Beethoven for a Later Age: Living with the String Quartets (excerpt)


By Edward Dusinberre

The author is the first violinist of the Takács Quartet and Artist in Residence at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Read more about his book at this link.




The interpretation of a professional string quartet that performs the same musical work repeatedly, evolves even from one night to the next. Beethoven for a Later Age: Living with the String Quartets explores this process in the Takács Quartet as we rehearse and perform Beethoven’s string quartets.  ‘Art demands of us that we do not stand still,’ Beethoven remarked to a friend concerning the innovations in his last quartets. From the revised edition of his first published work, Opus 18 no. 1, to the alternative last movement of Opus 130, Beethoven’s restless spirit fueled his string quartet project, at times shocking the first players and audiences who encountered these complex works. As a young whippersnapper freshly out of Juilliard and daunted by my new position as first violinist of the Takács, I found the bemusement of violinist Ignaz Schuppanzigh and his friends reassuring.

Twenty-three years later the music is more familiar but when I listen to our Decca recording of Opus 127 and compare it with other recordings, basic interpretative questions of character and pacing remain. Fortunately, for me at least, the performance of a Beethoven quartet will never feel definitive:

Excerpt from Beethoven for a Later Age: Living with the String Quartets:

While we had resolved questions about characters, balance and tempi in one particular way for the CD, no single recording could adequately explore the many interpretative possibilities the music suggested. This seemed particularly true for the ending of the whole piece, a section that Beethoven had himself modified between the first and second performances. According to the violinist Joseph Böhm, it had been Beethoven’s experience of observing Böhm’s quartet rehearse that encouraged him to change the tempo marking for the last section of the final movement. After a festive and at times rambunctious Allegro, the music winds down in dynamics and pace, the pulse briefly suspended as two violins trill on a long note. Out of this hiatus emerge fleeting pianissimo scales and the opening tune of the movement, whose transformed rhythm now adds buoyancy and lilt to the previously smooth legato line. The character of the ensuing climax and the last gestures of the piece depend largely on the choice of tempo.

Böhm later claimed he had suggested to his fellow musicians that they ignore Beethoven’s instruction, meno vivace (less lively), ‘which seemed to me to weaken the general effect . . . I advised that the original tempo be maintained, which was done, to the betterment of the effect.’ The first violinist continued his modest narrative:

Beethoven, crouched in a corner, heard nothing, but watched with strained attention. After the last stroke of the bows he said, laconically, ‘Let it remain so,’ went to the desks and crossed out the meno vivace in the four parts.[i]

Apparently the often volatile master, far from being offended by the tempo alteration, was willing to change his mind at this late stage. Böhm admitted that the composer could not hear how the musicians were playing, but Beethoven had probably sensed the extra exhilaration and excitement that came with the change. As he watched the newly configured ensemble rehearsing his music, he glimpsed a different way of ending this complex piece – at least according to the testimony of a first violinist. In published editions Beethoven replaced the meno vivace with Allegro commodo (comfortably fast), a rather wishful indication in my experience, given the difficulties of the passage.

Recordings of Opus 127 take a variety of approaches to this last section. The Budapest Quartet play a fast tempo in their version recorded in Washington’s Library of Congress in 1941, their last climax frenetic and exhilarating: a courageous choice considering that this was a live recording made with no editing sessions. They play the whole movement faster than many groups, as if Beethoven were determined to end this complex piece with a whirlwind of joyful activity.

Many groups, including the Takács, choose tempi that give the impression of meno vivace – the very instruction that Beethoven is purported to have deleted. One of the more dramatic examples of this comes in the Alban Berg Quartet’s recording, where a markedly slower tempo results in a powerful and majestic climax that seems to refer the listener back to the Maestoso mood at the opening of the whole piece. If Beethoven had experienced this version he might have been inclined to reinstate his meno vivace, while the Budapest Quartet’s rendition might have prompted him to add a Presto marking instead. The Takács ending was neither as fast as the Budapest nor as slow as the Alban Berg and I enjoyed our transparent, speculative sound at the beginning of the section. Beethoven created such an array of possibilities in Opus 127 that the piece can be concluded in a number of different ways.

[i] Alexander Wheelock Thayer, Thayer’s Life of Beethoven. Revised and edited by Elliot Forbes, 2 vols (Princeton, NJ, 1964), vol. 2, p. 941.