Beethoven and Shostakovich Quartets

Thursday, August 8, 2019 , 6:30 PM

Beethoven: String Quartet, Op. 133, “Grosse Fuge”

Shostakovich: String Quartet No. 14 in F-sharp Minor, Op. 142

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

String Quartet, Op. 133, “Grosse Fuge”

Composed: 1825-26
Instrumentation: 2 violins, viola, and cello

Last season in Sun Valley, the Edgar M. Bronfman String Quartet completed their 5-year cycle of performances of Beethoven’s monumental late string quartets, pieces that many consider to be the pinnacle of achievement in the genre. However, there is one more piece that belongs to this esteemed group: the single movement Grosse Fuge, originally intended as the sixth and final movement of the Op. 130 String Quartet.

Beethoven did not attend the premiere of his ambitious Op. 130 quartet in March 1826, opting to spend the evening at the local watering hole close to the concert venue instead. The piece concluded with what we now know as the Grosse Fuge. Quartet violinist Karl Holz came to Beethoven at the tavern after the successful premiere, reporting the happy news that the audience enthusiastically demanded encores of the fourth and fifth movements. Beethoven was beside himself, reacting angrily: “Fine, these delicacies!  Why not the Fugue?  That alone should have been repeated. Cattle! Asses!”

Indeed, the massive finale to the Op. 130 quartet was widely met with utter befuddlement. Reviews call the work “incomprehensible” and “a confusion.”  This made Beethoven’s publisher nervous, prompting him to ask Beethoven to replace the daunting fugue, with a (slightly) more conventional finale. In a highly uncharacteristic move, Beethoven acquiesced to the request, on the condition that the publisher would still print his original movement as a stand-alone piece, his Op. 133.

The movement begins in fits and starts. The initial 16 measures—which Beethoven oddly labeled “Overtura”—introduce the fugal theme three times in quick, fragmentary succession: first in powerful octave sustain, second five times quicker, and third transposed and slightly transformed. After a pause, the next nine measures present the theme twice more, more gently with a flowing, yearning accompaniment. Then another pause. And then an almost imperceptibly quiet utterance of the fugal theme on the off-beats and in detached articulation in the first violin, finally arrives in the “correct” key of B-flat for the first time. One final pause follows, and we are suitably prepared for the fugue proper.

And what a fugue it is. Beethoven scholar Nicholas Marston has written that “the Grosse Fuge is as much ‘about’ variation, or thematic transformation, as it is ‘about’ fugue.”  The scope of the movement is so much beyond what is expected of even the most ambitious fugue, that the architecture must be understood from these multiple perspectives. The relatively short—but highly distinctive—chromatic fugal theme allows Beethoven to create a complex musical world to surround it. By dressing it up using a variety of approaches, he is able to reveal its full potential in lengthy exploratory blocks that form self-contained units of the movement.

The first of these sections focuses on a driving dotted-rhythm countersubject that accompanies, and often completely overpowers, the main fugal theme. At times, this dotted figure is supported with perpetual motion triplets in another voice, but elsewhere all of the players are drawn into the vortex, falling into the insistent dotted pattern together.

The D-flat major second section picks up on the texture from the nine measure post-Overtura section from the beginning of the movement. A flowing, leisurely countersubject replaces the drive of the dotted rhythms, giving Beethoven the foundation to emphasize the lyrical aspect of the fugal theme.

A metric shift to 6/8 creates a quick dance feel to the third section, and Beethoven introduces yet another melody, but here it is not so much a countersubject (heard simultaneously with the main fugal theme) but a theme that is derived from a fragment of the end of the fugue subject. Fragmenting the fugue theme becomes the mode of exploration in this section, which eventually reintroduces the dotted rhythm countersubject, now recast in the new meter.

All of the elements now in place, Beethoven spends the remainder of the movement developing these disparate features, at times cleverly bringing them together (as in the section that immediately follows) and at others suddenly returning them to their individual silos (moments that create a sense of recapitulation). There is a satisfying sense of completeness by the end of the work, both in terms of the exhaustive mining of the material’s musical depths and of coming full circle in our musical journey.


Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975)

String Quartet No. 14 in F-sharp Major, Op. 142

Composed: 1973
Instrumentation: 2 violins, viola, and cello

One week ago at the Sun Valley Pavilion, Gautier Capuçon and Jean-Yves Thibaudet performed Shostakovich’s Cello Sonata from 1934, the composer’s very first large scale chamber work. Tonight, we hear one of the final ones—only the 15th string quartet and a viola sonata (Shostakovich’s final completed work) would be composed after String Quartet No. 14. Shostakovich’s remarkable accomplishments in the genre of the string quartet have left a lasting mark, influencing especially the younger generation of Soviet composers who came after him (Weinberg and Schnittke in particular).

All but the first and last of Shostakovich’s string quartets were premiered by the Beethoven Quartet, founded by four highly dedicated Moscow Conservatory students in 1923. Originally known as the Moscow Conservatory Quartet, the group changed its name in 1932, after having established an international reputation and performing the entire cycle of Beethoven Quartets in a single season in Moscow by the late 1920s. Shostakovich met the members of the group while still a teenager, forming a long, productive friendship and working relationship with them. The Beethoven Quartet rehearsed nearly every day during the 40+ years that the founding members remained active with the group. Shostakovich dedicated his 1966 String Quartet No. 11 to the memory of Vasily Shirinsky, the group’s founding second violinist, who passed away the previous year. His next three string quartets would each be dedicated to one of the other three founding members, culminating in the dedication of String Quartet No. 14 to cellist Sergei Shirinsky, the brother of Vasily, who performed in the premiere with founding violinist Dmitri Tsaganov and the two newer members of the Quartet. The following year, Shirinsky passed away while in the midst of rehearsals for Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 15, necessitating a replacement group for the premiere.

Tsiganov describes the usual way Shostakovich initially presented each of his new string quartets to the Beethoven Quartet, an unusually hands-on approach:

First [Shostakovich] would play his new work on the piano from the score. Then he would give us the parts and beg us not to begin playing without him. He needed rehearsals not in order to test his new opus, and still less to change any of its details. He needed them in order to make the performers grasp his idea of the actual sound of the music.

For String Quartet No. 14, Shostakovich’s participation in the preparation went considerably beyond this regular procedure due to a leg injury sustained by the second violinist, preventing him from participating in the early rehearsals. A delighted Shostakovich substituted for him, playing the violin line on the piano. He conveyed to Shirinsky:

[It’s been] one of the happiest moments of my life: First of all, because I think that the Quartet has turned out well, Sergei, and secondly I have had the good fortune to play in the Beethoven Quartet, even if I only played with one finger!

In a nod to his dedicatee, Shostakovich features the cello prominently throughout the work. The dancelike skipping theme that opens the movement is introduced by the cello, accompanied only by a viola drone. Though initially light and carefree, it gradually grows in intensity after the balance of the group enters. A brief solo cello passage eventually ushers in a highly chromatic, syncopated second theme, and these two main ideas are developed together creating an uneasy feel. Mini cadenzas appear in the viola and then with the same material in the cello. Despite the moments of agitation, there is surprising sweetness as well, and this is where Shostakovich opts to end the movement.

There is a lyrical expressivity to the Adagio that, like the first movement, seems to skirt the boundary between sweet serenity and lament. The movement is almost a duet between first violin and cello (the two members of the Beethoven Quartet who were 50-year veterans of the group at the time of the work’s premiere). Each of the two instruments is given extended solo passages of intense expressivity, concluding with a sustained muted section bringing back the violin’s original melody.

The last movement, a movement of beauty and even optimism, is quite extraordinary. The odd pizzicato melody in the first violin that opens the movement is actually a motto:  (C#)–Eb–E–D–E–G –A, which when spelled with German and Russian note abbreviations (and transliterations) approximates “Serezha,” the affectionate diminutive for Sergei, honoring dedicatee Sergei Shirinsky. This melody returns throughout, including a prominent appearance in the cello itself. But Shostakovich also references the great cellist by inserting a dramatic quotation of a motto from his 1934 Lady Macbeth of the Mtensk District (late in the movement, in the lowest range of the cello). The quote comes from the heroine Katerina who throws herself into the arms of her beloved Sergei, hoping for love and forgiveness, crying “Serezha!  My dearest!”  In between, Shostakovich inserts a notable passage during which all four players exchange successive short gestures creating an eccentric quilt of sound. By the end of the movement, Shostakovich includes quotations from previous movements and has the cello playing an extended duet above the first violin.


Program notes by Jon Kochavi