Painting with a hillside view of Bonn around the year 1790. Artist unknown
Piano Quartet in E flat major WoO 36/1 for piano, violin, viola and cello (1785, Beethoven aged 14)
Dedication Thought to be Elector Maximilian Friedrich
Background and Critical Reception
It is curious to note that this group of three works from 1785 mark Beethoven’s only encounter with the form of the Piano Quartet – piano, violin, viola and cello – and that he would not write any more original works for the combination in his career.
Yet, as we outlined in the C major work heard yesterday, they are important works in the young composer’s development. The E flat major work is the most adventurous, and the one to which Beethoven biographer Jan Swafford devotes most time. “In the massive Adagio assai that begins the Piano Quartet in E flat major, listeners then and later could only be stunned at the subtlety and depth of feeling, call it a certain wistful pathos, coming from a composer of age fourteen”, he writes. “This does not sound like learned rhetoric, like everything he had written before; it sounds like music from the heart. What had he experienced to arrive at such an outpouring? All that can be certain is that he had experienced his model, Mozart’s Violin Sonata in G major, K379 (which you can compare below)
Swafford writes of how “the gestures and the low, close harmonies are Mozart’s, and so is the Mozart tone: languid, seemingly suspended between conflicting emotions, peculiarly shadowed for the major mode.” He then notes how Beethoven ‘pushes every envelope’ – with directions for volume that are fortissimo rather than forte, with harmonic writing that moves to the outlandish key of E flat minor, unheard of in his day, and piano writing notable for its difficulty.
This is indeed remarkably profound music for a fourteen-year old to be writing. To start with a slow movement of such depth of feeling is striking to the listener with its hushed, reverent string chords and expansive rhetoric from the piano. The strings grow into the movement, making some rather beautiful harmonies together.
The second movement is even more remarkable. Not only does Beethoven use a key which was never heard in public – E flat minor – he does so with grit and determination, under the marking Allegro con spirito. The piano drives forward relentlessly, and the strings hang onto its coat tails, as though the composer wants to get somewhere quickly. The obdurate nature of the music continues the whole way through, barely letting up.
After such strife, the third movement eases off the Sturm and drang a little, for a dance-inflected tune that stays lightly on its feet. Even this turns out to be a little deceptive, however, as it is a theme and six variations that bring the strings in from the cold. Beethoven gives the second variation to a sweet triple-time variation led by the violin, while the third is unusually handed to the viola – Beethoven’s ‘second’ instrument. The fifth plunges into the minor key, with stormy reminiscences of the second movement, but then the violin takes control of a march-like finale before the piece ends rather suddenly.
Recordings used and Spotify links
Christoph Eschenbach (piano), Members of the Amadeus Quartet (Deutsche Grammophon) – tracks 1 to 3:
Anthony Goldstone (piano), Cummings String Trio (Meridian) – tracks 4 to 6:
New Zealand Piano Quartet (Naxos) – tracks 4 to 6:
The Amadeus Quartet and Christoph Eschenbach bring all the drama to the second movement, which is driven and just the right side of aggressive. Their variations might be a bit too sweetly flavoured for some, but they never lack in character.
Both the other versions are very good, too – Anthony Goldstone and the Cummings String Trio not quite as darkly shaded but still giving a passionate account, while the New Zealand Piano Quartet are particularly good in the theme and variations, with which they spend more time.
You can chart the Arcana Beethoven playlist as it grows, with one recommended version of each piece we listen to. Catch up here!
Also written in 1785 Haydn Symphonies: nos. 83 in G minor ‘La poule’ & no.85 in B flat major ‘La Reine’
Next up Piano Quartet in D major WoO 36/2