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My First Beethoven Quartet by Bailey Firszt

If you study with Ivo, he’ll tell you at least once (but probably about ten times) that playing the Beethoven quartets was what he lived for as a quartet violist. After hearing him praise these quartets for the last four and a half years, I knew I had to see for myself what all the fuss was about. My quartet-mates and I decided to study Beethoven’s opus 74 quartet, nicknamed the “Harp.” From the very beginning of the piece, Beethoven draws the listener in with the most organic music imaginable:

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The beginning is especially scary, because the quartet has to strive for a perfectly blended, sotto voce sound, but not be too scared to start playing! Another challenge that we encountered in this opening was bringing out the rhetoric in the musical lines. Beethoven writes two statements of the same motive but resolves them with different harmonies underneath the first violin part. How do we make the first iteration sound like a question, but without giving away the mystery or darkness of the second? The entire Adagio is like a speech, filled with dramatic pauses and questions left hanging in the air. I love that it doesn’t gain any momentum until the very last measure, when Beethoven finally writes a crescendo, and the piece can really start!

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 At last!

The second movement, Adagio ma non troppo, is really just a set of variations on a beautiful melody. My favorite “variation” starts in measure 87, the most intimate music of the movement. The viola part is made up of several measures of slurred thirty-second notes, which have to be completely smooth without sacrificing expression.

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After very tastefully lengthening the beginning of every single beat (oops), I eventually settled on playing it basically straight while vibrating the important notes.

In the third movement, Presto, you have to be careful not to blink, or the music might pass you by. I really had to concentrate when we performed this movement, otherwise I would forget to come in! We found it beneficial to drill large sections several times to make sure it never fell apart. Since the movement goes by so quickly, it’s important to play it enough that you can take a step back and see the bigger musical picture as you’re performing, rather than simply trying to keep up with the tempo.

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 Are we in 2? Or 3? What’s going on?

The end of the agitated Presto transforms into a lovely Allegretto con Variazioni.

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This movement is especially tricky, because it’s in 2/4, but beat 2 sounds like the downbeat rather than the pickup. We struggled with whether to bring out this ambiguity or to just play it emphasizing the “wrong” beat. I don’t think we ever reached a consensus . . . nor did we ever figure out why in the world Beethoven did that! One of the movement’s variations is a viola solo made up of flowing, winding triplets. The biggest challenge I had to overcome with that variation was phrasing the melody without making it sound “seasick,” as one of my quartet-mates lovingly called it. (That, and my fear of the spotlight!)

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The movement’s coda is a thrilling sixteenth-note passage that ends, instead of forte as you expect, with two piano chords. After leading us through four joyous movements, Beethoven ends the piece with a clever joke. I think I heard my dad laugh out loud at the end of our performance!

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My first encounter with a Beethoven quartet was both thrilling and unsatisfying. One semester and one performance were not enough for this brilliant piece of music, but hopefully I’ll continue to play Beethoven’s quartets for the rest of my life.


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