme yields finally to the bubbling triplets that had played so important a role in the first two movements as well.
By Steven Ledbetter
LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Seven Variations on “Bei Männern, welche Liebe fühlen” from Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte, Op. 66
Beethoven greatly admired the music of Mozart, though he had reservations about the Italian operas with librettos by Lorenzo da Ponte on the grounds of what he considered their immorality. But The Magic Flute, with its high ethical tone, was a special favorite of his, and it is not surprising that he should choose to write variations on a duet describing an idealized view of the marital relationship—something that he himself hoped for at the time, but never obtained.
During Act I, the soprano Pamina encounters the bird-catcher Papageno, a baritone, who has come to inform her that Prince Tamino has fallen in love with her from her portrait and is on his way to rescue her from captivity. When Papageno laments that he has no one to love him, Pamina assures him that he will find a sweetheart sooner than he imagines.
This prompts the lovely duet that Beethoven selected for his variations. Pamina sings the first phrase; it is immediately echoed by Papageno, who engineers a modulation to the dominant. Beethoven retains the alternation between soprano and baritone voice in the original duet by having one of the two instruments state the first phrase and the other the second. The fourth variation is in the minor key, and the seventh and last moves quickly to an elaborate coda. Composed in 1801, the variations were published by Mollo the following year without opus number. (The words, though not sung in the variation set, are included here to give a sense of the emotional context.)
Bei Männern, welche Liebe fühlen,
Die süssen Trieben mitzufühlen
Wir wollen durch die Liebe freun;
Die Lieb versüsset jede Plage,
Sie würzet uns’re Lebenstage,
Ihr hoher Zweck zeigt deutlich an,
With men who feel love,
To share that sweet instinct
Then let us enjoy love;
Love sweetens every trouble,
It seasons all the days of our lives,
Its high purpose is clearly revealed:
WOLFGANG AMADÈ MOZART (1756-1791)
Quartet in G minor for piano and strings, K.478
With this piece Mozart virtually created the genre of the piano quartet, completing it on October 16, 1785, for the publisher Hoffmeister. Earlier chamber works combining the keyboard with stringed instruments had tended to treat the piano as a continuo instrument, discreetly backing the others with harmonic support. But Mozart, one of the finest pianists of his day and a passionate devoté of chamber music, naturally gave the piano an equal role, making the work a true quartet. Unfortunately, it proved too difficult for the average amateur player, so the publication did not sell, and Hoffmeister cancelled the commission to Mozart, which had been for three such works.
According to the early biography of Mozart by Georg Nikolaus von Nissen (who married Constanze Mozart after her husband’s death and presumably learned of the incident from her), Hoffmeister told Mozart, “Write more popularly, or else I can neither print nor pay for anything of yours,” to which Mozart is said to have replied, “Then I will write nothing more, and go hungry, or may the devil take me!” (The composer did, in the end, write another piano quartet about nine months later, but it was published by Artaria.)
The key of G minor had a particular resonance for Mozart, and he chose it for music of impassioned character, in such works as the string quintet, K.516, the great symphony No. 40, K.550, or Pamina’s aria, “Ach, ich fühl’s,” from The Magic Flute. And, of course, for this piano quartet, K.478. The impetuous Allegro in G minor opens with a powerful figure in octaves that plays a strong motivic role throughout the movement (the great Mozart scholar Alfred Einstein considered this a “fate” motif, analogous to the openings of Beethoven’s Fifth and Tchaikovsky’s Fourth symphonies). Adroitly placed sforzandos stretch the phrases of the second theme in a charmingly unexpected way, giving the impression to the ear that its opening bars are in 5/4 time instead of 4/4. This is followed by a figure somewhat lighter in character, but for the most part the development and coda are dominated by the “fate” motif.
The Andante, in B-flat, has a wonderful harmonic richness decorated by elaborate runs for each of the four instruments in turn.
It comes as a bit of a surprise that the finale turns to the conventional “happy ending” of the major key after the expressive weight of the first two movements. But though it is lighter in mood than what preceded it, the frequent passing chromaticisms, entering already in the first measure, show that the finale, too, is cut from the same expressive cloth and is not merely a bow to custom. With this quartet Mozart at one stroke set a standard for the new medium that has been aimed at but never surpassed.
