Beethoven's opus 131

Analysis, presentations workshops and concert introduction

- by Nils Henrik Asheim


Analysis, presentations workshops and concert introduction 

During the Reflective Musician project, I presented Ludwig van Beethoven's String quartet in c# minor, opus 131, over a sequence of events.

The aim was to apply an analytical approach as a base for a dialogue on interpretation with a string quartet. 

The events were scheduled as following:

- 20.11 2014 Seminar on "Late Style" 

- 5.2.2015 Seminar Beethoven-Janacek quartets (masterforum strings)

- 13.4.2015 Open rehearsal Vertavo Quartet (in collaboration with ECMA)

- 15.4.2015 Concert introduction to Vertavo Quartet's concert


The Analysis

as presented on 20.11 2014 Seminar on "Late Style" 

It is worth noting that this piece starts with a fugue. A more common placement for a fugue in a classical piece would be at the culmination or apotheosis. The character of the fugue then would correspond to this. But, the opening fugue of Opus 131 is not a clarifying one, but one filled with complexity. 

Looking at the subject of the fugue of Opus 131, the link to J.S.Bach seems obvious. 

The initial four-note figure of the subject is a key to the tonal scheme both of the first movement and of the whole piece. It is well worth looking at the patterns of intervallic tension inherent in the figure. The drop down to A is characteristic. A different feature, the smooth S-shape, is found in several other occurences in the piece. 

The four parts evolve in a unified way, without the typical countersubject with complementary rhythm or character. Maybe this is what Beethoven referred to when he wrote to a friend about "a new manner of part-writing". 

The theme of the fugue is a key to the tonal centra of this movement, and to the basic tonal scheme of the whole quartet. This tonal scheme implies a set of tensions inherent in the whole quartet, already explored in the fugue. 

A note on the flexibility of Beethovens fugal writing: By comparing a transcript of a midi-file of this fugue and Bach's d# minor fugue from "das Wohltemperierte Klavier", we may get a kind of intuitive, visual impression of the relative freedom of Beethoven's fugue parts, compared to the stricter Bach parts. Note how Beethoven's four parts sometimes move collectively in the same direction - as if the global shape of the music and the direction in which it moves, expands or retracts is of a new importance.

We already mentioned the fugue subject as a key to the tonal scheme of the piece. Here is an attempt to visualize this, showing the first bars of all seven movements. The boldness of the tonal scheme is best showed by the transition between movement I and II. Movement I ends on a heavily strengthened and repeatedly emphasized C#, which all of a sudden mutates to a soft, light D opening movement II. 

Movement II

The subject of movement II is fluid and light.  It is treated through a 6/8 flow of changing directions and different degrees of clarity, a process which we chose to compare with the filters and techniques used in video editing software. In order to describe intuitively the way Beethoven operates with time on this subject we use terms like fast forward - pause - rewind - zooming in and out - changing angles - blurring etc.  This is a very subjective choice of terminology, but might be suited to separate one's view of the material from the techniques. 

Movement III

This is a good place to launch the notion of "Narrative design". This term applies to the quartet as a whole and is used to describe how its sequence of movements differ from the ordinary 4-movement scheme. The difference resides both in the number of movements, their relative length, the fact that none of them has a proper ending but are instead linked to the next one with a transition.  

The word "Narrative" is appropriate because we can identify tools and techniques that correspond to those we know from storytelling (There is however not question of any specific narrative). In movement III we can recognize features from opera and vocal music, as f.ex. the recitative. 

Movement IV

This is regarded as the core movement of the quartet, a view which is supported both by its placement in the middle, its complexity and its length and "completeness". 

The term "A game of styles" refers to Th.Adorno. One could also say: a game of masks. A very basic, classical harmonic scheme (mainly I and V functions) is the base of a set of variations. The variations play on different social games between the musicians. We think of humour, masks, surprise and cheating. Sincerity and warmth on one hand, coolness and formality on the other hand.  

The variations are launched with definite musical styles but develop in a non-linear way.  The first variations seem to introduce quite straightforward ideas, just to have them attacked gradually by ornamentation and more and more elaborate subdivisions, even into an absurd degree of density. 

The "Adagio" movement is a turning point. It introduces an unstable character and a misty atmosphere. From this "zero point", we get different proposals on how to get out in the light - trying new garments and positions. 

Finally, in the Coda, the writing becomes increasingly fragmented. The fact that Beethoven went through 600 pages of sketches for this work, comes to mind. 

Movement V

This movement carries a strong sense of forward motion through its folk-music-like drive and rawness. Opposed to this, there is s sense of pointing forward & backward in time. This is achieved through the abrupt shifts of tonal centra, and the dissolving of the music into the looping of small motivic cells.

Movement VI

Once again, like movement III, a reminescence of vocal music. 

Movement VII

Finally, the last movement brings back the muscular, dramatic character well known from earlier periods of Beethoven's work. The writing is physical, hammering.  The ring is closed - the pitches from the opening subject of the fugue are back, tossed around in a theme of a completely opposite character. At the end of the movement we can clearly hear the expressive gestures of the fugue theme - in a transfigured version. 

The dialogue with the Vertavo String Quartet 

The dialogue took part over two events. 

5.2.2015 Seminar: 

Most of the above described analysis was presented to the quartet. In parallel, the quartet played the respective examples live on stage. The main emphasis was put on movements I and IV. 

Based on each example, Nils Henrik Asheim and the quartet had a conversation on the special challenges of performing the piece. The quartet also repeated some of the passages in response to questions.

The learnings from this seance were used as a base for a presentation at the next event:

13.4.2015 Open rehearsal (in collaboration with ECMA)

Basically the same sequence of examples was used. Dialogue featured questions on the ensemble work, including both technical and stylistical matters. At the end, there were a few questions from the audience about the quartet's interpretative approach. The Vertavo quartet pointed out in their answers that they have a more practical than theoretical way of working.  

The quartet seemed to enjoy the process and stated afterwards that they learned a great deal from it.  

This video excerpt from the two sessions includes a few minutes of performance dialogue on movement I and movement IV.

Final event: 

- 15.4.2015 Concert in Universitetets Aula, Oslo. 

Performance of Beethoven's opus 131 with introduction on stage by Nils Henrik Asheim and musicians.

The concert introduction can be seen in this video:

The concert itself can be seen here: