At the end of his life, Ludwig van Beethoven composed a haunting treasure
by Masumi Per Rostad
After more than ten years and several hundred performances, Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 15 in A minor, Op. 132, remains fresh and hauntingly beautiful to me. I am still fascinated by its construction and still get choked up in the timeless, prayerful third movement. From the anxiously searching and manic first theme to the heroically possessed final coda, it is a piece that only becomes more intriguing with time.
Beethoven was at the end of his life when he wrote the A minor quartet, also known as the Heiliger Dankgesang quartet, one of his several late quartets. It was composed in 1825, just two years before Beethoven’s death. By then, he had finished with his concertos, symphonies, and piano sonatas and chose to focus solely on writing for a string quartet. With his 16 string quartets, Beethoven forged the backbone of the repertoire. At the beginning of his career, he composed with classical unity in the ensemble; in the middle period he exploded the quartet form to symphonic diversity and scope. In his final works, he had both extremes at his command and seemed free to just work out his musical ideas in their purest form.
I think of these last quartets as not necessarily being for performance. In fact, in 1810 he wrote (in English) to a friend and said about the String Quartet No. 11 in F minor (“Serioso”), Op. 95, “The quartet is written for a small circle of connoisseurs and is never to be performed in public.”
He hadn’t heard a sound for years; Beethoven started losing his hearing in 1796. You have to wonder what a score might have meant to the master composer. Music was his only true constant companion throughout his life. The conversations are streamlined and he is able to simply speak from the heart without fear of public offense or failure. The score by itself had become a complete work of art.
One of the inspirations for Beethoven during this late period was his constantly deepening admiration for the music of J.S. Bach. And like a Bach fugue, Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 15 in A minor begins simply with a four-note statement in the cello part that the other voices immediately pick up and start developing. Nearly omnipresent, this simple set of two half-step intervals separated by a leap, G#–A–F–E, is the signature of the entire work. It’s probably obvious to the educated and sensitive listener, but for a little while, early on, I didn’t see the forest through the trees in spotting the pairs of half steps through nearly every motive in every movement.
It seems so obvious when you think about it. Look for it everywhere.
A Matter of Mortality
As the violist of the Pacifica Quartet, I can attest that balance of the four voices is one of the most important issues for us in general—regardless of repertoire. There are basics of quartet technique that constantly need to be addressed. If two voices play in unison separated by octaves, it sounds unblended and strident if the upper voice plays louder. If the lower voice carries the bulk of the sound, it sounds rich, blended, and more in tune. In texturally rich passages, independent voices should pare their parts to rhythmic profile and provide room for everyone else while still making their part heard.
This kind of collegial sensitivity is crucial in the A-minor quartet, where there is so much going on that brings a richness and thematic and developmental clarity to the music—and that could easily become just chaotic noise. In the first movement, the four-pitch set is often present in the background as whole notes passed between voices while the 16th notes of the first theme fly past. In the final movement, the appassionato begins with a complex composite rhythmic accompaniment that needs to be clear while still supporting the melodic material above.
But there is something to consider when contemplating the third movement. There was a period of several years when—with the plague of constant health issues, distracted by the battles of his familial struggles, and emotionally drawn from his social alienation magnified by his deafness—Beethoven did not write much music at all. He had contracted a painful stomach ailment that would paralyze him in bouts of agony and that interrupted the completion of the A-minor quartet. His mortality was a constant worry. In the summer of 1825, he seemed to have (at least temporarily) beaten his gastric malady and was physically and emotionally ready to compose again.
That’s something to keep in mind, because that bout of grappling with his mortality is reflected in this work.
Beethoven isn’t known for including extra-musical detail in his music. Therefore, it stands out dramatically among his work that he titled the third movement “Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit, in der lydischen Tonart.” This translates as, “Song of Thanksgiving to the Deity from a convalescent in the Lydian mode.” It is an autobiographical musical offering of a prayer of thanks after his illness. With this music, he is expressing the joy and thanks for the gift of life.
The third movement is the emotional center of the piece and is one of the highlights of all music. At more than 15 minutes, it’s also a hefty and demanding movement to pace and perform.
It is interesting—and unusual—that he employs use of the Lydian mode because of its nod to ancient church music. The mode itself is basically a major scale with a raised fourth. With a strange and somewhat futuristic sound, it has been used popularly as the mode for The Simpsons’ and The Jetsons’ cartoon theme songs.
3rd Movement Tips
The third movement is composed of three chorale sections marked molto adagio that are interrupted by two faster andante sections marked Neue Kraft fuhlend—feeling renewed strength.
The metric transitions from the molto adagio chorales to the andante renewed strength sections can be thought of as similar to eighth-note equals eighth-note. Within the molto adagio sections is a chorale separated between phrases by expressive commentary and bridges.
In the Pacifica Quartet, we choose to vibrate these and not vibrate the chorale figure until late in their crescendos. This helps to clarify the structure. It is an intonational challenge to play chords that are rich with quartal intervals without vibrato. We use open strings wherever possible to simplify both sound and intonation. When this passage works, it pares the quartet sound down to the pure essentials and begins to vibrate with a naturally ringing sound.
The three chorale sections are continually more and more developed, with the third titled “Mit innigster Empfindung”—with the utmost, deepest, and sincere feeling. We experiment with a more reverential vibrato here and lighter bow contrasted by the minimally vibrated half notes of the chorale. The lyrical, slightly faster voices and the slower chorale voices eventually become so intertwined that it is hard to know who in the quartet is reacting to whom.
The third movement hits a powerful climax with the four voices playing half notes together with sforzandi. Here we employ an Emerson Quartet technique called “park and go.” The Emersons do sometimes give us travel advice as well but, in this case, the term refers to nearly stopping the bow after articulating and then rapidly developing bow speed toward the next bow change. This helps the perception of limitless bow because, no matter what, you can’t seem to play big enough or give enough feeling here.
I will never forget a lyrical summer afternoon at Marlboro when I read through Op. 132 with friends and, as we played the third movement, the sky opened up and let out a magnificent shudder of thunder and lightning that seemed to be aimed at our room. For me, it was a magical moment forever tied to the music.
That was, perhaps, the one time that the climax felt big enough!
There are stories of Beethoven as a young pianist, improvising beautifully moving music that would carry listeners to states of dreamy bliss. Then he would suddenly bang on the piano loudly and shock them out of their reverie. The alla Marcia, assai vivace fourth movement does exactly this. Bang! The monumental third movement is over. It doesn’t make musical sense to take time to tune and wipe the sweat off your brow after the Heiliger Dankgesang in performance. Get on to the next movement!
This is, in turn, interrupted by a dramatic recitative in the first violin that sets the stage for the dark and turbulent final movement. However, this final movement takes a turn and ends with a joyfully wild and driven coda that reveals Beethoven’s heart of hearts. After so much struggle, after so much difficulty, the human spirit can overcome.
It is a personal reminder for Herr Beethoven—and a lesson to us all.