During the early years of residence in Vienna, Beethoven managed to establish himself as a rising pianist and composer with the music loving nobility. Among this nobility was Count Razumovsky, Russian ambassador to Vienna and musical amateur. Razumovsky had an incredible concert hall for performances in his palace, White Hall, plus a resident private string quartet that was at Beethoven’s disposal for composition experimentation.
In 1805 the Count commissioned Beethoven to write three quartets, which became known as the Razumovsky quartets. These quartets were intended for professional performers, not for amateurs. Their complexity took those who encountered them to unexpected musical places. Beethoven described the Razumovsky quartets as “music for a late age.”
It’s hard to choose just one Razumovsky quartet as a favorite because they’re all unique, wonderful compositions, but finally I chose to focus on String Quartet No. 9 in C major, Op. 59, No 3 (1808) as focus for this blog.
The first movement opens with a slow, somber, dissonant introduction which leads to the bright, cheerful allegro in C major.
The second movement makes use of a descending scale that alludes to a Hungarian scale reminding us of Bartok’s sounds. Razumovsky Quartet No. 3 does not have an explicit ‘Theme Russe’ as appears in No. 1 and No. 2, but the comfortless melodies of this movement evoke a Russian feel—vast and desolate landscapes of the Siberian tundra.
The third movement is a light minuetto trio that provides great contrast to the fugal allegro of the fourth movement. The character of the fourth movement is truly perpetual motion ending with a Mannheim crescendo FFF!
During this same time frame, Beethoven wrote two other string quartets—Op. 74, nicknamed “Harp,” and Op. 95. My colleague, friend, and violist, Jalen Lee, told me that she had performed the “Harp” and agreed to share some thoughts concerning this composition.
As a high school student in Louisville, Kentucky, I had the privilege of playing in a string quartet with three very talented classmates, all of whom have gone on to lives in music—one a fellow at the New World Symphony, one a violin teacher in Urbana-Champaign, and one a frequent performer with indie-Americana group Rebecca Rego and the Trainmen (all among other pursuits). For two years, in between AP classes, we tackled chamber music repertoire that was always a little bit over our heads and formative for us as musicians and as people.
We spent a long time with Beethoven’s Quartet No. 10 in E-flat Major, the “Harp” quartet. Its first movement exemplifies the heroic qualities found in other middle period works, like a constant contrast between somber and exuberant moods and an ultimately triumphant conclusion. We took to performing that movement at school fundraisers and in the corner of art galleries, my first experiences “gigging.” The movement opens with a somber adagio that is not thematically tied to the rest of the work. It then introduces two primary themes: a lyrical melody, beginning with the first violin in the third bar of the allegro, and a series of interchanged pizzicato figures like the plucking of a harp.
At the end of the first movement, Beethoven masterfully combines the lyrical melody from the allegro with the pizzicato “Harp” motive for a powerful conclusion. The realization that these themes were meant to be played simultaneously all along is a master class in contrapuntal writing and in the management of musical tension. But my favorite thing about this climax is that its melodic drive blossoms not from the first violin or cello as you might expect, but from the inner voices. That heroic line, traded off between the second violin and viola beneath the first violin’s blistering arpeggios, was Beethoven’s gift to a young violist. And although my quartet-mates and I shared many deep adolescent thoughts during that time—from love to punk music to politics—I will always remember those climactic measures of Quartet No. 10 as the most profound conversation we ever had.
Jalen Lee graduated with a Bachelor of Music in 2015 and an Artist Diploma in 2017 from the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. She studied with Catherine Carroll-Lees and Masao Kawasaki and also attended the Aspen Music Festival as a viola student for several years. In 2017, she was honored to join the Aspen Music Festival’s year-round staff as Manager of Admissions and Student Affairs. Jalen enjoys playing viola with the High Country Sinfonia and teaching young students in the AMFS Beginning Strings program.
As reflected in the Jalen’s closing comment, making music in ensemble is a profound conversational experience. For your listening pleasure, I suggest the Orion String Quartet performance of String Quartet No. 9 in C major, Op. 59 No. 3.
8/22/2020 09:36:57 pm
Jalen, an absolutely lovely account of this quartet experience! Thank you. Hope we'll connect again at some point. WHEN will that be?
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