By Steven Ledbetter
LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN
Sonata in F for horn and piano, Opus 17
The horn offered special difficulties to any composer of Beethoven’s day who wanted to write a substantial solo work for it. The valves that make the modern horn capable of playing any of the twelve pitches in the chromatic scale had not yet been developed, so horn players and composers who wrote for them were more or less limited to the pitches of the overtone series. They could, to be sure, obtain some chromatic pitches by inserting a hand inside the bell of the instrument to adjust the length of the vibrating air column, but this had such a drastic effect on the tone color that it was generally avoided. Obviously, when writing for an instrument limited to relatively few pitches, the composer had to be very careful about modulations—the farther he got from the home key of the horn, the fewer notes it could play. For this reason, classical works for solo horn tend to be on the brief side and to avoid elaborate harmonic entanglements. In Beethoven’s case, the composer almost even avoids a slow movement (which is normally in a different key) by linking the brief Adagio directly to the final rondo as if it were simply a short introduction.
Beethoven is reported to have composed the sonata in less than a day for a famous horn virtuoso of the time, Giovanni Punto, with whom he gave the first performance in the Vienna Court Theater on 18 April 1800. The audience was so enthusiastic that, despite house rules forbidding encores, the soloists played the entire sonata over again at once. A horn sonata is something of a biological sport for Beethoven, and it is fascinating to observe how he handles the recalcitrant combination, giving the brass player themes of a harmonically simple outline so that the piano will have greater flexibility in harmonizing with them. Thus his artistry can hope to conceal the technical limitations inherent in the solo instrument and still produce an attractive piece. Beethoven clearly considered it a challenge, one that he overcame with notable success.
ARNOLD SCHOENBERG (1874-1951)
Verklärte Nacht, Opus 4, for string sextet
Arnold Schoenberg, a giant among twentieth-century composers, wrote his most popular score, Verklärte Nacht, at the very end of the nineteenth century. Its popularity certainly has something to do with the work’s palpable links to the era that was ending, but it is at the same time remarkably forward-looking, anticipating the composer that Schoenberg became.
Throughout the 1890s Schoenberg had composed string quartets, the medium he knew best as a performer (he played the cello). Most of these he destroyed, but one score, an enormously assured quartet in D, dating from 1897, shows how much he had learned in his self-directed study and his few formal lessons with his friend Alexander von Zemlinsky. Yet even this could scarcely prepare us for the artistic maturity of the string sextet he was to create two years later.
Like so many Schoenberg scores, Verklärte Nacht (“Transfigured Night”) was composed at a furious pace. He completed the bulk of the work in just three weeks in September 1899, though he was not ready to sign and date his score until December 1. The overt inspiration was a poem by the German writer Richard Dehmel (1863-1920), whose Weib und Welt (“Woman and World”) had made something of a stir at its publication in 1896 when government censors found some of the poems offensive for their explicit treatment of sexual situations. Schoenberg had set texts from Dehmel’s book almost at once in some of his earliest songs (Opus 2 and 3).
Verklärte Nacht was a natural choice as an inspiration for a musical setting, since Dehmel’s poem is laid out in a surprisingly musical way. The last line, for example, is a transformed echo of the opening line, a device that Schoenberg brilliantly mirrors in the music.
The poem is laid out in five short sections, of which the first, third, and fifth are impersonal narration describing an unnamed man and woman walking along on a moonlit night. At first the natural surroundings seem cold and bare. The second section is a speech by the woman, who confesses that she carries another man’s child. Before she met her companion, she explains, she had felt that motherhood would provide her with purpose. Now she has fallen in love with him and must confess her fault. A brief narrative interlude describes her faltering step and the moonlight flooding down upon them. The man’s response comprises the fourth section of the poem. He is understanding and magnanimous. The radiance of the natural world convinces him that the love they feel will draw them together and make the child his as well. The poem closes with another description of the moonlit night—now bright with hope.
