String Quartet No. 14 (Beethoven)
The String Quartet No. 14 in C♯ minor, Op. 131, was completed by Ludwig van Beethoven in 1826. (The number traditionally assigned to it is based on the order of its publication; it is actually his fifteenth quartet by order of composition.) About 40 minutes in length, it consists of seven movements played without a break, as follows:
- Adagio ma non troppo e molto espressivo
- Allegro molto vivace
- Allegro moderato – Adagio
- Andante ma non troppo e molto cantabile – Più mosso – Andante moderato e lusinghiero – Adagio – Allegretto – Adagio, ma non troppo e semplice – Allegretto
- Adagio quasi un poco andante
This work is dedicated to Baron Joseph von Stutterheim, as a gesture of gratitude for taking his nephew, Karl, into the army after a failed suicide attempt. It was Beethoven's favourite of the late quartets; he is quoted as remarking to a friend that he would find "a new manner of part-writing and, thank God, less lack of imagination than before". It is the last-composed of a trio of great works, written in the order 132, 130 with the Große Fuge ending, 131. It is said that upon listening to a performance of this quartet, Schubert remarked, "After this, what is left for us to write?" Robert Schumann said that this quartet and Op. 127 had a "...grandeur [...] which no words can express. They seem to me to stand...on the extreme boundary of all that has hitherto been attained by human art and imagination."
The Op. 131 quartet has been described as a monumental feat of integration. While Beethoven composed the quartet in six distinct key areas, the work begins in C♯ minor and ends in C♯ major. The Finale directly quotes the opening fugue theme in the first movement in its second thematic area. This type of cyclical composition was avant-garde for a work of that period. Joseph Kerman wrote: "blatant functional reference to the theme of another movement: this never happens".
Op. 131 is often grouped with Opp. 132 and 130. There is motivic sharing among the three works. In particular, the "motto" fugue of the leading tone rising to the tonic before moving to the minor sixth and then dropping down to the dominant is an important figure shared by these works. This intervallic material is descendent from Bach, and has been used by other notable composers, including Haydn and Mozart.
This quartet is one of Beethoven's most elusive works musically. The topic has been written about extensively from very early after its creation, from Karl Holz, the second violinist of the Schuppanzigh Quartet, to Richard Wagner, to contemporary musicologists today. One popular topic is a possible religious/spiritual genesis for this work, supported by similarities to the Missa Solemnis. In the first movement of Op. 131, the continually flowing texture resembles the Benedictus and the Dona Nobis Pacem from the earlier work. In addition, whether purposefully or not, Beethoven quotes a motivic figure from Missa Solemnis in the 2nd movement of the quartet.
The piece was featured in the plot of the 2012 film A Late Quartet.
Summary of movements
1. Adagio ma non troppo e molto espressivo (121 measures, cut time, about 7 minutes in length)
A fugue based on the following subject:
2. Allegro molto vivace (198 measures, 6/8 meter, about 3 minutes in length)
3. Allegro moderato – Adagio (11 measures, common time, about 45 seconds in length)
4. Andante ma non troppo e molto cantabile – Più mosso – Andante moderato e lusinghiero – Adagio – Allegretto – Adagio, ma non troppo e semplice – Allegretto (286 measures counting the repeats, 2/4 meter, about 14 minutes in length)
This movement is the apotheosis of the 'Grand Variation' form from Beethoven's late period.
5. Presto (545 measures counting the repeats, cut time, about 5 and a half minutes in length)
In E major, this is a brilliant Scherzo (though in duple rather than triple time), based on the following simple idea:
6. Adagio quasi un poco andante (28 measures, 3/4 meter, about 2 minutes in length)
7. Allegro (388 measures, cut time, about 6 and a half minutes in length)
The finale is in sonata form and returns to the home key of C♯ minor. The first subject has two main ideas:
The violent rhythm in this subject is contrasted with the soaring, lyrical second theme:
- Steinberg, Michael (1994). Robert Winter, Robert Martin, ed. The Beethoven Quartet Companion. University of California Press. p. 264. ISBN 0-520-08211-7.
- Woolfe, Zachary (8 August 2011). "At Mozart Festival, Dvorak and Others Shine". The New York Times. Retrieved 4 May 2013.
- Robert Alexander Schumann, F.R. Ritter tr. ed. (1877). Music and musicians, essays and criticisms. Oxford University Press.; (p. 391)
- Joseph Kerman (2002). Beethoven's Opus 131 and the Uncanny. 19th Century Music.; (pp. 155-164)
- Berger, Melvin (2001). Guide to Chamber Music, p. 67, Mineola, NY: Dover Publications. ISBN 0-486-41879-0
- String Quartet No. 14: Scores at the International Music Score Library Project
- Performance by the Orion String Quartet from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in MP3 format
- PDF and Finale files of the score of the quartet can be downloaded here.
- An account of the relation among Beethoven, his nephew Carl, and the dedicatee Joseph von Stutterheim Further on the circumstances behind the dedication of this quartet.
-  Robert Winter's commentary on the quartet as it is played, telescoped down to 17 minutes.