Ludwig van Beethoven: String Quartet No. 11 in F Minor, Op. 95, “Serioso”

Program notes for Tippet Rise Art Center, August 18, 2018.
© Benjamin Pesetsky 2018. Not to be reprinted without permission.

Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 11 in F Minor, Op. 95, is the last of his middle-period quartets, but it is also a premonition of his late quartets, a cliffhanger to those he would begin after a 14-year hiatus from the genre. Though it is grouped with the others written between 1805 and 1810 (including the three Op. 59 “Razumovsky” quartets and the Op. 74 “Harp”), it is stylistically closer to his Op. 127 and beyond: distilled ideas, stark juxtapositions, fugal writing, and unusual pacing and form.

It is also the only quartet Beethoven blessed with a descriptive title of his own: “Serioso” (the nicknames of other quartets were bestowed by others). The name derives from the third movement’s tempo marking, Allegro assai vivace ma serioso, but applies sweepingly to the entire piece. Beethoven probably meant to affirm the work’s daring, or even to reassure doubtful musicians that, yes, he was “serious,” and everything about the piece was entirely intentional.

Even to modern ears, the “Serioso” Quartet is disorienting. The musicologist Joseph Kerman describes it like this:

The F-minor Quartet is not a pretty piece, but it is terribly strong—and perhaps rather terrible . . . The piece stands aloof, preoccupied with its radical private war on every fibre of rhetoric and feeling that Beethoven knew or could invent. Everything unessential falls victim, leaving a residue of extreme concentration, in dangerously high tension.

And all this is contained in the shortest quartet Beethoven ever wrote, clocking in at 20 minutes or a little less. Hearing it by itself, as we do on this concert, offers an even more focused experience: it may reverberate in your mind for some time, asking to be dwelt upon, deciphered, and discussed.

Beethoven began the quartet in the summer of 1810 and completed it the following October. Two important things had recently happened in his life: first, in 1809, a group of noblemen granted him a 4,000 florin annual salary, with no conditions on the nature or amount of music he had to compose. Then, with this new financial security, he considered starting a family, writing to a friend: “Now you can help me look for a wife. Indeed you might find some beautiful girl . . . and one who would perhaps now and then grant a sigh to my harmonies.” In 1910, he proposed to the 19-year-old Therese Malfatti, a cousin of his doctor. She declined to marry him.

Perhaps the rejection led Beethoven to care less about eliciting “sighs” through harmony, freeing him to embrace a new ugliness in the “Serioso” Quartet. It’s a facile connection, but might not be entirely baseless.

In any case, he held onto the quartet for nearly four years before the Schupanzigh Quartet premiered it in Vienna in May 1814. After another two years, he allowed it to be published as his Op. 95. Upon its release, he wrote to Sir George Smart, an English musician: “the quartet is written for a small circle of connoisseurs and is never to be performed in public.” This is the only commentary we have from Beethoven himself, and it clearly marks the “Serioso” as something separate from the rest of his work up to that point.

The first movement opens with an outburst, followed by a pause, followed by a reaction, then another pause, then a question—then a sweeter statement and an elongation of the outburst. As the music continues, it fills with frenzied crescendos, sudden retreats, and surprising returns. The end is quiet and inclusive.

The second movement gives the four instruments their independence—they play alone and seem to wander in and out of the picture on their own accord. In the beginning, the cello offers a hesitant bassline, and later the four instruments agree to collaborate on a fugue, imitating one another in counterpoint. The music unveils itself gradually, but never tells its secret.

There is a hard cut to the third movement, which begins without pause. Another outburst, a reaction, and then the instruments join in lockstep. A second, gentler theme offers some reprieve, but no escape from the oppressive rigidity of this movement.

The fourth movement sets a new scene in a broader, more expansive space. Then it picks up a zealous lilt, which finally breaks out into an ecstatic, double-time coda, skittering to a dazzling end.

The “Serioso” Quartet sheds the musical conventions of Beethoven’s day, and resists even the dramatic logic we so often look for in music. Instead, it draws you along through ideas that don’t connect in any accountable way, their contradictions working on your imagination.