 Zwei Menschen gehn durch kahlen, kalten Hain;
 Ich trag ein Kind, und nit von Dir,
und Pflicht; da hab ich mich erfrecht,
und hab mich noch dafür gesegnet.
 Sie geht mit ungelen
 Two people move through the bare, cold
 “I bear a child that is not yours,
 She walks with faltering step.
 “May the child that you have conceived
 He catches her round her strong hips.
–translation by S.L.
Perhaps the biggest surprise in the score is Schoenberg’s decision to write a piece of program music on this scale for a chamber ensemble, especially as the medium chosen—two each of violins, violas, and cellos—was one new to him. It had been used twice by Brahms, of whom Schoenberg was a great admirer. Yet the style reflects Schoenberg’s new absorption of Wagnerian chromaticism. (Indeed, one of the most notorious comments ever made about the piece came from one of the program reviewers of the Vienna Tonkünstlerverein charged with deciding whether to recommend new works for performance: it looked, he said, as if the score of Tristan had been smeared while the ink was still wet.)
For all its reflection of the original poem, though, Verklärte Nacht thoroughly transcends the usual point-to-point descriptiveness of run-of-the-mill romantic program compositions and provides a thoroughly satisfying musical shape on its own terms. It is the first of several works—including the later Chamber Symphony and Pelleas und Melisande—that Schoenberg lays out as a large single-movement sonata. This one is, in fact, a double sonata, strictly following the five sections of Dehmel’s poem. The “narrative” parts are quite brief, but the second and fourth, representing the words of the woman and the man respectively, are full-scale sonata forms.
The first is in D minor, the second in D major (though it must be remembered that these keys are already stretched considerably in their tonal function). Moreover the second of them is built out of musical ideas that are expressive versions of themes heard more tentatively in the first. From the literary point of view, this can be seen as a reflection of the woman’s anguish on the one hand and the man’s generous confidence on the other. But it functions equally well from a purely musical point of view, with the second sonata section truly completing and “transfiguring” the first. Schoenberg is so prodigal in inventing gradual transformations of his themes that the listener can discover new relationships even after many hearings of the score.
The nocturnal scene with its two walking figures is represented by a soft marchlike descending line, heard in bare, cold octaves at the outset, but transformed at the end of the score into a passage shimmering with light.
The first sonata-form section, in the minor mode, includes a split-level theme, divided between the cello and upper parts. Later on this very Tristanesque material serves as a “second theme.” The second sonata-form section opens with a characteristic figure in the cellos (the man’s voice?), but it immediately develops thematic ideas heard earlier, but now mostly in the major. New sonorities and the major mode reinforce the melodic development to provide a rich, satisfying conclusion in which the “transfiguration” of the night is musically suggested by Schoenberg’s eloquent and shimmering transformation of the opening music.
AU REVOIR, BEETHOVEN
By Steven Ledbetter
LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
String Quartet No. 16 in F major, Opus 135
We must not pay overly mystical attention to this quartet as Beethoven’s last completed work (except for the “new” ending to Opus 130, replacing the Grosse Fuge, which he wrote later). Although he composed the quartet at a very difficult time—during the late summer and early fall of 1826, immediately after his nephew Karl, for whom he had taken responsibility, had attempted suicide—Beethoven himself had no sense that his span of years was nearing its end. He was just fifty-five and full of plans for the future, including a tenth symphony (Carl Holz claimed to have heard him play a movement of it on the piano) and a Requiem, as well as an opera on a libretto by the Austrian poet Grillparzer. Thus, for all the composer knew or intended, the F-major quartet was to be followed by many future compositions.
Perhaps then, it was natural that he should adopt the course of stepping back a bit from his encounters with far-reaching experimentation, such as had characterized the preceding quartets (especially Opus 131, composed only a few months earlier) and indulge himself in a little conscious classicizing, employing Haydnesque devices throughout the first movement, but in a manner all his own.
