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String Quartet No. 15 (Beethoven)

String Quartet No. 15 (Beethoven)

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The Quartet in A minor, Op.
Opus number
An Opus number , pl. opera and opuses, abbreviated, sing. Op. and pl. Opp. refers to a number generally assigned by composers to an individual composition or set of compositions on publication, to help identify their works...

 132, by Ludwig van Beethoven
Ludwig van Beethoven
Ludwig van Beethoven was a German composer and pianist. A crucial figure in the transition between the Classical and Romantic eras in Western art music, he remains one of the most famous and influential composers of all time.Born in Bonn, then the capital of the Electorate of Cologne and part of...

, was written in 1825, given its public premiere on November 6 of that year by the Schuppanzigh Quartet
Ignaz Schuppanzigh
Ignaz Schuppanzigh November 20, 1776 – March 2, 1830, was a violinist, friend and teacher of Beethoven, and leader of Count Razumovsky's private string quartet. Schuppanzigh and his quartet premiered many of Beethoven's string quartets, and in particular, the late string quartets. The Razumovsky...

 and was dedicated to Count Nicolai Galitzin
For Orthodox clergyman and theologian, see Alexander Golitzin.The Galitzines are one of the largest and noblest princely houses of Russia. Since the extinction of the Korecki family in the 17th century, the Golitsyns have claimed dynastic seniority in the House of Gediminas...

, as were Opp. 127 and 130. The number traditionally assigned to it is based on the order of its publication; it is actually the thirteenth quartet in order of composition.


The five movements of the quartet are:
  1. Assai sostenuto
    In music, sostenuto is a term from Italian which means "sustained." It occasionally implies a slowing of tempo, though more often it refers to a very legato style in which the notes are performed in a sustained manner beyond their normal values....

     — Allegro
  2. Allegro ma non tanto
  3. Molto Adagio — Andante — Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit, in der lydischen Tonart. Molto adagio — Neue Kraft fühlend. Andante — Molto adagio — Andante–Molto adagio. Mit innigster Empfindung
  4. Alla Marcia, assai vivace
    Vivace is Italian for "lively" and "vivid". It is pronounced in the International Phonetic Alphabet.Vivace is used as an Italian musical term indicating a movement that is in a lively mood ....

  5. Allegro appassionato — Presto

Movement I (Allegro)

The slow introduction to the first movement, like that of the thirteenth
String Quartet No. 13 (Beethoven)
The String Quartet No. 13 in B major, op. 130, by Ludwig van Beethoven was completed in November 1825. The number traditionally assigned to it is based on the order of its publication; it is actually the fourteenth quartet in order of composition. It was premiered in March 1826 by the Schuppanzigh...

 quartet, is based on a motif that recurs throughout the late quartets and in the Grosse Fuge as well, the half step. The movement's unusual structure was described by Roger Sessions
Roger Sessions
Roger Huntington Sessions was an American composer, critic, and teacher of music.-Life:Sessions was born in Brooklyn, New York, to a family that could trace its roots back to the American revolution. His mother, Ruth Huntington Sessions, was a direct descendent of Samuel Huntington, a signer of...

 as more of a triple exposition than a normal sonata form
Sonata form
Sonata form is a large-scale musical structure used widely since the middle of the 18th century . While it is typically used in the first movement of multi-movement pieces, it is sometimes used in subsequent movements as well—particularly the final movement...

 in his classes. With three statements of exposition material (including recap), it mimics the repeat seen in classical sonata form expositions, but adds the extra interest of a presentation in a different key and different registral
Register (music)
In music, a register is the relative "height" or range of a note, set of pitches or pitch classes, melody, part, instrument or group of instruments...


This movement is in a very modified sonata form.

Exposition #1 (mm. 1–74)

1st tonal area, am (mm. 1–29)


2nd tonal area, FM (mm. 48–58)

Closing (mm. 59–74)

Note: There is no repeat.

Pseudo Development (mm. 75–102)
Understanding where we will eventually arrive (not at the recap), we can call this section transitional material, even though some motives are developed.

Exposition #2 (mm. 103–192)
This is almost exactly the same as the first exposition, except transposed into E minor, with C Major as the second tonal area.

Recapitulation (mm. 193–231)
A shorter version of the original exposition, but at least it's in the right key!

Coda (mm. 232-end)
With a strong pedal E (V) using the violin I's piercing open E string leading into the final cadence at measure 264. With Beethoven's knowledge of string instruments, he may have even chosen the key of A minor for that specific technique.

Movement II (Allegro ma non tanto)

The second movement is a minuet with trio, rather than the scherzo with repeated trio that Beethoven used most often in his works starting with his Symphony No. 2 in D. The trio evokes a musette
Musette de cour
The musette de cour or baroque musette is a musical instrument of the bagpipe family. Visually, the musette is characterised by the short, cylindrical shuttle-drone and the two chalumeaux. Both the chanters and the drones have a cylindrical bore and use a double reed, giving a quiet tone similar to...

 with its melodies over sustained tonic (here, A) tones.
To begin this movement (Listen) Beethoven exposes the fourth in a three note gesture (G - A - C) four times, with the violins and viola
The viola is a bowed string instrument. It is the middle voice of the violin family, between the violin and the cello.- Form :The viola is similar in material and construction to the violin. A full-size viola's body is between and longer than the body of a full-size violin , with an average...

 in unison
In music, the word unison can be applied in more than one way. In general terms, it may refer to two notes sounding the same pitch, often but not always at the same time; or to the same musical voice being sounded by several voices or instruments together, either at the same pitch or at a distance...

 and the cello
The cello is a bowed string instrument with four strings tuned in perfect fifths. It is a member of the violin family of musical instruments, which also includes the violin, viola, and double bass. Old forms of the instrument in the Baroque era are baryton and viol .A person who plays a cello is...

 an octave
In music, an octave is the interval between one musical pitch and another with half or double its frequency. The octave relationship is a natural phenomenon that has been referred to as the "basic miracle of music", the use of which is "common in most musical systems"...

 below. In measure 5 this motive is combined with an inverted
Inversion (music)
In music theory, the word inversion has several meanings. There are inverted chords, inverted melodies, inverted intervals, and inverted voices...

 variation (outlining a descending fifth) in mixed rhythm.

