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Opus 131: The Everest of String Quartets

Posted by Kinsley Suer | 06 April 2011 | Comments (1)

In Opus, the Lazara String Quartet has been invited to play for the President of the United States. With less than a week to go before the big televised performance, the quartet not only auditions and takes on a brand new member, but decides to perform Beethoven’s notoriously difficult Opus 131. In other words: It’s the big kahuna. The big enchilada. The big….okay, well you get the point. It’s big and bad and complicated and beautiful. Not to mention artistically intimidating. It’s Opus 131. And the Lazara String Quartet decides to perform it, mere days before the actual performance.
 
According to Linda Magee, Executive Director of Chamber Music Northwest, to play Opus 131 a string quartet has to prepare like mountain climbers would prepare to scale Mount Everest. Dense, concentrated, and technically difficult, the piece can take years of work and study to master, and then continue to yield new insights and understanding. The work calls upon everything an excellent string player may have, and maybe even more.
 
Essentially, the Lazara String Quartet has chosen an uphill battle from the get-go. And might even be a little crazy.
 
On that note (pun intended), let’s take an in-depth look at this Opus 131. What is it? Who wrote it? What does it sound like?
 
 
Written by Ludwig van Beethoven, the Opus 131 quartet is the pinnacle of his creative output; it was the next to last piece he wrote before he died, and it is said to have been his favorite quartet. His final six string quartets were strikingly different from his earlier quarters, inhabiting a different world of art and experience. It’s tempting to ascribe this to the hardships, pain and grief that Beethoven had experienced throughout his life, from the loss of his hearing, a lengthy and custody battle for his nephew, his unrequited loves, illnesses, and disillusion with political leadership. 
 
Beethoven found ways to express ideas – musically – that no other composer before him had, and broke out of the usual mold to achieve that. The Opus 131 quartet is an astonishingly bold piece of musical architecture, but it is almost schizoid and unpredictable in its format. Its seven movements are played without pause, in lengths ranging from 44 seconds to over 13 minutes, with 31 tempo changes and six distinct main key areas. The complete work is a densely-packed, highly economical 35-36 minutes, full of great contrasts in mood and sound.
 
 
In 1870, on the one hundredth anniversary of Beethoven’s birth, the German composer Richard Wagner wrote an essay commemorating the event. He had this to say about Opus 131:

“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.”
 
J.W.N. Sullivan, the author of the 1927 book Beethoven: His Spiritual Development, called Opus 131 “the most superhuman piece of music that Beethoven ever wrote. It is the completely unfaltering rendering into music of what we can only call the mystic vision. It has that serenity which, as Wagner said, passes beyond beauty and makes us aware of a state of consciousness surpassing our own.”
 
I think it’s safe to assume that these two were pretty big fans.
 
                                                       One of Beethoven's original sketches of Opus 131
 
So how does a quartet learn to play Opus 131?
 
First, each quartet member must master his or her own part, which has greater technical challenges than Beethoven’s other earlier quartets. In addition, the group must be sure to play together with utter precision, and be able to switch tempos exactly together.  The four players must match not only tempos, dynamics and intensity, but also the subtle nuances of inflection, expression, and phrasing. The quartet must learn to switch between the seven movements, without pause.
 
The opening movement is intense, poignant and profoundly expressive, written for the four instruments to intertwine their independent themes exquisitely, sometimes quieting down to just one or two delicate melodies. The feeling is melancholy but calm, and very still – so introverted that at times it feels almost too intimate to bear.
 
 
The following movement brings a brighter mood; some emotional respite as well as structural contrast. Moving on, the third movement is very short, often about 45 seconds in length. It serves as a bridge to the heart of the quartet.
 
 
The expansive fourth movement is a set of six variations that serves as the centerpiece of the quartet. This movement is one-third the length of the complete work. The variations are wonderfully diverse and become increasingly more complex, until at the end the music evolves curiously into an elaborate conclusion, with a rolling rhythmic figure in the cello, anchoring while the other instruments execute trills and wide jumps in register.
 
 
After almost a full stop, the fifth movement jumps in with a crazy, wild and fast-moving composition. The movement is known for its rumbling cello punctuated with playful pizzicatos, which are played by plucking rather than bowing the strings. Often compared to the sound of angry mosquitoes, this movement is meant to be humorous – but also somewhat bitter and manic.
 
 
A short sixth movement serves as another transition – this one elegiac and introspective, as if in preparation for the stormy finale. The final movement is a large-scale, densely-packed sonata that conveys high drama and defiance, with a dotted rhythmical figure that suggests a ride to somewhere fairly terrifying. The overall feel is of fierce grandeur and struggle. Abruptly in the final bars, the key changes, but this is far from a triumphant conclusion. The key change has come too late and ends too quickly to bring with it any sense of victory or spiritual celebration.
 

 Special thanks to Linda Magee, Executive Director of Chamber Music Northwest, for contributing to this blog post!
Comments (1)

Thank you for a blog post that delves into the complexities of the music so integral to OPUS, deepening our understanding of the play. The musical selections are mesmerizing. I especially appreciate the collaboration between the classical music community and Portland Center Stage to bring this important work to Portland audiences. Long live the arts!

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