The Allegretto begins with a series of apparently disjointed little gestures out of the home key, a trick Haydn had used with masterful wit in some of his quartets. The development includes that hoary old joke, the false recapitulation in the wrong key; but Beethoven screws the joke up by one further level of tension: he continues the intimations of a recapitulation in the home key before exploding once more to a foreign key and returning home at last for the true recapitulation.
The wild Vivace employs many of the technical and stylistic devices of the late quartets. The contrapuntal treatment of the almost tuneless opening (which line is the theme? which the accompaniment?) breaks off with a shock on an apparently unmotivated E-flat. A coda-like extension of the scherzo material brings the further surprise of two successive modulations up a whole step, from F to G, then to A major, in which key the Trio presents a folkish tune high up in the first violin with the other instruments worrying an ostinato motive that grew, almost unnoticed, out of the scherzo’s coda.
The third movement, as quiet as the second was noisy, sings throughout in tranquil voice (as, indeed, Beethoven instructs in his tempo marking), basically a series of variations that emphasize the expressive legato, almost an operatic bel canto approach (he even writes a recitative for the minore variation) ending in a hushed but ecstatic rhapsodizing.
The finale is notorious for the inscription Beethoven wrote at its head, quoting the principal themes of the slow introduction and the Allegro main theme, under which he set the words: Muss es sein? Es muss sein! (“Must it be? It must be!”). There is an anecdote attached to the creation of the theme. A musical amateur who held quartet parties in his home, requested the use of the parts for Opus 130. Since he had not subscribed for the premiere of the work, Beethoven insisted that he pay the subscription fee in order to get the use of the music. The gentleman apparently groaned, “Wenn es sein muss” (“If it must be”). Beethoven, tickled by the comment and his position of strength, produced a little canon with the words “It must be! Yes, yes, out with your purse!” The theme of that canon (considerably refined and improved) became the theme of the quartet’s finale. There has been a tendency to elaborate the words to the level of metaphysical debate (probably because the quartet did, in fact, turn out to be Beethoven’s last completed full work), but it is unlikely that he meant anything more by it than a rather awkward joke. The music of the Allegro proper is spontaneous and humorous, against which the opening Grave is simply a dramatic foil, not a philosophical proposition. We are more likely to catch Beethoven’s spirit if we recall the grumbling cheapskate musical amateur and his discomfiture than if we look for deeper significance.
Quartet in C minor for piano, violin, viola, and cello, Opus 60
Although the C-minor piano quartet was not published until 1875, Johannes Brahms had composed – two decades earlier – a movement in C-sharp minor that contains the essential musical ideas of the later work’s opening movement. The first version was tried out privately in November 1856 with an ensemble including Joseph Joachim, who suggested several changes in a letter that he sent to Brahms the following week, but nothing more seems to have come of the work at that time. In any case, Brahms was not yet prepared to publish it, and when he did return to the quartet nearly two decades later, the finished product took a quite different form. The changes are hard to document precisely, since the composer, following his usual custom, destroyed the score of the early version; it is, at least, clear that the last two movements were composed in the winter of 1873-74 (Brahms indicated as much in a manuscript catalog of his works), while the first two movements are listed as having been composed “earlier.” From the available evidence, it seems that Brahms retained the original exposition of his first movement in all essential details (though transposing it down a semitone) but then completely rewrote the remainder of the movement, much as he was later to do in reworking his early trio, Opus 8.
The dark turmoil of the opening movement hints at the emotional pressure under which Brahms composed the early version during the terrible last days of his friend Robert Schumann or immediately after Schumann’s death. The intensely personal character of the music is also indicated by the composer’s comment in a letter transmitting the early version to Theodor Billroth: “this Quartet is only communicated as a curiosity, say as an illustration to the last chapter of the Man with the Blue Jacket and Yellow Vest.” The reference is to the despairing young man in Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, in the last chapter of which Werther commits suicide. Whether or not Brahms himself ever seriously contemplated taking his own life, he seems to have found his music too personal for immediate publication, too openly revealing of his hopeless love for Clara Schumann. But distance in time gave him enough objectivity to rework it into the final form.
In the final version of 1875, the fiercely energetic opening features a downward-trending motive in the strings, evoking a tragic power. The only moments of relative calm come in the treatment of the second theme; its major-key melody generates some immediate variations within the context of the sonata structure, but it cannot overcome the dark mood of the main theme.
