Beethoven Late Quartet, Opus 132, Number 15, in A minor-Budapest String Quartet.

There are some pieces of music that have the reputation of being transcendental. No matter what your religion is, or even if you have no religion at all, these pieces transcend our reality and show us another one. Beethoven’s late string quartets are such pieces. Ludwig van Beethoven’s late string quartets are the following works:

  • Opus 127: String Quartet No. 12 in E♭ major (1825)
  • Opus 130: String Quartet No. 13 in B♭ major (1825)
  • Opus 131: String Quartet No. 14 in C♯ minor (1826)
  • Opus 132: String Quartet No. 15 in A minor (1825)
  • Opus 133: Große Fuge in B♭ major (1826; originally the finale to Op. 130; it also exists in a piano four hands transcription, Op. 134)
  • Opus 135: String Quartet No. 16 in F major (1826)

 

These six works are Beethoven’s last major completed compositions. He was completely deaf when he wrote them. Although dismissed by musicians and audiences of Beethoven’s day, they are now widely considered to be among the greatest musical compositions of all time, and they have inspired many later composers. Igor Stravinsky described the Große Fuge as

An absolutely contemporary piece of music that will be contemporary forever.

Today, I am posting the String Quartet in A minor, opus 132, number 15.  The performance is by the Budapest String Quartet, performed live at the Library of Congress on December 20, 1945.  I should say a few things about these various elements before I go on to give some background.  The opus 132, No. 15 is not of this earth.  It truly transcends everything that you think that you know about the world, especially the third movement.  The Budapest Quartet, began in Budapest, of course, but by the time that this recording took place, the Quartet was made up all of Russians.  They are one of my very favorite quartets.  However, this is a live recording from 1945.  When I first listened to it, the sound was not very good.  So, I fixed it.  You are therefore listening to my remastering of this piece.  If you’d rather listen to a professional sound engineer, then listen to the Julliard, the Emerson, or the Guarneri recordings.  Without an ounce of pride, I think that my remastering of the Budapest is very well done.

I.  Assai sostenuto – Allegro (A minor)

II. Allegro ma non tanto (A major)

III.  Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an der Gottheit, in der Lydischen Tonart. Molto adagio – Andante (Lydian)

IV.  Alla marcia, assai vivace (attacca) (A major)

V.  Allegro appassionato (A minor – A major)

 

Overview

Prince Nikolai Galitzine commissioned the first three quartets (numbers 12, 13 and 15) and in a letter dated November 9, 1822, offered to pay Beethoven “what you think proper” for the three works. Beethoven replied on January 25, 1823 with his price of 50 ducats for each opus. Beethoven composed these quartets in the sequence 12, 15, 13, 14, 16, simultaneously writing quartets 15 and 13.
Beethoven wrote the last quartets in failing health. In April 1825 he was bedridden and remained ill for about a month. The illness-or more precisely, his recovery from it-is remembered for having given rise to the deeply felt slow movement of the Fifteenth Quartet, which Beethoven called “Holy song of thanks (‘Heiliger Dankgesang’) to the divinity, from one made well.”  He went on to complete the quartets now numbered Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Sixteenth. The last work Beethoven completed was the substitute final movement of the Thirteenth Quartet, which replaced the difficult Große Fuge.

Appraisal

These quartets went far beyond the comprehension of musicians and audiences of the time. One musician commented that “we know there is something there, but we do not know what it is.” Composer Louis Spohr called them “indecipherable, uncorrected horrors.”
Opinion has changed considerably from the time of their first reception: these six quartets (counting the Große Fuge) make up Beethoven’s last major, completed compositions and are widely considered to be among the greatest musical compositions of all time. Upon listening to a performance of the Op. 131 quartet, Schubert remarked,

After this, what is left for us to write?

Of the late quartets, Beethoven’s favorite was the Fourteenth Quartet, op. 131 in C♯minor, which he rated as his most perfect single work.

Beethoven isn’t known for including extra-musical detail in his music. Therefore, it stands out dramatically among his work that he titled the third movement “Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit, in der lydischen Tonart.” This translates as, “Song of Thanksgiving to the Deity from a convalescent, in the Lydian mode.” It is an autobiographical musical offering of a prayer of thanks after his illness. With this music, he is expressing the joy and thanks for the gift of life.
The third movement is the emotional center of the piece and is one of the highlights of all music. At more than 15 minutes, it’s also a hefty and demanding movement to pace and perform.

Budapest String Quartet

The Budapest String Quartet was a string quartet in existence from 1917 to 1967. It originally consisted of three Hungarians and a Dutchman; at the end, the quartet consisted of four Russians.

