Violinist Ritchie Zah Reflects on Playing String Quartet Opus 18 No. 6
Music historians credit Haydn as the “father” of the string quartet. Mozart took the genre to new heights, but Beethoven completely transformed it through his skillful use of florid ornamentation, harmonic adventure, and richness of texture.
Beethoven’s early string quartets, Opus 18 No. 1-6, were written between 1797-1800 (age 27-30). At this stage, the writing of string quartets was new to Beethoven and often he was not impressed with his own works. In fact, he frequently re-wrote them. After sending off the first quartet of Opus 18 to a friend he wrote, “Be sure not to pass on your quartet to anyone else.” He expressed difficulty achieving balance between technique and expressiveness.
I have chosen String Quartet in B flat Major, Opus 18 No. 6 as an example of Beethoven’s transformation of the genre. The first movement of the quartet is like a musical tennis match between the four string voices with motives being tossed back and forth like a ball over the net. In the Adagio ma non troppo, Beethoven uses florid ornamentation resembling Bach. The character of the Scherzo is like a playful game between the four instruments. For contrast, the Trio gives the first violin the spotlight with the other three parts providing accompaniment. The last movement is entitled “La Malinconia”. In his book entitled Classical Music, author Philip Downs describes the movement as a musical parable of introspection being overcome by innocent joy. It opens with an adagio followed by Allegretto quasi Allegro. There is alternation of tempos throughout the movement; these changes of tempo and mood form a climatic movement new to the string quartet model.
To give you deeper insight into the preparation and performance of this composition, I asked Ritchie Zah, violinist and detective with the Aspen Police Department, to share his thoughts and experiences connected to Opus 18 No. 6. Here are his reflections:
Notes from Ritchie Zah
During my career as a violinist I had the pleasure of studying and performing all different kinds of music. One of my favorite genres was the string quartet—small enough to fit into an SUV but sophisticated enough to paint an unlimited array of sound. My fondest string quartet memories date back to my Juilliard days where I was asked to play second violin in a newly formed group with high aspirations.
We began our studies together with the Beethoven String Quartet Opus 18 No 6. As we studied together, we quickly found what I believe to be the greatest challenge in Beethoven’s early works, the blend of voices. Beethoven’s writing was so naturally beautiful that anything short of a perfect blend of sound greatly distracted the listener from being immersed in pure joy. This led to many long rehearsals where we would go note by note to match vibratos, bow strokes, and bow pressures to create a perfect blend of sound. To give you an idea of how precise we needed to be, our coach, Samuel Rhodes of the Juilliard String Quartet, constantly told us to imagine our left hand finger pads touching each other’s finger pads as they landed on the fingerboard. This initially made for an odd goal to aspire to but gave us goals to strive for as we matured.
While learning this work, I remember working on the fourth movement’s chorale-like opening where we began experimenting with our vibratos. After many hours of rehearsing, we could not find a frequency or width of vibrato that we could all agree upon. To further my unofficial position as the odd man out—literally, since the rest of the group was all girls—I suggested that we get rid of vibrato all together. Once the questioning looks and eye rolls were over, we proceeded to try it. The eeriness and rawness of a non vibrato chorale was suspiciously satisfying. Here we were, Master of Music candidates at the Juilliard School, realizing that vibrato was not always necessary! It just goes to show you are never too old or too experienced to learn something new!
Ultimately, our group performed the Beethoven String Quartet Opus 18 No 6 amongst many other pieces during our time together. The studying and performing of each piece brought us closer together and by the time graduation rolled around, I found myself sad to see the group disband due to everyone pursuing different post Master of Music degrees. We had grown close from the hours we spent together rehearsing. The girls had started to include me in a few gossip sessions to the point where I felt like I had become one of “the girls.” I even managed to get some good gift ideas vetted for my now wife! In reflecting back on the good times I shared with my quartet, I feel that the world could be a better place if everyone had a string quartet of their own. Thanks for the memories ladies!
Ritchie Zah divides his time between his work as a detective with the Aspen Police Department and his teaching and performing as a versatile and top-notch violinist. He has held concertmaster positions with the Juilliard Orchestra and Shepherd Symphony at Rice University and has served as assistant concertmaster of the Aspen Chamber Symphony. He holds bachelor's and master's degrees in violin performance from the Juilliard School and is an avid musician pursuing solo and chamber music performance. He also teaches private students in the Roaring Fork Valley and has taught in the Aspen Music Festival's summer PALS program and the Beginning Strings Program.
I leave you with this recommendation for your listening pleasure.
Until next time!