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  • Writer's pictureMayda Narvey

Complete History of Music: Lesson 6

Hello dear friends and fellow music lovers.  When I last saw you we had been listening to Beethoven and thinking about melody and harmony in musical composition. I had been reflecting on the influence of the improved technology of musical instruments on composers' thinking and vice versa.  Equally, as instruments became more versatile and complex and as composers demanded more of their performers, those very performers rose to the occasion.  And with the astonishing talent of the young Mozart, the notion of the prodigy and of dazzling instrumental acrobatics, began to capture the public imagination.  Think Roger Bannister and the first sub-4 minute mile.  As soon as one person can do it, everyone else wants to!

Today's lesson is perhaps a little bit sad because we are heading towards the end of Beethoven's difficult and heroic life and that of his compatriot, Schubert, who died the following year at the tragically young age of 31.

What is a concerto and how did Beethoven handle the form?

 But before thinking on these dark matters, I want to introduce you to a musical genre called the concerto which had by now developed into its modern-day format of a three movement work for solo instrument with orchestral accompaniment. A concerto is a vehicle in which the soloist gets to show off! Beethoven wrote 5 concerti for piano but only one for violin which he dedicated to Franz Clement, a leading violinist of his day. This violin concerto, written in 1806, 3 years after the Eroica Symphony that you listened to last week, both hugely stretches the technique of the soloist and involves the orchestra as an equal partner. Listen to the stunning Janine Jansen play the first movement: Did you hear the strange and almost foreboding four beats of the timpani (large tuned drum) that begins the movement?  Listen to see if you hear the idea of those 4 repeated sounds used elsewhere in different ways and a different times. Near the end of the movement there is an opportunity for a cadenza 22:38 (improvised and flashy solo using themes from the movement which decorates a cadence... forgive all these unfamiliar words but a cadence in music is comprised of two chords that suggest punctuation to our ears.  The chords that accompany 'Amen' are an example of a plagal cadence).  After the cadenza you may find yourself very beguiled by the lonely and wistful return of the first theme by the violin - 21:44. How did Joseph Haydn influence Beethoven and what is a string quartet?

Throughout his life Beethoven was also developing another genre which he had learnt from Papa Haydn during his first years in Vienna.  Haydn,  whom we mentioned last week (Haydn definitely deserves much more than a mention but needs must) had secured himself quite a plum job as Musical Director for Prince Nikolaus Esterházy at his Court not far from Vienna.  But Nikolaus, like Frederick who employed CPE Bach was both musical himself and somewhat of a musical tyrant.  He had taught himself to play a strange bass instrument called the baryton which had 6 or 7 gut strings and a set of wire strings that vibrated sympathetically. (You can take a look and listen to the baryton in this recording: ) Nikolaus demanded repertoire for his Baryton and poor Haydn complied with over 200 pieces for the instrument.  He further flattered his employer by giving the baryton part all the interest.  Which brings me to this new mystery genre I mentioned a while back... the string quartet.  Haydn began writing music for two violins, viola and cello and inspired by his baryton writing he gave the cello,  the lowest instrument interesting stuff to play rather than just relegating it to being an accompanist. Although Beethoven wasn't very impressed with his lessons with Haydn, he pretty quickly produced  6  String Quartets, Op. 18 (Op. or Opus just means 'work' and is a cataloguing system).  Listen to the third movement of the Op 18 No 3 Quartet: Did you find it quite light, playful, and even elegant in the style of Mozart (Mozart had such a distinct style that he spawned his very own adjective - 'Mozartian')?  This early writing of Beethoven definitely has echoes of his mentors. And Beethoven always liked to throw amusing rhythmical curve balls.  But in any case, by this time, the conventional third movement of a quartet (as well as a symphony and a sonata) was a Scherzo, from the Italian for 'joke' (this third movement convention had morphed from an earlier format that involved a remnant from the Baroque, a dance in triple time called a Minuet). Beethoven wrote string quartets throughout his life: his early set of 6, 5 rich and fertile works from his middle period and 5 profound late quartets. So now comes the sad part.  It really was a very tough life.  His deafness had cut him off from musical performance and from the possibility of marriage.  And when he did reach out to another living, breathing human being, his nephew Karl, the ungrateful and even malicious young man treated him despicably.  In 1826, the year before his death, Beethoven wrote a work for string quartet in not 4 but 6 movements.  The 5th movement, he entitled 'Cavatina. Adagio motto espressivo.'  A cavatina is a simple air or song but this movement (the Italian indication is for it to be played very slowly with great expression) apparently was so close to Beethoven's heart that he wept while he wrote it.

Listen to the great British quartet, the Lindsay, playing it with huge tenderness: In the autumn of the same year he completed Op. 135.  It was his last major work (although he did go on to write an alternate last movement for Op 130).  I find it incredibly moving to read his inscription to the 4th movement: He entitles the movement, Der schwer gefasste Entschluss (The Difficult Decision) He then goes on to write 'Muss es sein' (Must it be?) over the slow introduction and answers his own question with 'Es muss sein!' (It must be) at the beginning of the fast section.  So it seems that in the end, he accepted his fate.  The music that asks the question is heavy with a sense of doom.  But  the answer seems almost joyous.

Listen to the Alban Berg Quartet the last movement which begins at 17:41. But you may wish to listen to the whole quartet! Who was Franz Schubert?

And now to Schubert. As I said, Schubert was only 31 when he died the year after Beethoven in 1828, but in that incredibly short life he managed to produce nearly 600 Lieder (German art songs with piano accompaniment) as well as symphonies, sonatas and chamber music (music for a small ensemble such as a quartet not requiring a conductor). I think that as we've been discussing the importance of melody in the late 18th century musical world, it's fitting to end with the work of Schubert who was the ultimate master of melody. Schubert was a party-animal and often invited friends for musical get-togethers which came to be known as Schubertiads.  He seemed to especially like the company of poets and often used their work as the lyrics for his lieder. One poet that he admired but probably never met was Matthias Claudias.  In 1817, two years after Claudius's death, Schubert set his poem 'Der Tod und das Mädchen (Death and the Maiden), a Gothic tale in which Death lures a beautiful young maiden, telling her she will 'sleep softly in (his) arms'. If you listen to the song you may notice the regret in the piano introduction followed by the suggestion of fear and then the doom-filled voice of Death.  It really is chilling: Seven years later, and only 4 years before his own death Schubert became seriously ill and somehow foretold his death with a reworking of the song in the form of a string quartet also called Death and the Maiden (it is strange how many composers seem to have this morbid knack.  You may have heard of Mozart writing his own Requiem.  Schoenberg who we will come to in Lesson 10, actually foretold the exact day and hour of his death!).  The Lied that you listened to becomes the slow movement of this stunningly beautiful quartet. Listen to how Schubert uses the song as a springboard for so many melodic ideas, each one more ravishing than the last. Since it is one of my favourite pieces, I thought I would leave you listening to it! Enjoy.

Next week we'll be looking at three composers of the Romantic era - Chopin, Schumann and Mendelssohn. Look forward to seeing you then.

Musical terms:



String Quartet




Lied and Lieder


Joseph Haydn - 1732-1809

Ludwig van Beethoven 1770-1827

Franz Schubert 1798 - 1828

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