History of the quartet

The Budapest String Quartet was formed in 1917 by four friends, all members of opera orchestras that had ceased playing owing to World War I.  The members were all protégés of Jenő Hubay (violin), a Hungarian pupil of Joseph Joachim and David Popper (cello), a Bohemian. Hubay and Popper had helped to make Budapest a major center for musical education, attracting famous students such as Josef Szigeti. Hubay and Popper had supported Sándor Végh and Feri Roth in the formation of quartets, and were themselves part of an earlier Budapest Quartet, the new quartet being named partly in honour of that. The debut recital of the new Budapest String Quartet (in Hungarian: Budapesti Vonósnégyes), took place in December 1917 in Kolozsvár, then in Hungary, now called Cluj-Napoca, in present-day Romania.

Move to Berlin

In 1921 or 1922, owing to unrest in Budapest, the quartet moved to Berlin. There they developed a large repertoire. The quartet received mixed reviews, however. In 1925 they played in London and signed a recording contract with His Master’s Voice, making recordings at His Master’s Voice Studio B at Hayes and the Queen’s Small Hall.

Josef Roisman – second violin

The man recommended to replace Pogany was Josef Roisman (Joe). Roisman was born on July 25, 1900 in Odessa. He started on the violin at the age of six with Pyotr Stolyarsky, who was also the first teacher of David Oistrakh and Nathan Milstein.

Mischa Schneider – cellist

The new cellist was originally named Mojzesz Sznejder, later rendered in German as ‘Mischa Schneider’. Born in 1904 in Vilna, Russia (now Vilnius, Lithuania), Schneider had a difficult upbringing. The family had little money and his father was a tyrant. Mischa often found himself defending his younger brother Sasha against their father. In 1920, at the age of 16, Mischa left home to study in Leipzig under Julius Klengel, his teacher’s teacher. Fellow students included Emanuel Feuermann, Gregor Piatigorsky and Benar Heifetz.

Roisman becomes the leader and Alexander Schneider the second violinist

Having lost Hauser, the quartet needed a new leader. Introducing an unknown person as leader is a risky step for a quartet. Owing to the established relationships and ‘comfort level’, a transition from second violin to first is safer. For this reason, Roisman was persuaded to make the switch from second to first.

The new second was Mischa Schneider’s younger brother Alexander (Sasha), born Abram Sznejder.  Sasha left Vilna in 1924 and joined his brother in Frankfurt, securing a scholarship to study violin with Adolf Rebner, the principal violin tutor at the Hoch Conservatory. In 1927, Alexander became leader (concertmaster) of an orchestra in Saarbrücken. In 1929 he was appointed leader of the Norddeutscher Rundfunk Orchestra in Hamburg. In 1932, he lost his job as a result of the ongoing Nazi campaign against Jews. It was time to leave Germany and the Budapest vacancy happened at just the right moment.

After Sasha’s arrival, the Quartet’s level of performance improved immediately, and the group began attracting larger audiences. By 1934, Jews had been expelled from all German orchestras but the Quartet, as ‘Hungarian’ visitors, had been spared. However, one night they received threats from a Nazi group. Overnight, they switched headquarters from Berlin to Paris, never to return to Germany. They toured Europe and the U.S. but always lived in inexpensive hotels and ate cheaply.

Last founding member leaves

Ipolyi became an isolated member of the quartet, the only Hungarian among three Russians.  He fled to Sweden but returned to Norway after the war. Ipolyi became a Norwegian citizen, taught a quartet in Bergen and became a professor. Mischa Schneider made sure that Ipolyi received the royalties due him, and he died in 1955.

Boris Kroyt becomes violist

Finding a new violist to replace Ipolyi was urgent. The Australian Broadcast Corporation had engaged the Quartet for a twenty-week tour to start in May 1937 with four performances a week and the option of another ten weeks in New Zealand. They needed the money despite regular engagements in Europe and America. Roisman nearly hired Edgar Ortenberg, whom he had known when they were both children in Odessa and then again in Berlin in 1926, but Ortenberg’s wife wanted him to stick to the violin. Roisman then tried to locate his teenage friend Boris Kroyt in Berlin. Until the Nazis became all-powerful Kroyt had lived well, but the Nazis stopped all Jews from working except in Jewish groups. He had a wife and children to support, and they were all in danger. The Budapest offer came at the ideal moment. He was such a natural player that he could get away without practicing very much. They took time to get used to one another, but eventually attained a very high technical standard.

Alexander Schneider returns

Joe refused to accept another new second violinist but fortunately they managed to persuade Sasha to return. Against their previous rule they allowed him to spend some time working independently because they needed him, and they did not want to take as many engagements as before. As soon as he returned they all felt happier than for many years and the critics were fulsome in their praise.

In the ten years he was away Sasha had been very busy. He rejected offers to lead the Pro Arte and Paganini Quartets. He toured with Ralph Kirkpatrick. He played unaccompanied Bach. He played trios. He studied with Pablo Casals in Prades and persuaded Casals to start festivals in Prades, Puerto Rico, Israel and Marlboro in Vermont.  Jascha Heifetz was once quoted as saying:

One Russian is an anarchist. Two Russians are a chess game. Three Russians are a revolution. Four Russians are the Budapest String Quartet.