A Big Surprise in Beethoven

I’ll kick off this blog by giving you a steer to one of the great surprises in classical music. No, not the sudden fortissimo chord that rocks the slow movement of Haydn’s “Surprise” Symphony (surely classical music’s best known surprise). It’s a passage, rather, in Beethoven’s “Harp” String Quartet of 1809. The passage begins at 8:20 in this YouTube clip.

The “Harp” gets a bit lost among Beethoven’s quartets.  It falls chronologically between his three “Razamovsky” quartets of 1806 (as monumental and path-breaking in the quartet genre as his “Eroica” symphony of 1803 was in the symphonic) and the “late” quartets of 1825-6 (in which Beethoven–in fact, not a few would say, the entire art of music–is commonly held to go highest, farthest, deepest…name your dimension). The passage I’ve cited begins the “coda,” or concluding section, of the “Harp’s” first movement.  The first violin’s sudden launching into virtuosic flight is as unexpected and electrifying a musical move as any I know.  Beethoven once grudgingly admitted to some satisfaction with something he’d written by saying it had “less lack of fancy than usual.” Lack of fancy certainly isn’t a problem with this spot in the “Harp!” But the fancy of the first violin’s flight is firmly grounded in Beethoven’s customary iron logic.  The rising pizzicati, passed pluck by pluck around the “ring” of the remaining three instruments, have figured prominently throughout the movement (and in fact give the quartet its “Harp” moniker). And then, at 8:38, in comes (surprise upon surprise) the opening figure of the movement’s main theme, passed in soaring echoes between the second violin and the viola, as all elements build together toward as stirring and exhilarating a climax as any in Beethoven (which is saying something).

Speaking of this climax, there’s a little mystery in it I invite you to solve.  It’s stirringness derives in no small measure from a hymn-like figure introduced by the second violin (at 8:48 in the clip). This figure, like so much in Beethoven, seems deeply “right;” it crowns the movement so satisfyingly… But why? Especially since it’s new to the movement…. And yet it seems completely of a piece with it… In fact, its newness notwithstanding, isn’t there something a little familiar about it?  The truth is that the figure both is and isn’t new to the movement.  It’s anticipated…where? And in a form that differs…how? I won’t end all these posts with a cliff-hanger, but I can’t promise I’ll never stoop to one again…. Answers in next week’s entry.

2 Replies to “A Big Surprise in Beethoven”

    1. Hello. Thanks so much for your comment — I’m delighted to hear that you are enjoying the posts! A new one will appear every Saturday morning (at least that is my intention 🙂 ). I started this blog only recently, and not many are reading it yet; please feel more than free to share with anyone you think might be interested! All best to you, Daniel

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *