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Program Notes

It is common, convenient, and logical to divide Ludwig van Beethoven’s production into early, middle, and late periods. Mastery of Classical stye, and stretching its boundaries, characterize his First Period (through about 1802); the dramatic exploration of new structural possibilities marks the Second Period (1802-12); and a complex, visionary quality infuses the Third Period (1813-27). His string quartets fit more-or-less neatly into such a plan. The six Opus 18 quartets are obviously early works; the three “Razumovsky” Quartets (Opus 59) and the Quartet in E-flat (Opus 74) are firmly middle-period; and the six quartets clustered in his final years—Opuses 127, 130, 131, 132, 133, and 135, plus the Grosse Fuge, are the summit of his late style.

But what of the F minor Quartet, Opus 95 (written in 1810 and revised in 1814)? Chronology and tradition justifiably group it with the middle-period quartets. After he wrote it, he gave up the genre for more than a decade. He would not accept a commission for another until 1822 and wouldn’t actually set to writing one until May 1824. But one might argue that if any composition of Beethoven’s middle period adumbrates the spirit of his late works, it is this quartet. This Janus-like composition looks toward the high drama of his middle-period quartets and foreshadows the quirkiness of his late quartets, which lay still some years in the future. 

The Opus 95 Quartet is the only one to which Beethoven himself gave a nickname, inscribing the words “Quartett serioso” on the manuscript. The angry F minor theme shouted in unison at the opening of the first movement sets the tone for the entire quartet. It is a strikingly compact work. Writing in The Beethoven Compendium, the musicologist Nicholas Marston observes, “The music exudes a sense of having been ruthlessly pared down until all that remains is the very essence of the musical material involved. The opening five bars are as good an example of this as any, but the sense of compression extends even to single notes or note pairs: in the first movement, D-flat—C and C—D-flat come to bear a huge musical weight.” This prefigures the sudden contrasts and telescoped transitions that will surface in the late works. The musical analyst Donald Francis Tovey also noted this work’s density, remarking that in this opening movement Beethoven “contrives to pack a large symphonic tragedy into five minutes.”—James M. Keller