The Kennedy Center

String Quartet No. 14 in C-sharp minor, Op. 131

About the Work

Portrait of Ludwig van Beethoven when composing the Missa Solemnis Composer: Ludwig van Beethoven
© Peter Laki

In the fall of 1825, Beethoven completed the commission for three string quartets he had received from Prince Galitzin of Russia. (The "Galitzin" quartets are, in order of composition, Op. 127, 132, and 130.) Work on these magnificent compositions resulted in a proliferation of ideas for string quartets that compelled Beethoven to continue writing in this medium, and in the following year he proceeded to compose two more quartets, the present masterpiece in C-sharp minor and his final work in the genre, the String Quartet in F major, Op. 135. (His very last completed composition, then, was the substitute finale for Op. 130, one of the "Galitzin" quartets, which originally ended with the "Great Fugue.")

Free from any considerations a commission might have imposed, in the String Quartet in C-sharp minor Beethoven moved further away from the conventions of quartet-writing than he had ever done before. An external sign of this is the layout in seven movements, played without a break-certainly a major departure from the norms that leaves the listener totally unable to predict the course the work will take at the next turn. But form in Beethoven is always inseparable from content, and the revolutionary structure of this quartet was made necessary by the exceptional emotional range of what Beethoven had to say.

Beethoven had ended his previous quartet, Op. 130, with the "Great Fugue." Op. 131 begins with a fugue, though a very different one: whereas the "Great Fugue" contains many interruptions and tempo changes (to the point where it almost resembles a multi-movement composition), the opening movement of the String Quartet in C-sharp minor is characterized by a textural unity reminiscent of the fugues of Bach. The theme, whose accented notes outline the harsh interval of an augmented second, is developed according to the traditional rules of counterpoint, but a series of chromatic modulations carry it to tonal regions that would have been beyond any other composer's imagination. Yet in Beethoven, it all seems to evolve naturally, just as the acceleration of the motion (from quarter-notes to eighths) happens in a totally seamless fashion. The tone remains serious and tension-laden as the contrapuntal development culminates in a restatement of the theme (which the cello plays in an augmented form, that is, at half the original speed).

The long tonal voyage having ended on the C-sharp on which it began, Beethoven simply moves it up a half-step to D, the key of the second-movement "Allegro molto vivace." Here is music of great vitality and classical grace; some commentators have even detected the influence of folk music. And yet there are a few moments of hesitation and introspection even here. Also, it ends in a surprisingly understated manner, breaking into a short instrumental quasi-recitative that, with a cadenza-like flourish for first violin, makes up the third movement, which lasts less than a minute. It leads, however, to the longest of the quartet's movements, a 14-minute set of variations that occupies the central position, not only literally (being fourth in the seven-movement structure) but also in terms of its musical significance.

Like many of Beethoven's late variation sets (such as the Diabelli Variations or the last movement of the final piano sonata, Op. 111), a theme of extreme simplicity becomes the vehicle for a "brilliant chain of revelations," to borrow a felicitous expression from William Kinderman's book on Beethoven. The melody is shared by the two violins in its first presentation, followed by an ornamented repeat as first variation, with no change in tempo or meter. Variation 2, however, begins to speed up the tempo in a gentle and playful way; the melody is carried by the first violin and the cello as the two middle voices provide a soft chordal accompaniment. Variation 3 contains an unmistakable allusion to the first movement of the A-minor quartet (Op. 132); only here the same dotted theme is heard in the major mode, marked dolce ("sweet") and lusinghiero ("alluring"). The voices follow the strict contrapuntal rules of a canon; the first half of the theme is developed in two parts (cello-viola), the second half in four. In Variation 4, the tempo slows down to Adagio; the ornamentation is lush and the polyphonic relationships of the instrument extremely complex.

By contrast, in Variation 5 the theme is "deconstructed" to its bare essentials; little more than a harmonic skeleton remains, enlivened by a faster tempo ("Allegretto") and the syncopated entries of the instruments. The climax of the movement is the hymn-like Variation 6 ("Adagio ma non troppo e semplice"), which begins sotto voce (in a subdued voice); eventually, an unassuming little rhythmic figure appears in the cello that, in Kinderman's words, "threatens to disrupt the discourse of the other instruments" and eventually invades the other parts as well. The variation culminates in "an elaborate cadenza-like passage for each of the four soloists in turn (reminiscent of the vocal cadenzas for four soloists in the Credo of the Missasolemnis and the Ninth Symphony)." A short recall of the theme in its original form leads into a final variation, in which the theme, played by the second violin and the viola, is surrounded by constant trills in the first violin. (The trill is a particularly important expressive device in many of Beethoven's works!) However, this variation breaks off before the entire theme has been heard, and most unexpectedly, a new movement begins.

This movement (No. 5), a jocular Presto in E major, is a total contrast to the preceding slow movement in every respect. Another distinguished writer on Beethoven, Martin Cooper, qualifies its theme as "simple to the point of grotesque" and notes that it is "treated comically" in the course of its development. In fact, the sudden halts and abrupt changes in instrumental technique (connected legato notes one moment, brief and playful staccatos the next) unmistakably designate this movement as a scherzo, although Beethoven did not choose to use that name. True, the movement lacks a distinct "trio" section, but it does introduce an element of contrast by juxtaposing a staccato and a legato theme that are rhythmically similar but quite different in their musical personality.

A short "Adagio" movement (No. 6), a lament that alludes to the fugue theme of the first movement, serves as a bridge to the tempestuous finale (No. 7), which opens with a characteristic "riding theme." A little later, the above-mentioned fugue theme is transformed into a passionate dramatic utterance. The finale has its own contrapuntal episodes, but rapid passagework and variations on the "riding theme" predominate. After a more contemplative passage containing many ritenutos (where the tempo momentarily slows down), the momentum rises again, and the agitated motion continues to the end, despite a brief moment of last-minute hesitation just a few seconds before the final chords.