Beethoven and Schumann 11/13

Join us at 2 PM on Sunday, November 13 at Manhattan Youth (120 Warren Street, NYC) as we continue The Beethoven Cycle with the String Quartet in G Major, Opus 18 No. 2, followed by the Schumann Piano Quartet with pianist Peter Basquin, violinists Amy Mugavero and Arthur Dibble, cellist Arthur Cook, and yours truly, Jim Hopkins on the viola.

Our performances are free, informal, and listeners of all ages are welcome!

The Beethoven Cycle, Part 3 – String Quartet in in G Major, Opus 18 No. 2

We resume our chronological cycle of Beethoven’s string quartets with the third quartet, in G Major, Opus 18 No. 2. Written in 1799, this is the penultimate of four quartets Beethoven wrote as a group in 1798-99.

The G Major quartet is written in the style of Haydn, with a veneer of courtly elegance, but with episodes of characteristic Beethoven assertiveness. The first movement begins with elegant two-bar phrases that have a light, unpredictable quality. A secondary, considerably more pedantic theme forms a counterpoint to the first one (and is subsequently reborn as the vigorously playful opening theme of the last movement).

Eminent musicologists have contended that this quartet is Beethoven’s first sustained effort towards humor in the quartet genre, as he orchestrates leaps, jolts, surprises, and thematic and rhythmic pile-ups throughout. We’ll run with that.

The second movement, marked Adagio cantabile (slow and singing), is conventional enough – until Beethoven inserts a little country dance allegro in the middle of the proceedings. From his sketchbooks, it seems he decided to drop the dance in some time after the movement was finished, while he was working on the last two of the Opus 18 quartets.

The effect is something like a clip from Hee-Haw spliced into a Downton Abbey episode. Humor, indeed!

The Adagio recommences after the rustic interruption as if nothing has happened. In the ninth bar of this recapitulation, however, there is a strangely extended and somewhat frantic 64th-note solo figuration in the first violin which has always struck me as over the top; the other instruments must listen carefully, poised to enter at the right moment, and make their entrance precisely in the span of a 64th-note, as if nothing out of the ordinary is happening. Beethoven is clearly having some fun.

The third movement is labeled Allegro scherzo (fast, joke). A scherzo is perhaps best described as the old minuet dance movement on steroids. Like a magician on holiday, Beethoven displays slights of hand in quick succession as he directs the thematic material to perform amazing feats while being tossed around the ensemble.

The Trio section calms things down a bit, after which Beethoven inserts a coda that reintroduces the scherzo theme in a way that creates a feeling of nostalgia, as if he misses playing with the scherzo. It’s like a puppy nosing a ball toward you in the hope that you’ll throw it again.

This is the first hint of Beethoven’s experimentation with nostalgia of which I am aware. He uses this technique in the last of the Opus 18 quartets and in his third piano concerto as well, which was written around the same time. We’ll talk about Beethoven and his depictions of nostalgia and melancholy when we play the final Opus 18 quartet, in B-flat Major.

The last movement, Allegro molto quasi Presto, is known by musicians as The Cellist’s Revenge, owing to the cellist setting the tempo and having the opportunity to make it too fast for the first violinist to play. The stolid second theme of the first movement reemerges transformed into an energetic vehicle for hijinks. Beethoven throws a few curveballs at all the players, quite possibly written as jokes for his young musician friends who first played these works. The quartet builds to a rousing finale with smiles all around – mission accomplished.

Robert Schumann – Piano Quintet in E-flat Major, Opus 44

Like Beethoven, Robert Schumann’s chamber music took inspiration from Haydn and Mozart, but also Beethoven. Born in 1810, Schumann was introduced to the world of letters and music at an early age. His father was a bookseller and novelist, who encouraged his son to read and to learn music, which Schumann did, composing his first works by age seven.

Schumann proved quite talented, but his musical aspirations suffered a blow when his father died in 1826; his mother discouraged his pursuit of music in favor of a more substantial career. Schumann obliged by going to Leipzig to study law in 1828 and continued his studies in Heidelberg in 1829.

In 1830, Schumann heard Niccolò Paganini in concert, which prompted him to abandon law and return to Leipzig to study piano with Frederich Weick. His dreams of becoming a concert pianist were shelved by a hand injury, the cause of which continues to be the subject of speculation.

