Movement 1: Assai sostenuto – Allegro
Movement 2: Allegro ma non tanto
Movement 3: Heilige Dankgesang eines Genesenden an die Gottheit, in der lydischen Tonart: Molto adagio – Neue kraft fühlend: Andante
Movement 4: Alla marcia, assai vivace – Più allegro
Movement 5: Allegro appassionato – Presto
The whole Quartet emerges from the first four notes of the cello — a chromatic phrase that is behind much of Op 131 too, and also Op 130. It originates in the early C minor String Trio, Op 9 No 3, and is one of many indications of the absolute continuity in the vast development of Beethoven's life's work. The first movement, by passing through two recapitulations before entering a coda, gives the impression of dark circling. This sense is confirmed by the persistent figuration of the second movement, but there the tightness of its thematic economy (parsimony almost) is offset by a freely expanding, ethereally folk-like Trio. Beethoven at the end of his life was still able to offer simple nursery-rhyme melodies, invested with mysterious sublimity without compromising their naivety.
The great 'Molto adagio' is one of the supreme utterances in music. The old church modes had always interested him but became a positive force in his later work — we find them in the Mass in D and the Ninth Symphony. But here the phenomenon is not only musically more explicit — it is named, and consciously aimed at producing the effect of remote, still contemplation. All the more amazing, then, is the D major section ('feeling new strength') with its keen F sharp and C sharp after the naturals of the Lydian music and its 'normal' reliance on classical tonic and dominant. The Lydian part is based on a chorale, or perhaps chant, wonderfully and increasingly elaborated ('illuminated' in the old monastic sense) at each return after the D major. The Lydian mode from F to F, without sharps or flats, must to classical ears seem at times to gravitate in the direction of C major, and Beethoven takes full advantage of this ambiguity, impossible in the days when the modes had no connotations other than their own. At length a great climax of contemplative intensity is achieved from which the music floats away into space.
A deep shock is administered by the little A major march that follows without transition — down to earth with a vengeance. This is succeeded by recitatives that recall the Ninth Symphony, for which they were originally intended. Indeed, the final heartbreakingly beautiful Rondo of this Quartet was at first sketched as an instrumental finale for the Symphony, presumably at one stage envisaged by the composer as ending far from joyfully. Here pain is never far off, but the defeat of despair by the effortful brightness of the A major coda seems to recall some of Mozart's last-minute transformations of minor into major, now informed with a new kind of wild intensity, conveyed with high originality by switching the registers of viola and cello.
from notes by Robert Simpson © 1991