String Quartet No. 16 in F Major, Op. 135
Between the years 1800 and 1812 (sometimes called his "heroic decade") Beethoven poured forth masterpiece after masterpiece: eight of his nine symphonies, 16 of his piano sonatas, his opera Fidelio, his piano concertos, his violin concertos, and dozens of chamber works, literally hundreds of songs and instrumental dances. A combination of illness, political events and family pressures slowed the pace of his composition from about 1812 to his death in 1827, though he was still to create some of his most important works, including the Ninth Symphony, Missa Solemnis, the Diabelli Variations, his late piano sonatas, and his legendary late string quartets.
A commission in 1822 from a Russian prince (Nicolas Galitzin) for "one, two or three string quartets" moved Beethoven to return to composition for the ensemble for which he had already composed eleven masterworks. When he took up the challenge (after the arduous editing of the Ninth Symphony) he obviously found the medium stimulating, for not only did he compose three large-scale quartets for Galitzin, he went on to write two more without any commission. The richness of Beethoven’s imagination (which never faltered in his difficult last years) and the possibilities of the string quartet seemed a perfect match. The five "late quartet" turned out to be his five last completed works.
The first four of those five quartets are, on average, twice as long as those of his mentors Haydn and Mozart. They have a progressively increasing number of movements and some of them are very dense and difficult to play and to digest as a listener. Somewhat unjustly, they have all gained the reputation as abstruse and intellectual, because ironically, many of the movements are short, charming, lyrical and full of sentiment. Yet there are, indeed, several movements among these four works which are long and challenging; they are the ones that have created an aura of impenetrability.
The last quartet has none of these recondite qualities. In some ways it is a throwback to an earlier time when quartets averaged only about 20 minutes in length, and had only four, discreet movements. But it also features Beethoven’s late characteristics of lyrical, intimate communication, madcap humor, profound sentiment, and victory over adversity.
The first movement features short motives, stops and starts, a bit of light-hearted fugue, and a wonderfully elastic series of harmonic modulations. The second is a fleet, rhythmically elusive scherzo with a zany middle-section. The slow movement is a short, affecting set of variations on a hymn-like theme. The final movement begins seriously, with a tragically-tinged question "Must it be?" (the words literally annotated in Beethoven’s sketches), and then proceeds to a life-affirming, up-beat answer; "It must be!" This is heard both explicitly in the speechlike motives that open both sections, and in the harmonic language in which they are expressed: chromatically crabbed and in minor mode for the question – but diatonically purged and rhythmically quickened for the defiantly cheery response. The body of the last movement is upbeat and irresistibly optimistic. It’s hard to imagine a more joyous answer to any portentous, rhetorical question, or to a life filled with tribulation.
- Daniel Stepner
Resignation, WoO 149
Resignation, WoO 149, composed in 1817, is the setting of a mysterious poem about extinguished passion–for what or who, the poet does not say–by Count Paul von Haugwitz (1791-1856). Beethoven prefaces his setting with elaborate instructions for its performance, "With feeling, yet resolutely, well accented, and sung as though spoken," and we gather from this fussiness a hint of the song’s importance for its creator. One thing the instructions do is tell us from the start of a musical interpretation with a stiffer spine and greater resolve than the poet would seem to provide in his depressed, defeated words. The repeated root-position triads that erupt in loud-louder-loudest guise from the bare octaves a semitone lower follow just after the crucial words, "Ja, du mußt nun los dich binden" (Yes, you must now detach yourself) and are the incendiary heart of the song. The grim musical pun by which Beethoven does not "find" the cadence he had prepared or sought ("sucht–sucht") at the words "findet nicht" is another marvelous detail of a haunting song.
- Susan Youens
An die Hoffnung, Op. 32
The genesis of An die Hoffnung, Op. 32, is bound up with Beethoven’s frustrated love in 1804-1805 for Countess Josephine von Brunsvik; Josephine wrote her mother on 24 March of that year to say, "The good Beethoven has composed a lovely song for me on a text from Urania 'An die Hoffnung' as a gift for me." Urania: Über Gott, Unsterblichkeit und Freiheit . . . in sechs Gesängen (Urania: On God, Immortality, and Freedom in six cantos) by Christoph August Tiedge (1752-1841) refers to the muse of astronomy and astrology, and, from the Renaissance on, the muse of Christian poets as well ("Urania" means "heavenly"). By the summer of 1805, however, Josephine had rebuffed Beethoven as a suitor and the composer removed her name from the dedication, but the song he wrote for her is indeed lovely. The reverential melody of this strophic song is constantly on the move, appropriate for Hope as a force of forward propulsion in human lives; its major mode optimism is rendered profound by darker touches of minor. The singer’s eloquent leap upward and the quiet blaze of a new (major) key for the acclamation to Hope–"O Hoffnung"–are unforgettable.
- Susan Youens
Das Geheimnis (Liebe und Wahrheit), WoO 145
Das Geheimnis (Liebe und Wahrheit), WoO 145, first published in a Viennese almanac in 1816, is a setting of a poem by Ignaz Heinrich Freiherr von Wessenberg (1774-1860). Here, the poet asks the Muse for the whereabouts of the flower that never fades and the star that shines forever, and the Muse bids him search within for those enduring treasures. No wonder Beethoven was drawn to this poem: could he have read it personally as signifying the inner treasure of musical creativity? The initial very soft questions–this is a query to the self–rise straight upward, and Beethoven repeats the answer at song’s end in quiet emphasis.
- Susan Youens
String Quartet No. 5
String Quartet No. 5 was composed in 2010, at Tanglewood. It was commissioned by Dr. Robert W. and Linda Graebner to celebrate the centennial of the Pro Arte Quartet. The piece is in ten movements and lasts about twenty-five minutes. The larger continuity will be more valuable to the listener than the identification of individual sections. I am grateful that all of my quartet music has been performed and recorded by the Lydian Quartet. Each member has offered a great measure of insight, support, and friendship.
- John Harbison
In the opera The Great Gatsby, five songs are sung in the course of small or large gatherings, either over the radio or live by a Band Vocalist. These songs, with lyrics by Murray Horwitz, bear a resemblance to popular songs from the 1920s, but also share musical elements with the score as a whole. A number of other songs appear in the opera as instrumentals only. After the completion of the opera, Murray Horwitz wrote lyrics for these as well, completing the present collection, which reorders and arranges the songs, making them presentable separately or as a sequence.
- John Harbison