The Kennedy Center

String Quartet No. 10 in E-flat major, Op. 74 "Harp"

About the Work

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

On account of the special pizzicato (plucked) notes in the first movement, this work received the nickname Harp Quartet relatively soon after it was written-and the allusion to that romantic instrument is in keeping with the entire quartet, which is one of the most emotional Beethoven ever composed. The work dates from the summer and fall of 1809, when Beethoven was madly in love with Therese Malfatti, to whom he would soon propose marriage, only to be turned down. Haydn had died earlier that year, a few weeks after Napoleon's troops invaded Vienna. These were turbulent times indeed, even if Beethoven had just entered a lucrative agreement with the Archduke Rudolph and the Princes Kinsky and Lobkowitz, in terms of which he would receive from them an annual sum that would guarantee him a comfortable life for the next few years. The quartet was dedicated in gratitude to Lobkowitz, who had received the dedication of the Op. 18 quartets a decade earlier.

The Poco adagio introduction to the Harp Quartet sounds like a fervent plea. The subsequent Allegro, which contains the harp imitations, is an intensely personal statement in which the dynamic initial impulses are constantly deflected into a dreamy romantic realm. The second movement, Adagio ma non troppo, was described by an anonymous early critic writing in 1811 as a "somber nocturne" (dunkles Nachtstück); a more recent commentator describes it as "tender, yet elegiac." A beautiful cantabile melody in the major mode alternates with minor-key episodes. The opening melody returns twice, each time more lavishly embellished than before; the movement ends with some heart-rending espressivo morendo ("expressive, dying away") chords.

The fiercely dramatic C-minor Presto (Beethoven avoided calling it a "scherzo") sounds like a return to life. Its middle section, or Trio-in C major-is even faster, reaching quasi prestissimo speed. This passage seems to have originated in a piano improvisation by Beethoven. According to a story told by Beethoven's student Carl Czerny, the composer was present at Prince Lobkowitz's palace when a new string quartet by Ignaz Pleyel was performed. Later that evening Beethoven improvised on the piano, using a motif from Pleyel's work which German musicologist Hartmut Krones sees reflected in this prestissimo. As in many scherzos from Beethoven's middle period, this Trio appears twice and the scherzo itself three times, resulting in a S-T-S-T-S scheme. Without a break a mysterious transition leads to the final movement, a set of variations on a theme that suggests a love song. At least, the outline of the theme appears in one of Beethoven's sketches for a love song (which was, however, not completed in that form). In the course of the variations, the melody is surrounded by virtuoso figurations and subjected to a series of ingenious transformations. The movement culminates in an exuberant, but quite brief, coda in a faster tempo.

The Harp was the first Beethoven quartet to be published by itself, with an opus number that did not contain six works as in Op. 18, or even three as in Op. 59. This remained the norm for all later quartets, each of which was too individual to be lumped together with others in a single publication.