Movement III (Molto Adagio; Andante)

The third movement (15 to 20 minutes in duration) is the longest in the quartet. Formally described, it alternates slow sections in a modal
Musical mode
In the theory of Western music since the ninth century, mode generally refers to a type of scale. This usage, still the most common in recent years, reflects a tradition dating to the middle ages, itself inspired by the theory of ancient Greek music.The word encompasses several additional...

 F with faster sections, "Neue Kraft fühlend" (with renewed strength), in D. The slow sections each have two elements, (1) a passage reminiscent of the opening of the first movement in which the instruments overlap each other with a brief motive; (2) a chorale
A chorale was originally a hymn sung by a Christian congregation. In certain modern usage, this term may also include classical settings of such hymns and works of a similar character....

, the actual song. In the three instances of the slow section, the overlapping motives become increasingly complex rhythmically, while the chorale is pared down, and the two elements become increasingly integrated. There is a characteristic intensification of the head-motif
Head-motif refers to an opening musical idea of a set of movements which serves to unite those movements. It may also be called a motto, and is a frequent device in cyclic masses....

 toward the end of the movement.

Beethoven wrote this piece after recovering from a serious illness which he had feared was fatal. He thus headed the movement with the words, "Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit, in der lydischen Tonart" (A Convalescent's Holy Song of Thanksgiving to the Divinity, in the Lydian Mode
Lydian mode
The Lydian musical scale is a rising pattern of pitches comprising three whole tones, a semitone, two more whole tones, and a final semitone. This sequence of pitches roughly describes the fifth of the eight Gregorian modes, known as Mode V or the authentic mode on F, theoretically using B but in...


Movement IV (Alla marcia, assai vivace)

This brief (2-minute) march in A major leads directly into the rondo-finale through a recitative
Recitative , also known by its Italian name "recitativo" , is a style of delivery in which a singer is allowed to adopt the rhythms of ordinary speech...

-like passage.

Movement V (Allegro appassionato; Presto)

FORM: Sonata Rondo


One finds in Beethoven's sketches that the theme like that of the theme of this rondo was originally meant for an instrumental conclusion to his Ninth Symphony
Symphony No. 9 (Beethoven)
The Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125, is the final complete symphony of Ludwig van Beethoven. Completed in 1824, the symphony is one of the best known works of the Western classical repertoire, and has been adapted for use as the European Anthem...

. This theme was abandoned, for the famous choral ending we are familiar with. This A minor rondo
Rondo, and its French equivalent rondeau, is a word that has been used in music in a number of ways, most often in reference to a musical form, but also to a character-type that is distinct from the form...

 ends in A major.


Some credit this quartet as T. S. Eliot
T. S. Eliot
Thomas Stearns "T. S." Eliot OM was a playwright, literary critic, and arguably the most important English-language poet of the 20th century. Although he was born an American he moved to the United Kingdom in 1914 and was naturalised as a British subject in 1927 at age 39.The poem that made his...

's impetus to write the Four Quartets
Four Quartets
Four Quartets is a set of four poems written by T. S. Eliot that were published individually over a six-year period. The first poem, "Burnt Norton", was written and published with a collection of his early works following the production of Eliot's play Murder in the Cathedral...

; certainly he was recorded in a letter to Stephen Spender
Stephen Spender
Sir Stephen Harold Spender CBE was an English poet, novelist and essayist who concentrated on themes of social injustice and the class struggle in his work...

 as having a copy of the A minor quartet on the gramophone: ' I find it quite inexhaustible to study. There is a sort of heavenly or at least more than human gaiety about some of his later things which one imagines might come to oneself as the fruit of reconciliation and relief after immense suffering; I should like to get something of that into verse before I die.'

Further reading

  • Sessions, Roger. The Musical Experience of Composer, Performer, Listener. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1958. Paperback.

External links

  • Composers's Datebook Entry on the Work's Premiere
  • Project Gutenberg — Score and MIDI of this piece
  • Performance by the Orion String Quartet from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum
    Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum
    The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum or Fenway Court, as the museum was known during Isabella Stewart Gardner's lifetime, is a museum in the Fenway-Kenmore neighborhood of Boston, Massachusetts, located within walking distance of the Museum of Fine Arts and near the Back Bay Fens...

     in MP3
    MPEG-1 or MPEG-2 Audio Layer III, more commonly referred to as MP3, is a patented digital audio encoding format using a form of lossy data compression...

  • From Sickness to Health: Narrative in Beethoven's Heiliger Dankgesang, lecture by Robert Kapilow
    Robert Kapilow
    Robert Kapilow is an American composer, conductor, and music commentator. He is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Yale University, a graduate of the Eastman School of Music, and a student of Nadia Boulanger...

     on the third movement of Beethoven's String Quartet Op. 132, followed by a performance by the St. Lawrence Quartet
    St. Lawrence Quartet
    The St. Lawrence Quartet is a Canadian string quartet, and one of Canada's premiere chamber ensembles. It was founded in 1989 and has served residencies at the Juilliard School, Yale University, the University of Toronto, the Hartt School, and Stanford University...

  • NPR - In Performance
    The Takacs Quartet on Beethoven's Message to God - Live recording of the 3rd movement of the String Quartet No. 15