skip navigation | text only | accessibility | site map

String Quartet No. 15 in A minor, Op. 132

About the Work

Ludwig van Beethoven
Quick Look Composer: Ludwig van Beethoven
Program note originally written for the following performance:
Orion String Quartet with Peter Serkin, piano Wed., Oct. 12, 2005, 7:30 PM
© Richard Rodda
On November 9, 1822, Prince Nikolas Galitzin, a devotee of Beethoven's music and an amateur cellist, wrote from St. Petersburg asking Beethoven for “one, two or three quartets, for which labor I will be glad to pay you whatever amount you think proper.” Beethoven was elated by the commission, and he immediately accepted it and set the fee of 50 ducats for each quartet, a high price, but one readily accepted by Galitzin. The music, however, took somewhat longer. The Ninth Symphony was completed in February 1823, but Beethoven, exhausted, was unable to begin Galitzin's quartets until May. “I am really impatient to have a new quartet of yours,” badgered Galitzin. “Nevertheless, I beg you not to mind and to be guided in this only by your inspiration and the disposition of your mind.” The first of the quartets for Galitzin (E-flat major, Op. 127) was not completed until February 1825; the second (A minor, Op. 132) was finished five months later; and the third (B-flat major, Op. 130) was written between July and November, during one of the few periods of relatively good health that Beethoven enjoyed in his last decade.

The Op. 132 Quartet was the product of the difficult first months of 1825. Beethoven had begun sketching the piece by the end of the previous year, but before he could progress very far with it, he was stricken with a serious intestinal inflammation, a frequent bane of his later years. “I am not feeling well,” he complained to Dr. Anton Braunhofer on April 18th. “I hope that you will not refuse to come to my help, for I am in great pain.” Braunhofer was alarmed by the composer's condition, and gave him strict advice: “No wine; no coffee; no spices of any kind.... I'll wager that if you take a drink of spirits, you'll be lying weak and exhausted on your back in a few hours.” The physician also recommended a recuperation in the country to allow for the plentiful imbibing of “fresh air” and “natural milk.” Beethoven had recovered sufficiently by May 7th to repair to the distant Viennese suburb of Baden, and remained there — with occasional visits to the city — until mid-October. It was at Baden that the A minor Quartet was largely written.

Beethoven's illness and recovery touch directly on the music of the Quartet, which takes as its centerpiece a magnificent Adagio titled “A Sacred Song of Thanks from One Made Well, to the Divine; in the Lydian Mode.” Though not specifically programmatic, the Quartet, whose overall structure follows the minor-to-major, dark-to-light progression familiar from the Fifth and Ninth Symphonies, evidences what Joseph de Marliave called “the habitual state of mind of the composer: the fight against destiny, the triumph of joy over pain.” Maynard Solomon observed that “music here appears to become an implicit agency of healing, a talisman against death.”

Basil Lam summarized the structural logic of the A minor Quartet in the following manner: “No other composition in all Beethoven's works shows the unintegrated contrasts of this Quartet. Once he had become possessed by the unique vision of the Heiliger Dankgesang [‘ Holy Song of Thanks' ], no solution of the formal problem was available other than to surround it with sound images united only by their total diversity.” The Adagio , then, is not only the central element in the five-movement structure of the Quartet, but is also its expressive heart. The movement's form alternates varied versions of a hymnal theme of otherworldly stillness based on the ancient church modes with a more rhythmically dynamic strain marked “feeling new strength,” a technique also used in the Fifth and Ninth Symphonies. The Heiliger Dankgesang is one of the most rapturous creations in 19th-century music.

To support a slow movement of such magnitude requires surrounding music of considerable breadth and emotional weight, and Beethoven chose to precede it with a large sonata form and a fully developed scherzo-and-trio. The opening movement, craggy and sometimes even belligerently willful in its progress, is based on several terse ideas presented in the exposition: a slow-moving motive in melodic half-steps; a melancholy violin line with dotted rhythms; a playful little imitative episode that serves as the formal second theme; and a more lyrical strain presented by the violins above a galloping triplet accompaniment. There is a brief development section, mostly based on the half-step motive and the melancholy melody, before the apparent recapitulation of the themes begins. Though the themes are presented in proper order and balance, they are not adjusted as to key, and another full recapitulation, suitably transposed, is required before the movement can end. The long scherzo, in A major, developed almost entirely from the violin motive heard in the fifth measure, is paired with a central trio whose flowing themes are often rhythmically displaced.

Beethoven followed the transcendent Heiliger Dankgesang with one of his most glaring formal incongruities — a little march of four-square structure whose emotional blandness provides an almost shocking descent from the exalted realms of the Adagio . This movement lasts only a short time, however, and it is linked to the finale by an instrumental recitative, as Beethoven had done in the Ninth Symphony. The last movement, in fact, is based on a theme that he had originally intended for that Symphony, but which here becomes the subject for a vast sonata-rondo that gains the hard-won, victorious luminosity of A major in its closing pages.

©2005 Dr. Richard E. Rodda