Masterclass: Beethoven String Quartet No 16 in F Major, Op 135, first movement

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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.

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