Technique and Intuition Rule the Dynamic Adagio Movement of Beethoven's E-flat Quartet, Op. 127
With this movement, Beethoven has penned every violist's dream
It is the quartet cycle to end all quartet cycles, or so most any string-quartet musician will tell you. Spanning nearly all of Beethoven’s working life, with the later quartets written just a couple years before his death, this collection of works is renowned for its beauty and intensity, as well as its palpable, evolutionary sound tracing Beethoven’s musical journey from young composer to musical icon.
“I think that if you were to ask any quartet today, they would point to the Beethoven quartet cycle as the major body of work for the medium,” says Roger Tapping, founding violist of the Takács Quartet, a group that in recent years ambitiously both performed and recorded the Beethoven Quartet cycle in its entirety (the third and last recorded installment was released January 11 on the Decca label).
“There is something very complete about the way the cycle [follows] this already very mature young man to a rocking alter Weise,” Tapping continues. “And I think everyone would tell you that there is hardly any music written like the late Beethoven. The Bartók is probably the only comparable cycle, but there are just six pieces . . . And Haydn is fantastic, but it doesn’t have that same sense of a cycle. People think that Beethoven is absolutely one of the greatest composers for very good reasons.
“Certainly these quartets are a very good example of that.”
The Late Quartets
By 1818, Beethoven was completely deaf and communicated almost exclusively through “conversation books” (some 400 of these small booklets, in which visitors wrote remarks to him, were in existence at the time of his death). So his completion of these final chapters of the quartet cycle is an incredible accomplishment indeed. Beethoven delivered the E-flat quartet in December 1824, two years after the work was promised to Nikolai Golitsïn, the Russian aristocrat who commissioned the piece.
But Beethoven didn’t stop there.
“He continued writing,” says Tapping. “He had more work to do. He went on to write another one—over and above what was asked for.”
Op. 127, the first of the late quartets, showcases all that Beethoven: The quartet opens with a lyrical sonata form with two varied tempos, then transforms into a country-dance tune, and then in a brilliant finale, it ends in an explosive, spiritual conclusion—something previously seen in the F-minor quartet (Op. 95), and repeated again in the following quartet, A minor, Op. 132.
“But the part writing doesn’t lie very beautifully—you have to work for it,” Tapping says of the viola part. “Although Beethoven doesn’t write many wonderful melodies for the viola, you are providing harmony and rhythm, but then also an energy. Emotionally, [the part] is intense, and you want to play it extremely well.”
The biggest thing that distinguishes Beethoven’s late quartets, apart from their increased complexity, Tapping says, “is the amount of fantasy that Beethoven put into them. The early works must have been striking to the contemporary audience. Because although outwardly they do have this sort of classical feel to them—drawing from Haydn and Mozart—they are all full of jabs, strange sforzandos, and crescendos that don’t quite get somewhere. This is already present—even in those earlier pieces; you can see some sort of textural ideas in the early quartets. But the lates are quantumly deeper emotionally and structurally. You feel different when you are playing these late quartets. Time goes by in a different sort of way, it just feels very deep.
“He clearly is making no compromises, even the beautiful parts are difficult to play,” Tapping adds. “For him personally and emotionally they were important to write.”
A Study in Extremes
Written at a stage in Beethoven’s life when the composer was acutely aware of his deafness and his increasingly bad health, this quartet was born out of “an active will to be positive and do something with his life other than just giving up,” Tapping explains. “And the more you know about his life, the more moving that is. It is not just that this is rombustuous, wonderful music, but it is also a defiance of his circumstances. In that sense, you can philosophically think of this as Romantic music, because there is a great deal of him in it—it certainly transcends its form.”
Tapping admits he finds mastering the work a bit of a challenge. “I find his writing for the quartets has a lot of hard passagework in it. Beethoven doesn’t offer much high singing stuff for the viola. Mendelssohn already was doing more of that—and even Haydn and Mozart,” he adds. “And yet, everything you do feels as if it counts very much.
“The extremes of dynamics are really an innovation,” he continues, “and aren’t just a technical thing—they’re emotional. These crescendos, which go into subito pianos, you really have to live these things to feel why they are there. It takes an enormous amount of concentration to play. It is enough to put on a sweat; break a number of bow hairs. You really have to give your utmost.”
The Adagio of Op. 127 begins with “the most heavenly opening to a movement,” Tapping says, then moves on to a more syncopated rhythm. “And you aren’t really aware where one thing starts and one stops. I think it is one of his most beautiful moments. It has the most rapt mood to it, a combination of loving and yearning and playing and the harmony is so rich and complex and satisfying—the sheer color of it is soft and caressing.
“The quality of the melody and the cantabile is wonderful.”
Tapping notes that the dynamics are an integral part of this movement. “They are very much integrated with Beethoven’s local and long-term musical shapes and he is very specific about them,” he says. This specificity isn’t seen in Beethoven’s contemporaries, in Haydn or Mozart, he adds, “and you don’t see it again until Mahler.”
Bars 20 to 37 offer a good example of Beethoven’s dynamic eccentricities. There are crescendos that end in pianos, and diminuendos leading to still more crescendos. Tapping suggests keeping a steady level of underlying dynamic tension here. “Don’t go to the bottom, go to a simmering [level]—this will keep the shape of the piece.”
Also within this section, at bar 28, there are many hairpin “up and down” markings, followed by more explicit crescendos and diminuendos. Tapping recommends not falling into the trap of being too physical with this dynamically tricky section. “We found it important, while doing these very important parts of Beethoven’s expressive language, to keep them within a larger overall shape. If you don’t do too much, you can still stay within the piano realm.”
And then there are the double-stops. “In the marchlike section, for the cello and viola,” says Tapping, “every other note—more or less—is a double-stop. I have found in performing and practicing this, that this seems to go with the character of one’s bowing it. I actually take my fingers off completely between each chord—it is a bit of a brain twister otherwise. Especially in bar 46: a vivid left-hand technique to match the right- hand bowing.” At around bar 78 of the Adagio, the second violin and viola juggle several measures of them. Tapping points out this area is one needing specific attention in practice. “You just need to spend some time working on it,” he says, “so that it’s smooth and not lumpy. And then again, the double-stopping at the end of the Adagio, too—it must be very delicate.”
From the viola player’s point of view, there is no stark exposure of the instrument anywhere within the slow movement. However, Tapping says of his part, “It takes an enormous amount of concentration to play. Beethoven doesn’t put in any spare notes, and these dynamics [reflect] a constant throughout his life: crescendos which go into subitopianos. You really have to live these things to feel why they are there. These are meaty pieces, you feel pretty rung out after playing,” he adds.
After the above passage, however, at bar 96, the first violin and viola are thrust into a quiet, subtle duo. “It is marked sotto voce, very quite and still,” says Tapping. “And there is no room to hear anything—especially a shift. So, I find myself using a kind of creepy-crawling fingering. A series of first-fingerings.”
This is necessary in order to achieve the smoothest possible sound, he adds, especially when playing his very large 171/2-inch Nicolo Amati viola—which is particularly unforgiving during shifts, making any string movement “very audible.” Tapping suggests thinking out of the box when trying your own fingerings in this passage. “You have to be creative with slightly unorthodox fingers.”
Ultimately, when working on the complete E-flat quartet, “you must reach the point where one part flows into the other—you need to get a large-scale corporate pulse in your head,” he says. “Op. 127 is a wonderful complex combination of technique and intuitiveness.”
This article, "Technique and Intuition Rule the Dynamic Adagio Movement of Beethoven's E-flat Quartet, Op. 127," is part of the Strings Archive, which you can access with a paid site subscription.
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