Casals Quartet violist Jonathan Brown scrutinises this movement and explains why this piece is less abstract and unruly than many musicians first assume
This is the last quartet that Beethoven wrote and it occupies an interesting place in his body of work. He wrote it after he had finished his monumental series of quartets opp.130, 131 and 132; with the Grosse Fuge op.133, he had in many ways reached the limits of what it was possible to do with the string quartet. In the chamber music repertoire, no one tried anything as daring as opp.131 or 133 until Webern, Schoenberg, Berg and Bartók, 100 years later.
At this point in his life I can imagine Beethoven thinking, ‘Where do I go from here?’ so it is fascinating that for op.135 he returns to his Haydnesque roots and combines these with the style he had developed for the late quartets, enriching a Classical framework with a complicated harmonic language. Each Beethoven quartet is challenging in its own way, and in some senses op.135 combines the difficulties of the delicate, transparent op.18s with the thorny, contrapuntal harmonic vocabulary of the other late quartets. To me, it has one of the most captivating beginnings of them all, because it’s so ambiguous: it leaves so many possibilities open, and yet so clearly defines many of the thematic elements that will run through the entire piece.
Finding the right tempo
We try to find a flexible, swinging feel in 2/4 for this movement – not too fast, because there are so many harmonic details that need to come through; but also not so slow that it sounds heavy or as though it is in 4/4. It can be difficult to find this balance and we are never 100 per cent sure that we have succeeded. This is a particular problem for the Casals Quartet, because we all have very different personal reactions to tempo, and what one person finds very fast another will find too slow! We try to find a middle ground, also with consideration of acoustic: it’s one thing to play in a very dry theatre and another to perform in a large, resonant hall. We adapt as well as we can to each, and try to maintain the swinging Allegretto, 2/4 feel wherever we are.
The first and second themes
The first identifiable theme begins in bar 4 and is divided between the viola and the two violins. This is incredibly difficult to calibrate: we have spent a lot of time thinking about who’s moving where and making sure that our gestures are consistent. When you are playing it’s very difficult to judge how well the line is being passed from one player to the next, so we ask our cellist to sit outside the group and listen. Even if he’s just three metres away, he can give us a better perspective on what’s working well and what isn’t. Another trick is to take out the dotted quaver–demisemiquaver (dotted eighth note–32nd note) rhythm and play the theme as if it were straight semiquavers (s), to create an easier, smoother-sounding melody.
When we add the demisemiquaver again, we try to use it to support the shape of the melody line, so that it doesn’t become a fast, jerky motion that could interrupt the theme. One rehearsal technique we use to help us create the sense of one line being shared between three is to play each other’s parts as well as our own, so that we all play the complete melody line in unison. By doing this, we learn how we would play our motifs within the context of the entire line. Then gradually each of us drops out, with the feeling of playing the whole melody strongly in our minds.
It can also be useful to try this approach from bars 82 and 186, where the theme is split between all four members of the quartet. Interestingly in bars 103 and 104 the first violin and viola actually do have to play the melody together. The second theme begins in bar 38, with a line of quavers that starts with the second violin, and is then answered in turn by the first violin, viola and cello. At the same time there is a triplet pattern that passes between the parts, creating two layers of rhythm that have to make sense when played together.
If a pianist were to play this it would sound coherent but the sense of counterpoint would probably be lost; if an orchestra were to play it, there might be many different colours, but it would not have the transparency of the string quartet. With a quartet, we can try to achieve a balance between the coherent whole and the individual voices, to bring out the counterpoint.
Fragmentation and cohesion
The changes between themes in this movement are abrupt, which is one of its greatest challenges. For example, it is initially unclear whether the first four, harmonically ambiguous bars are intended to be a motif or an introduction; then suddenly, after the important silence in bar 4, we switch to the innocent-sounding first theme, divided between three instruments with a flexible pizzicato accompaniment from the cello.
As soon as this F major melody has been established, there is another silence in bar 10 before another change into an austere unison passage in 7ths and 2nds. It could be a different piece! As the unison passage reduces into twobar rhythmic cells, there is a beautiful re-emergence of harmony with a cadenza-like passage from the first violin in bar 15, and then another thematic jump in bars 17 to 25, which are very hard to understand harmonically. One of the main features of this piece is this skittish changing of modes that Beethoven is able to transform into a coherent whole.
In the development section from bar 63, for example, Beethoven takes the falling 7th and 2nd pattern presented as a unison at the beginning of the piece and gives it to the cello, now complemented by the opening motif, played by the viola. What seemed initially to be two incompatible thematic elements turn out here to be perfectly combinable. And yet at the same time there is a tension between fragmentation and cohesion, between each individual moment and the movement as a whole, and between each individual voice and the complete four-voice texture.
In the simple march beginning in bar 89, Beethoven writes almost textbook counterpoint, with the first motif played by the viola, used as a jokey, off-beat, syncopated commentary; the music then crescendos as it builds into the stormy, forte recapitulation of bar 101 – and suddenly we’re back into a very simple theme in F major. We can see three completely different modes of musical expression in bars 89–100, 101–103 and bars 104–109. These are contrasting, coherent and clear musical worlds, and I think that this quartet is all about that confrontation, with no attempts to soften the edges between them. For Beethoven this mixture of the sacred and the profane, the sublime and the ridiculous, is part of his language and music.
Dynamics and interpretation
Not only is this movement harmonically and thematically ambiguous at the beginning, but it has no opening dynamic marking. There are hairpins, but from where to where no one really knows, until the viola is marked piano in bar 4. Beethoven left a certain amount of latitude for performers to find their own sense of mystery. Also interesting is that in this movement there are plenty of passages in pianissimo, but not one in fortissimo, which he reserves for the major climaxes in the second and fourth movements.
He had a very clear idea of the dynamic range that he wanted. Some quartets play Beethoven’s late quartets as though they are strange and mysterious, written by a madman. In so doing, they can create surrealistic, incomprehensible reinterpretations of Beethoven that lose so much of the music’s charm. I don’t think that Beethoven had lost his mind by the time he wrote these works: there is a clear, lucid pattern of musical thought behind them. If there is a strange element to op.135, it’s how quickly he shifts between one mode and another.
But if one tries to make each element on its own terms even more surreal, the piece loses its meaning. Those who start with the perspective that this is strange music tend to make it even stranger. This is not music written by the stereotypical Beethoven raging at the heavens: it is by an absolute master of his craft, at the end of his life. I think it is very important, especially with the late quartets, to remember that he knew exactly what he wanted, right down to the details of the dynamics. He may have been a very rough and difficult person, but he was not mad.
INTERVIEW BY PAULINE HARDING