String Quartet No. 15 in A minor
Ludwig van Beethoven
Like Haydn’s Op. 33, three of Beethoven’s late quartets are “Russian,” in that they were commissioned by a Russian noble. Op. 132 was the second of these to be composed, though the third was published before it and hence bears Op. 130. (Op. 131 is another quartet, which Beethoven worked on at roughly the same time, without a specific commission.) But Op. 132 pushes far beyond the bounds of Haydn’s world, in both form and expression.
Beethoven opens with a large movement that is a world unto itself, expanding the thematic contrasts and tonal hierarchies of the traditional “sonata” form in all directions, including a slow introduction that links it to Op. 131 and the Grosse Fuge.
The second movement is a scherzo in all but name, though uncommonly wistful in the framing portions and the humor of its middle section otherworldly in its odd textures.
At the center of this completely idiosyncratic creation is one of the most famous and deeply personal movements in all of the quartet literature. Beethoven fell seriously ill while he was working on this quartet in the spring of 1825. He inscribed his slow movement with the words, “Hymn of Thanksgiving to the Divinity from a convalescent, in the Lydian mode.” The Lydian mode is one of the old church modes of Gregorian chant, one that sounds almost like a major scale, but off just enough to impart an antique air to Beethoven’s sublime chorale. Then a vigorously punctuated section marked “Feeling new strength” upends the reverential reverie, and alternates with it until the hymn tune returns at the end with new accompaniment, marked “with the most intimate feeling.”
Beethoven brings us down to earth quickly with a brief, rowdy march, which could be heard as a second scherzo, or as an introduction to the finale, to which the march is linked by a bit of instrumental recitative. The imposing finale itself is quick and passionate, more song than dance but much at play with rhythm and meter.