Behind the Scenes of Beethoven Opus 131 (arr. Peter Oundjian)

April 23, 2020

by Peter Oundjian, Music Director

We often speak about Beethoven’s early, middle and late periods. I can think of no other composer to whom we attach such clear divisions for their compositions. We tend to view this with an assuredness that might mistakenly suggest that Beethoven had preconceived the notion of leaving a legacy divided neatly into three parts. But in truth, his life was split into these chapters by the hands of tragedy and ill fate.

The division of his creative output into these three periods is perhaps most clearly defined in his string quartets.

The Opus 18 “early” quartets were completed by the year 1800. All six of them were therefore written when he was in his late 20s, by which time he was firmly established in his new home of Vienna.

The five “middle” quartets consist of the three commissioned by Count Andrey Razumovsky in 1806, the “Harp” quartet from 1809 (named for its daring pizzicato that evokes the sound of a harp), and the Quartetto Serioso from 1810.

These are works of greater majesty and significantly heightened drama. Beethoven’s virtuosic demands are now more evenly divided between the players, and the weight and significance of each movement is more balanced. There are no longer light minuets or scherzos providing respites from the intensity of the narrative. Each movement is in its own way a powerful masterpiece.

By this point in Beethoven’s life, at age 40, we know that his ability to hear was severely impaired. The ensuing years saw further deterioration so that, by the final few years of his life, our assumption is that he heard music only in his head.

The late period is viewed more or less as the last 15 years of his life. While his rate of composition slowed down considerably, it is undeniable that his creative imagination was liberated from traditional boundaries. Having written his last five piano sonatas, the massive Missa Solemnis and the gargantuan 9th Symphony, Beethoven was asked by a young Russian Prince, Nikolai Galitzine, to write three string quartets. The year was 1824.

This request stimulated Beethoven in a most remarkable way. Although the prince ended up paying for only one quartet, Beethoven ultimately completed five. These late quartets are among the most profound and revolutionary music ever written, and they represent his final statements to humankind.

The fourth of his final five quartets is Opus 131, which he completed in 1825. As original as the first three quartets were, Opus 131 represents a radical departure from all existing tradition. It conforms to absolutely nothing. The concept of having seven uninterrupted movements had no precedent. That fact alone is remarkable, but in itself is hardly at the core of what is fascinating about the experience of playing or hearing the piece.

The unfolding of the drama in Opus 131 is akin to witnessing a magnificent sculpture or a gripping play. It begins with a statement of the first theme from only one violin, a theme that seems to reach for something hopeful before suddenly crashing down with alarming weight, then resigning itself to its own ill fate of surrender to inevitable tragedy. Each voice then follows suit, and a remarkable fugue unfolds.

As with so many of the greatest musical works, it is the tension, the pull between two alternating worlds that is at the core of the narrative. To experience 131 is to shift between the real world of tragedy and unpredictability, and an opposing vision of spiritual serenity. It gives the listener a sense of two continuously interchanging images: one of the present, and one of the hereafter.

It is as if Beethoven offers us a glimpse into another world free of conflict, of suffering, of discomfort, then disrupts that world with deep expressions of living, breathing pain. The tension he creates with this jarring juxtaposition is the lifeblood of 131.

Once the first movement has revealed this duality to us, all in the form of a mesmerizing slow fugue, Beethoven pulls us out of the trance with an abrupt rise of a half tone, from the darkness of C sharp minor to the optimism of D major. The second movement is a celebration of all that is pure, all that is optimistic, playful, even youthful. It is a dance of naivité in the style a baroque gigue, interrupted only by a couple of passing clouds and outbursts of jubilation.

Two unexpected and intimidating chords signal the beginning of the short third movement, which is essentially an operatic recitative that takes on the form of a dialogue between the four voices. It is somewhat reminiscent of the piece’s opening fugue, but is now transformed into a series of unresolved questions. Finally, Beethoven opens a door to a fantastical sweeping and free-spirited solo violin gesture. This brings us to the central narrative of the entire piece.

The fourth movement represents all that is beautiful in life. Beethoven takes this time to momentarily relinquish all of the tension he has built. He introduces a theme that has always felt to me to conjure a dialogue between old friends who share an optimism that is unbreakably true; one that could never be questioned or challenged.

