BEETHOVEN Ludwig van, String Quartet in F minor Op.95 Serioso

Allegro con brio
Allegretto ma non troppo, attacca subito
Allegro assai vivace ma serioso. Più allegro
Larghetto espressivo. Allegretto agitato. Allegro

‘The Quartet is written for a small circle of connoisseurs and is never to be performed in public.’ Thus wrote Beethoven to Sir George Smart in October 1816. The kind of public concerts he had in mind – mixed programmes of vocal and instrumental music – would indeed make an odd setting for a work of such concentrated intensity. Composed in 1810 and revised for publication in 1815, Beethoven dedicated it to his friend, Nikolaus Zmeskall von Domanovetz, a talented amateur cellist who worked as Hungarian Court Secretary in Vienna.

One of Beethoven’s shortest and most tautly argued quartets, it was the composer himself who called it Quartetto serioso on the autograph manuscript. The Beethoven expert William Kinderman sums up its character as ‘dark, introspective, and vehement’, and it’s no surprise that Beethoven takes a similarly pithy approach to form: a much-shortened recapitulation in the first movement, a slow movement that eschews lyricism in favour of a chromatic fugal section, and a prickly Scherzo (more of an anti-Scherzo really, since it is not only completely lacking in any kind of humour, but is even marked ‘serioso’). The finale sustains this tension and agitation until the last moment – then something extraordinary happens: the music takes a sudden turn to F major, and there’s a dash to the finish. The American composer Randall Thompson commented that ‘no bottle of champagne was ever uncorked at a better time.’

© Nigel Simeone


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