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Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827) String Quartet No. 11 in F minor, Op. 95, ‘Serioso’

Herbert Howells - Fantasy String Quartet, Op. 25

Interval

Robert Schumann - Piano Quintet in E Flat Major, Op. 44

Time

18 Sep, 19:30

About The Event

The string quartet in F minor, Op. 95 is the shortest and most enigmatic of Beethoven’s quartets. It is basically an experimental piece in which he tries out techniques that he would draw on later, notably in the ‘late’ string quartets; shorter developments, uses of silences, metric ambiguity, sudden unrelated outbursts and much more tonal freedom. The quartet medium had become his laboratory and here taken to an extreme. It was not a commissioned  work (in 1809 he had been given a salary by a consortium of local aristocrats) but welled up from his deeper consciousness; a harbinger of what was to come 14 years later. It is indeed serious; hard-bitten, with a rough humour to it, terse and with flashes of intense tenderness. Mendelssohn said it was the most characteristic thing Beethoven ever wrote.

 

Beethoven kept the piece under wraps for four years fearing that it would be misunderstood. It was Beethoven himself who labelled the quartet ‘Serioso’. In May 1814 he allowed it to be performed in Vienna by the Schupanzigh Quartet and eventually in 1816 it was published as his Op. 95. Beethoven wrote to Sir George Smart, an influential English musician/conductor and concert promoter saying,  “…the quartet is written for a small circle of connoisseurs and is never to be performed in public.” 

In the F minor string quartet we find Beethoven touching base with the cosmos - what he called ‘the firmament’ - with music that is light years ahead of its time. It shows that his mind was racing ahead and although often described as the last of his middle period quartets in reality is more connected to the ‘late’ quartets, nearly fifteen years ahead. 

It goes without saying in the city containing York Minster that Herbert Howells (1892-1983) is well known as a definitive sound of English Cathedral music. His early chamber music is less known and is infused with an English pastoral palette, especially redolent of his native Gloucestershire. The Fantasy String Quartet is in one movement – a beautifully crafted, free-spirited outpouring, rooted in the English folksong tradition, although the tune is the composer’s.

 

In the Spring of 1842, brooding and alone in Leipzig having left Clara on a concert tour – she was the most famous pianist of the day – Robert Schumann passed the time by a close study of the string quartets and trios of Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven. On Clara’s return and with her inspiration his creative voice suddenly erupted in what has become known as his ‘chamber music year’, which included three string quartets but also the idea of adding single voice instruments to a string quartet (oboe, clarinet, horn). In October he wrote out at top speed the Piano Quintet for Clara. It left him emotionally and physically drained but as she said the piece is, “…full of strength and freshness.” Schumann thus invented the idea of the piano quintet which became the model and inspiration for Brahms, Dvorák, Fauré, César Franck among others and remains one of the greatest pieces of chamber music ever written; as Steven Isserlis writes, “miracle after miracle”.

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