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Program Notes

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827) busied himself with the A minor String Quartet (Opus 132) mostly from about February through July 1825. By that advanced point in his life he had reached a sorry state. In 1825 he was actually arrested as a vagrant—a mistake, but an understandable one in light of what was reported to be his increasingly slovenly appearance. Ever more isolated by deafness, he was beset by a serious inflammation of the intestine that April. His physician, Dr. Anton Braunhofer, demanded that Beethoven commit to rest and follow a bland diet the composer did not like. Presumably this ruled out the liver dumplings that he counted among his favorite foods, and he was specifically ordered to exclude spices, coffee, and wine. (The wine became a particular point of contention.) Whether the physician’s treatment was responsible for the patient’s recovery we cannot know, but after about a month Beethoven returned to health and to his usual cantankerousness.

Work on the A minor Quartet bracketed this health crisis. The cello launches the piece, perhaps an idea left over from Beethoven’s original conception of this as a quartet with a concertante cello part (at least so reported his cellist friend Joseph Linke). The angular motif of four notes begins on the leading tone (G-sharp), but it is nonetheless unambiguous about defining the key of A minor; and the four instruments enter sequentially, bottom to top, already exploring the motif’s possibilities while it is being first announced. An Allegro effusion from the first violin is the jumping-off point to the principal theme. The movement progresses with a spirit of the fantastic, always inhabited by an unsettling sense of tragedy. 

Strange, too, is the mood of the Allegro ma non tanto, a minuet in all but name. Beethoven focuses here on counterpoint, which shifts the simple theme into a variety of imitative contexts. The trio section has a rustic air, with a long drone in the violins—then joined by viola and cello—evoking a peasant musette.

Nearly half of the expanse of Opus 132 is given over to the slow movement. At its head the composer writes “Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit, in der lydischen Tonart” (Holy Song of Thanksgiving from a Convalescent to the Divinity, in the Lydian Mode). The Lydian mode—we might call it a key that is neither major nor minor—yields an impression of austerity and purity; it is at least part of what lends this movement its character of private meditation. The chorale is intoned as if through three verses, much varied at its repetitions, separated by more spirited episodes of textural complexity. When Beethoven visits it for the last time, he marks the score Mit inniger Empfindung—“With earnest sentiment,” though the German words suggest a deeper sincerity and passion than those English ones do. A hush descends in the final bars, and listeners are left bathed in a silence that seems to prolong these most intimate pages of Beethoven’s chamber music.

I have often wished that the piece ended at that point; but after the eyes have been dabbed, Beethoven helps us get on with life by way of a boisterous little march. It’s a strange one, though, with its opening rhythm momentarily seeming to be in triple time, as if it were another minuet: oddly disorienting. Suddenly the flow is interrupted and, over tense tremolos in the lower strings (they can sound surprisingly like a harmonium), the first violin lets loose a passionate, quasi-vocal recitative (Più allegro) that seems ripped from an opera of considerable grandeur. This leads without break to a simmering triple-time Allegro appassionato that sounds at first as if it would serve admirably in a piano sonata. It builds in power and texture as it unrolls, and the instruments are eventually forced into extreme registers, particularly the soaring first violin. Finally the music sidesteps into E major for a coda that nonetheless remains edgy to the end.—James M. Keller

James M. Keller is Program Annotator of the San Francisco Symphony and the New York Philharmonic. He is the author of Chamber Music: A Listener’s Guide, published by Oxford University Press.