The scherzo is a kind of pendant to the Allegro, continuing in the same key with the same kind of ferocity. Although we know that it was composed “earlier” than the last two movements, it would be sheer conjecture to say whether it formed part of the original C-sharp minor draft, or came from a different incomplete composition, or was written independently.
The Andante, in the surprisingly bright key of E major, was once believed to have been part of the original version of the score and thus probably to represent an avowal of the composer’s love for Clara. But Brahms’s catalog and Clara’s own response to the music after she first heard it in 1875 make it clear that this movement was new. It has long been regarded as one of the highest peaks of Brahmsian melodic writing.
The finale is virtually a perpetuo moto, the ending of which, despite the major key and tranquillo marking, does not entirely banish the memory of things past. Perhaps the finest tribute to the composer’s constructive powers in this quartet comes from Clara Schumann in 1875: “He had already written the first two movements earlier… And now the last two are also entirely works of genius: an intensification right up to the end that fairly takes your breath away. It is strange how the mood remains unified, despite the quite different dates of the various movements.”
BEETHOVEN AND THE WORLD
By Steven Ledbetter
Many great composers have left a long-lasting influence and renown in the musical world. Mozart’s early-rising genius strikes wonder at his prodigious talents, an amazement that lasts today. J.S. Bach’s encyclopedic understanding of harmony and counterpoint leaves one in awe at his vast body of extraordinary works for church, court, entertainment, personal cogitation, and education, first for his own musical children, and then for countless generations of later musicians. Wagner’s operas drew from mythology to create powerful musical dramas hinging on actual issues of economics and morality clad in tales of giants, dwarfs, nymphs, and human beings—while influencing the character of musical drama for nearly a century. Stravinsky turned Russian legend and folk traditions into a dynamic new musical style that revolutionized harmony and especially rhythm forever.
And then there is Beethoven.
Though trained in the musical style that had been perfected by Mozart and Haydn, enriched by the older traditions of Bach and Handel, he sought and found a path that made him unique in the eyes of his contemporaries as well of those who came in the 250 years that followed his birth.
From the very beginning Beethoven was pushed by his alcoholic father to develop his musical skills in the hopes of making him another prodigy like Mozart, who might travel the length and breadth of Europe to display his skill at the keyboard and at composition. He even falsified the year of the boy’s birth, so that until well into adulthood, Ludwig thought that he had been born in 1772, not 1770. But it was not as a prodigy, however talented, that Beethoven made his mark, but his strong-willed drive that allowed him to set his own course and stick to it, however untraditional it might be.
Beethoven intended to study with Mozart, a plan stymied by Mozart’s early death. But when he moved to Vienna in 1792—for life, as it turned out—he undertook some study with Haydn, the study of writing vocal music with Salieri, and further counterpoint lessons. But though he was naturally focused primarily on his musical studies and creation, he was also absorbing ideas of humane, moral concern, largely through the dramas of the two greatest German writers of the day, Goethe and Schiller. Both of them wrote plays in the new romantic style, emphasizing an intense, expressive feeling of fate, responsibility, the power of freedom—feelings that many found in Beethoven’s music, both the abstract instrumental music and explicitly in works with texts that pinpointed these features.
Goethe’s Egmont, about a freedom-prizing leader in the Low Countries during the time of dictatorial Spanish control, served as the basis for a score of incidental music that ends with the execution of the hero by his villainous captors; nonetheless, he dies with a heroic summons to his followers: “Fall joyously, as I give you an example”; words that led immediately to Beethoven’s “victory symphony” to bring down the curtain.
Schiller followed Goethe with dramas featuring individual heroes aiming to change the world, celebrating freedom, opposed by dictatorial forces—plays like Intrigue and Love, Don Carlos, and his last play, William Tell. Sometime in his early 20s, Beethoven ran across a poem of Schiller’s in celebration of joy, Freude, which was a natural human reaction to freedom, Freiheit. The poem struck Beethoven forcefully. He sketched a musical version almost at once, a simple song that he laid aside unfinished, and continued to think about its musical possibilities for almost three decades.