Some say that Schumann crippled his right hand with a device he used to strengthen the fourth finger, some contend that a loss of coordination was the result of mercury poisoning as a side effect of treatments for syphilis, and some contend that he underwent ill-advised surgery to alter the tendons in his hand. We’ll never know, I’m sure, but I’m also sure the speculation will never wane.

As it happened, Frederich had a daughter, Clara, a brilliant young pianist who was nine years younger than Schumann. Robert and Clara eventually fell in love, but when Schumann asked for her hand in 1837 she was only eighteen, and Frederich would not allow the union of his brilliant daughter and a man who was attempting make his living as a composer. Lawsuits ensued (Schumann’s legal training was put to use) but Clara turned 21 before there was any resolution. They married in 1840, eventually producing eight children.

During the 1830s, Schumann wrote almost exclusively for piano. He began embracing other forms in the year of his marriage, which institution seemed to agree with him. In 1840 he wrote 168 lieder (songs). In the following year, he wrote his first symphony (Spring) and what was to become his fourth symphony after many revisions. In 1842 he turned to chamber music, composing his three string quartets, Opus 41 and his Piano Quintet in E-flat Major, Opus 44, which we will share with you this Sunday.

In 1844, Schumann began to experience depression, nervous prostration and the persistent presence of the pitch A four octaves above middle C. He continued to compose, but his health and his mental stability deteriorated. Ultimately, he had himself committed to an asylum in 1854, and died two years later, at age 46. His condition may have resulted from syphilis, which could have been dormant for many years (Smetana, who died from syphilis, was bedeviled by a high E before going completely deaf). A tumor was found at the base of Schumann’s brain during his autopsy, which also could explain his mental decline and early demise (though not particularly early for a composer, it seems).

Schumann’s Piano Quintet is the first substantial work to marry the traditional string quartet with the piano. He chose this instrumentation perhaps to give himself a more robust, orchestral palette from which to compose. The work was a success, and established the ensemble as a staple of 19th and 20th Century chamber music composition.

The first movement is in a classic sonata-allegro form and begins energetically, with a bravura statement of the first theme by the ensemble. A second, lyrical theme is introduced by the piano and taken up by the first violin, followed by another lyrical theme that forms a duo between the cello and the viola. Throughout the development section and the return of the main theme, Schumann deftly manages a mix of driving tempos and beautiful themes that are quite satisfying to hear.

The second movement is a slow march that hearkens back to the funeral marches in Beethoven’s 3rd and 7th symphonies, which were in turn influenced by the French propensity to write funeral music for living persons of note (no pun here) around the turn of the 19th Century. This movement has the expected mix of gravity, melancholy and nostalgia apportioned expertly to produce a gorgeous and moving experience.

The third movement is a lively Scherzo, patterned on the classical Minuet-Trio (ABA form) dance movement, but with an extra Trio thrown in for good measure. While Schumann’s reasons for writing two Trio sections are unknown, at least his decision lets us spend more time with that most agreeable Scherzo!

The final movement gets right down to business again, with a driving tempo and more great melodies passing around the ensemble. Well past the movement’s mid-point, Schumann indulges us with a fugue and with extended syncopated passages in the piano, all building to a rousing finale.

Schumann’s effort spawned a great outpouring of hundreds of piano quintets by composers including Brahms, Dvorak, Faure, Shostakovich, and many more of the great, the recognizable, and the not-so-well-known. Schumann’s quintet is still one of the best, and still compelling after more than 170 years.

For me, Schumann shares with Mozart a palpable intellectual intensity; their minds raced. Costanza Mozart wrote of her husband’s need to distract himself so he could compose, and I remember how that was brought to life in the movie Amadeus. While much of the movie is fantasy, seeing Mozart bent over sheets of music on a billiards table, quill pen hand, alternately writing and throwing balls against the table cushions in one continuous, fluid motion – that scene alone was worth the price of admission.

In the music of both men I hear minds running at fever pitch, always near the edge, always breathlessly intense, even in their most quiet and introspective moments. Of course, there are other great intellects, but few that strike me as so unrelenting.

And always there is Bach, the musical Leviathan, the Great Blue Whale of intellect in whose wake Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schumann and other great musicians are as leaping porpoises performing feats of genius alongside other denizens of the musical sphere, each playing a part according to their talents, carried forever in the currents and eddies of Bach’s passage. But I digress.

Please join us Sunday to share these great works! Bring the family, and hear some great music in the round, up-close and personal.

Jim Hopkins, The Violist



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