“We now join our regularly scheduled program, already in progress.”
That’s the message that could accompany the opening of Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 9 in C Major. An F-sharp diminished chord emerges out of thin air at the beginning of this piece. This is the last chord we would expect to hear at this point. It sounds like the stern conclusion of an earlier, unheard musical statement. The strange, harmonically ambiguous introduction which follows is even more shocking. As each pitch unfolds into the next, we get a sense of music which is searching in the dark for a way forward. Something similar happens in the opening of Mozart’s “Dissonance” Quartet, but Beethoven’s opening suggests something darker and more hopelessly lost- until we turn a sudden corner into the Allegro vivace exposition.
Completed in 1806, just two years after the Eroica Symphony, this is the last of the three Op. 59 “Razumovsky” Quartets, commissioned by Andrey Razumovsky, the Russian ambassador to Vienna. (Some listeners hear a bleak Siberian landscape in the second movement). With these “middle period” quartets, Beethoven ventures into a bold, heroic, almost symphonic style of writing.
Listening to Beethoven’s middle and late quartets, I often come away with the rare sense that this music is so powerful and revelatory that it somehow feels eternally “modern.” We aren’t aware of the classical style or vocabulary of early 1800s Vienna. Instead, we hear music which foreshadows later sounds from Mendelssohn’s Octet to Mahler’s symphonies. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the fugal final movement which seems to be a unique blend of ferocity and giddy insanity.
The Orion String Quartet’s spectacular performance at the 2008 Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival captures all of the contradictory craziness of this music: