Rasoumovsky String Quartets
Opus 59 String Quartets: No 1 in F Major, No 2 in E minor, and No. 3 in C Major
Count Andrey Kirillovich Razumovsky (1752 – 1836) was the son of Kirill Razumovsky, the last Hetman of Zaporizhian Host, kind of a Grand Poobah, of Imperial Russia. Being born to the privileged class in St Petersburg, he developed a refined taste for the exquisite in art, architecture, and thankfully for us, music. In 1792, he was appointed the Tsar’s diplomatic representative to the Habsburg court in Vienna. It was no surprise then that a man of his sensitivities would come to know Beethoven the pianist, improviser, and composer who so intrigued musical Vienna. Many, if not most, musicians’ livelihoods depended on the largesse of wealthy merchants, publishers, but especially the nobility. Curiously and perhaps hypocritically, Beethoven was not above accepting support from these quarters, while at the same time pronouncing to the world that the nobility should be bowing down to artists like his buddy Goethe and himself, rather than the other way around, something he refused to do. However, he would take their money. In 1806 Beethoven published his Opus 59 String Quartets – No. 1 in F Major, No. 2 in E minor, and No. 3 in C Major. These were dedicated to and paid for by the Count. Forever after they have been known as the Rasoumovsky String Quartets. They continue on in the incredibly fecund period we’ve been looking at lately, starting with the second symphony, continuing through the mighty Eroica, and all of the works in last week’s chapter.
These three string quartets are so different from each other. Op. 59 No. 1 is so wonderfully welcoming, but with a feeling of great importance in its opening movement. The next movement seems to be a minor masterpiece created out of the most minimal and simplistic material, while the third is tragically elegiac (one of my favorites in all of Beethoven), and the finale rouses with the inclusion of a Russian, or more accurately Ukrainian, folk song feature, shared by the 2nd quartet. The Count had asked Beethoven to add this feature as part of the commission.
The E minor Quartet 59 No. 2 is much more austere and abstract. In some ways, while incredibly beautiful, it is less approachable for the listener. I must say I believe it is the most difficult to perform. It feels more fragmented and harder to sustain. That could just be me but I think not. I’ve heard murmurings from some great quartet players that they share the thought.
Opus 59 No. 3 opens with a somewhat strange, harmonically vague slow introduction followed by a cheerful, sunny Allegro that shows off the virtuosity of the first violinist especially. Our Count Rasoumovsky had a resident string quartet in his Vienna palace headed by Ignaz Schupannzigh, one of Beethoven’s favorite violinists. He also was one of Beethoven’s teachers of violin. The second movement is a haunting A minor 6/8, followed by a radiant minuet, gentle and sweet with a rather frolicking trio. This movement slitheringly elides into an absolutely spectacular C Major fugue! The faster the better as long as the faster doesn’t ruin the better! On a personal history note, during my last year in graduate school, I was in a string quartet with three other wonderful colleagues whom I love to this day. We worked on this piece, the Op. 59 No. 3, and the Bartok String Quartet No. 4. We entered and won the prestigious Coleman Chamber Music Competition in Los Angeles, California. We repeated the concert when we came back to Indiana University. When we got to the Finale/Fugue, which begins with the viola playing solo unaccompanied, I was so hopped up on adrenaline that I played it so fast that my colleagues had all the blood drain from their faces as they sat there knowing they would have to play it that fast also. William Primrose, the greatest viola player that ever lived, was on my faculty committee and was in attendance. He said he had never heard it that fast in his life. We got through it and we all lived to tell about it.
My favorite recordings of the Beethoven Quartets are by the Guarneri String Quartet. Their complete Beethoven cycle is available for purchase on Apple Music and on other sources I’m sure.
If you go to YouTube you will find links to individual movements. I’m including here a link to the first movement of Opus 59 No. 1. Once you’ve finished listening, look for a link to the second movement in the sidebar, etc. It would be far too cumbersome for me to list all the single movements here.
Listen well and enjoy! These are important pieces to have in your musical quiver.