Much of the movement is made up of duets which create this feeling of intimate conversation. Then, the quartet is suddenly asked to speak in one voice in a series of pulsating triplets. This passage demonstrates the capacity of Beethoven’s genius as powerfully as any passage he ever composed. At the highest level of musical expression, tragedy and beauty meet and share the space with equal fervor.

But all of this beauty reaches a point of intensity that becomes unsustainable. A disturbing figure begins to appear, and it finally succeeds in awakening us from our dream state. Solo statements reappear and the glorious music from the opening of the movement is now transformed and refurbished into a glib, playful accelerando passage. Then follows a folksy, intentionally clumsy passage, an example of Beethoven’s extraordinary penchant for sudden contrast.

This is precisely the kind of passage in the late Beethoven quartets that opened the door for Gustav Mahler to incorporate so many musical styles in his symphonies. In 1899, when Mahler took over the Vienna Opera, he expressed his desire to incorporate the late Beethoven quartets into the Vienna Philharmonic’s repertoire and that he planned to create orchestrations.

Knowing that Mahler believed so surely that this music would be suitable to be played by an orchestra emboldened my own desire to continue to perform Opus 131 after I had stopped playing. (Mahler’s stamp of approval is, for the record, a useful justification for any musical idea or pursuit.) It takes nerve and courage to make an arrangement of such a perfect masterpiece for an entirely broader and infinitely more complex framework. In truth, I have found that the universal wisdom that lives in 131 can absolutely be enhanced by the power of a full orchestra.

The series of variations that comprise the fourth movement never reach a moment of real closure; the last bars of music lack finality, but instead feel inquisitive and incomplete.

The Scherzo movement that follows is nevertheless shocking. It begins as a rude interruption, a simple fragment of an idea blurted out by the cello alone. The virtuosity of this movement is groundbreaking. It has a fleeting quality and features frequent unpredictable outbursts.

What Beethoven demands of the ensemble in the middle of this movement is unparalleled in any other work of chamber music, as two instruments alternate pairs of notes at breakneck speed, in an attempt to sound like one voice. In a stroke of pure originality, Beethoven uses two heretofore rare techniques. The first is the use of exuberant pizzicato for the entire group. The second, far more shocking, is the use of sul ponticello. I have never found an earlier example of a composer using this technique of playing so close to the bridge that the sound becomes glassy, perhaps even squeaky. It must have been absolutely shocking at early performances of the piece, and remains so to this day.

Three slashing E chords in unison seem to suggest finality as the fifth movement comes to an abrupt end. This is, however, just a momentary illusion, as Beethoven repeats this gesture on three G# chords, opening the sixth movement by defying any thought of resolution. The short, intense penultimate movement is now underway in a character that recalls the darkest qualities of the opening movement.

We are now as close as the piece brings us to the agony of Beethoven’s existence at this stage of his life. He sings a tragic song of loss, grief, and contemplation. The intensity builds to a point where an outburst seems inevitable and we are flung into the wild dance of the final movement.

Of the final movement of Opus 131, Wagner once said:

“Tis the dance of the whole world itself: wild joy, the wail of pain, love’s transport, utmost bliss, grief, frenzy, riot, suffering, the lightning flickers, thunders growl: and above it the stupendous fiddler who bears and bounds it all, who leads it haughtily from whirlwind into whirlwind, to the brink of the abyss — he smiles at himself, for to him this sorcery was the merest play — and night beckons him. His day is done.”

At the risk of appearing to attempt to add anything to that perfect summation, I will venture one observation: At the very end, when one feels that the lights are merely flickering and hope is all but abandoned, Beethoven abruptly turns the music on its head and boldly rises up in a triumphant eruption in C# major. Three final life-affirming chords leave us in a state of shock.

This sudden and unexpectedly positive gesture is completely unprepared. There is no gradual buildup of triumph over adversity that we experience in the 9th symphony, or in many of Beethoven’s other heroic works. In the case of Opus 131, the final movement’s trajectory could easily suggest that a drastic, dark ending is upon us. The blinding speed of this shift in the final seconds of the piece is shocking to me every time I experience it.

Perhaps that is the point. Beethoven didn’t intend to end this masterpiece with resolution or affirmation. It is more of a cry for hope, of acceptance of the way things are, and of confident acknowledgment that finality represents only a new beginning.

Peter Oundjian
Music Director