In the ensuing years, Beethoven’s music sometimes astonished his first listeners for the increasing power and drama of his work, whether symphony, piano sonata, or string quartet. His interest in the theater drew him to opera, and especially to a type that was popular during the aftermath of the French Revolution: a “rescue opera,” in which a character, upright and noble, is unjustly imprisoned by his enemy, only to be rescued in some way by the forces of good. Beethoven’s only opera, first entitled Leonore, finally called Fidelio, follows this plan, with the added wrinkle that the hero’s wife is the one who rescues him by seeking employment there disguised as a young man, locating her husband in the deepest dungeon, and preventing his murder by his political enemy, the evil prison governor. The closing scene is a paean to freedom, justice, and marital fidelity.
The Third Symphony, Eroica, also paid homage to the French Revolution in its references to Napoleon, whom Beethoven honored at first as a model leader of the new order (introducing a whole new set of laws, the “Napoleonic Code”) before crowing himself Emperor, at which Beethoven lost his respect for the tyrant and dramatically crossed out the dictator’s name on the front of the manuscript.
The Fifth Symphony became almost instantly famous from the dramatic intensity of its opening, the fact that the opening motive reappears in one form or another throughout, the theatrical attempt of the piece to end successfully in the major key after have begun in the minor and failed repeatedly, despite much effort, to escape. The first review of the symphony was written by the multi-talented E. T. A. Hoffmann, who was himself a composer, but also writer of tales and a distinguished jurist. Regarding the Fifth, he wrote that Beethoven “opens the realm of the colossal and the immeasurable before us….[his] music evokes terror, fright, horror, and pain, and awakens that endless longing that is the essence of romanticism.” Of course, much later the opening music came to be associated with the Allies hoped-for triumph in World War II, by linking Churchill’s frequent “V for Victory” gesture and the fact that the first four notes of the symphony happen to suggest the Morse code for the letter “v”.
There were other ways in which Beethoven’s music has entered the world at large, but it has also put Beethoven on a pedestal higher than that of almost any other artist. Musicians and cities and concert halls order the creation of statues of Beethoven to celebrate his power and individuality. One of the most striking of these, from the Secession (art nouveau) movement in Vienna in the early 20th century, offers a giant nude figure of the composer, seated, his lap covered by a robe, and his body carved in polychrome marble.
But surely the most powerful example of Beethoven’s glory in the world outside the concert hall came as a much later response to one of the most gloriously successful concerts of his life, the one in which, in his last years, returned to Schiller’s Ode to Joy and found an excellent way to treat it in music. He was composing his vast Ninth Symphony, which bore an important similarity to the Fifth: It traces a long and complex progression from a minor key (D minor, in this case, to its corresponding major key, which utterly changes the emotional tenor of the music. And it does this most explicitly by turning away from purely instrumental music to a splendid finale with soloists and chorus.
It was Schiller’s Ode that made this finale so striking. An Ode to Joy, yes—but possibly also, as has been suggested, an Ode to Freedom, a subject increasingly discussed in the late 18th century, and most assuredly not finished in circles of human philosophical and political consideration even today.
Even more fundamental is the passage that Beethoven made one of the highlights, almost a prayer, in his setting, an address to the entire population of the earth:
|Ihr stürzt nieder, Millionen?
Ahnest du den Schöpfer, Welt?
Such’ ihn! Über’m Sternenzelt
Muss ein lieber Vater wohnen!
|Do you fall the the ground, you millions?
Do you sense your Creator, world?
Seek him! Above the starry canopy
A loving Father must dwell!
These words had a powerful meaning for Beethoven, who, though his deafness often made him irascible and hard to deal with, felt warmly the bond of compassion between all people. This, more than anything else about his life and work, perhaps, has made Beethoven the center of our musical life, on the one hand, and, on the other, in his native Europe, the musical spokesman for humanity. That, surely, is why the melody he finally found to begin the Ode to Joy has become the “international anthem” for all of Europe, and even worldwide.