"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

August 28, 2011

Listening to the complete Beethoven (8)

Opus 123: Missa Solemnis in D major (1823). Written to celebrate the appointment to Archbishop of Beethoven's patron and pupil, Archduke Rudolph of Austria. Huge work that puts enormous strain on the voices. There is a great sense of space and sonority. The Kyrie demonstrates an overwhelming sense of divine majesty; the Gloria is almost impossible to sing and culminates in a fugue; the Credo exudes a burning conviction; the Sanctus is reverent and mystical; and the Agnus dei is reflective and somber, leading to the double fugue of the Dona nobis pacem that lets peace triumph in a clear and confident D Major.

Opus 124: Die Weihe des Hauses (Consecration of the House), overture (1822). Overture written for the dedication of the new Theater in der Josefstadt in Vienna. Contains many fugal and contrapuntal elements. Followed by 9 short items of occasional music, which are seldom played.

Opus 125: Symphony No. 9 in D minor ("Choral") (1824). The last struggle from fate to victory, crowned by a Schiller text that sings of Beethoven's own ideals of egality and fraternity. The first three movements are in the enigmatic style of the late quartets. The choral finale, the Ode to Joy, develops a pattern set in Beethoven's own Choral Fantasy. The Ninth is Beethoven's second symphony in a minor key, d minor. The struggle to reach the D Major of Elysium in the finale is a real one, and the last movement by no means a more choral appendage. Like in Fidelio, the chorus assumes the role of the people en masse. One of the greatest symphonies ever written. Wikipedia has the text.

Opus 126: Six Bagatelles for piano (1824). These bagatelles seem to come from another world, they are completely different from anything Beethoven wrote in the same form. They are not "small, negligible pieces" anymore, no fluff, but one, deep-probing single work.

Opus 127: String Quartet No. 12 in E-flat major (1825). Essentially a lyrical work, putting more emphasis on variation techniques than fugal ones. The heart of the work is the variation-style slow movement, but even the sonata-form first movement has a variation feel. The scherzo is droll and dry and the quartet concludes in a manner of divine lightness.

Opus 128: Song: "Der Kuss" (1822). A humorous arietta. The last of Beethoven's songs to be published, but in fact dating from the late 1790s.

Opus 129: Rondo à Capriccio for piano in G major ("Rage over a lost penny") (1795). This early piano piece was in fact left incomplete by Beethoven and completed by Diabelli.

Opus 130: String Quartet No. 13 in B-flat major (1825). Huge string quartet in five long movements, even after Beethoven pruned it down by removing the final fugue for a simpler ending. The fugue is nowadays usually recorded as last track after the almost CD filling quartet, so we can again listen to Beethoven's original architecture.

Opus 131: String Quartet No. 14 in C-sharp minor (1826). A 40 min work, consisting of 7 movements to be played without a break. The monumental quartet starts with a slow movement which incorporates a fugue. It is followed by a delicate dance movement, After a short introduction, then follows the central movement of the quartet, a set of 7 variations. Next is a presto scherzo; then a somber adagio which serves as the introduction to the final movement, with has a lyrical theme soaring up out of rhythmical violence.

Opus 132: String Quartet No. 15 in A minor (1825). Here, too, the slow movement is the heart of the quartet. Written at the same time as the quartet opus 130 and therefore closely related. The first part starts with a slow introduction foreshadowing the tense first theme; the second theme is delightfully lyrical. The second movement, continues the mood of tranquil serenity - it also contains an unexpected Landler-melody. The following molto adagio is the longest movement of the quartet and the deepest. It has strong religious overtones and resembles a prayer for strength. "With the most intimate feeling." The finale starts with a brief march, an affirmation of vitality, after which follows a vehement allegro appassionata.

Opus 133: Große Fuge in B-flat major for string quartet  (1826). The original finale of opus 130. A very difficult work, where Beethoven demonstrates his freedom in the shackles of the fugue form.

Opus 134: Piano arrangement (4 hands) of the Große Fuge, Opus 133 (1826). The fugue was so difficult to play for string quartets, that Beethoven made a piano version.

Opus 135: String Quartet No. 16 in F major (1826). Beethoven's last written work, lyrical like the quartet op. 127. The scherzo is the only violent note in the divine lightness that infuses the other parts. The lightness is however no a denial of struggle, but an embracing and thus taming of the warring elements. "Must it be? It must be!" is the motto Beethoven gave to one of the movements and which could stand for the whole quartet.

Opus 136: Cantata: Der glorreiche Augenblick (1814). An older, occasional work.

Opus 137: Fugue for String Quintet in D major (1817). An older work.

Opus 138: Leonore, opera (earlier version of Fidelio, with Leonore Overture No. 1) (1807). The third Leonore overture.

Concluding Beethoven
It was good to listen to all Beethoven's opus numbers and a selection from his other compositions. In grammar school, Beethoven was by far my favorite composer. As a teenager I liked of course loud music: his symphonies, concerts and overtures. But I heard his music so often, that later I grew tired of it.

Then, when I was a student, I discovered chamber music. This was initially for purely technical reasons: I had obtained an old reel tape recorder (mono!) and used it to make recordings from music on the radio, but the only music that could be recorded with some fidelity was chamber music. That is how I discovered the violin sonata, piano trio and string quartet - also those by Beethoven.

Later, in my thirties, when I collected CDs (and had done away with tape recorder, tapes and records), I bought new recordings of Beethoven. The orchestral works I bought as much as possible played on historical instruments. I also acquired the chamber music: the complete violin sonatas, the complete piano trios, complete cello sonatas, the string quartets (complete but played by various quartets) and most of the piano sonatas. This was the time I really enjoyed Beethoven's chamber music.

What I discovered by listening to the complete Beethoven now, is that most of the symphonies and concertos,which I heard almost daily in my teens, are still too familiar to my ears. I did however, appreciate anew the more meditative music of the violin concerto and the fourth piano concerto. Among the symphonies, I was this time most impressed by the Third (and Fourth).

The violin sonatas and piano trios still sounded fresh. New discoveries were some of the piano sonatas (and the experimental character of most serious piano music of Beethoven) and - above all - the string quartets. Many were as new to me - and I will be often coming back to this great music.