Masterclass: Beethoven String Quartet op.132

Brodsky Qt cr Sarah Creswell

Jacqueline Thomas, cellist of the Brodsky Quartet, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, looks at a third movement written by a composer convalescing from a near life-ending illness

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The third movement of op.132 is the pinnacle of Beethoven’s quartets. He wrote it after recovering from a bowel infection that took him close to death, and it seems to come from a place of new inner peace and understanding. The Brodsky Quartet has been together for 50 years now, and we came to this work 12 years into our journey. It was only when we performed it for the first time, in 1985, that we really grasped how amazing and important this movement is. We were in a beautiful old barn, with birds twittering in the rafters, and when we finished, the audience was silent for such a long time. Somehow the experience brought to life this precious moment in time for Beethoven. It has been meaningful to us ever since, and Paul Cassidy (the Brodsky’s violist) and I had the opening chorale played at our wedding, in place of a prayer.

A prayer of thanks, in the Lydian mode

Beethoven’s use of a message to begin the movement is unusual: Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit, in der lidischen Tonart : ‘A holy song of thanksgiving to the Deity by one who has recovered, in the Lydian mode’. The chorale format and use of modal harmonies are also unusual for him, and all heighten the importance of the music. He had been preoccupied for some time with ancient sacred music and had wanted to incorporate it into his own writing. It’s so touching to think of him studying at this late stage in his life.

There is no key signature, but we are not in C major or A minor – we’re in F major, with no B flat. Perhaps that is why Beethoven wrote ‘in the Lydian mode’, to help us understand what he has done. It is interesting to play the opening with flattened Bs, as if in F major, to hear the difference. The flats add tension but sound more ordinary, while the naturals of the Lydian mode, which was known for healing, give a calming feeling of otherworldliness.

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