String Quartet in E Flat Major – Harp

The Harp Quartet is Beethoven at his captivating and unpredictable best. He composed it in 1809, during his heroic period, at the height of his powers. Every aspect of his compositional genius is on full display, including the techniques that make him even more popular today than he was during his controversial lifetime. Many contemporary critics stuck in the 18th Century could not fathom his brilliant innovations. He has an inexhaustible magician’s hat full of wonderful rabbits, and he pulls them out at will. A few reactionaries dismissed him as a madman.

The introduction to the first of four movements seems at first to be engaged in navel-gazing (omphaloskepsis). But he interrupts this introspective mood with unexpected exclamatory chords to pique our curiosity and get our attention. Shades of his teacher Haydn’s Surprise Symphony. Then, using the introduction as a melodic seed, Beethoven builds tension and releases it with one of his signature fun rides, featuring plucked strings (pizzicato) from which the piece later derived its nickname: Harp. Listen and watch also for quicksilver runs on the fingerboard in the second theme. After he repeats the exposition of the two main themes, Beethoven treats both to a marvelous development section. Following a recapitulation of the themes, he combines everything we have heard into a bravura coda, the first violin furiously doing its best to stand out from its plucking colleagues. But they reel him in as the movement glides to a conclusion. Wow!

But now we need a rest (and so do they!). The songful second movement is beautiful in its inspired simplicity, providing a spiritual moment in the midst of unbridled and carefree energy.

The raucous and dramatic third movement, a scherzo (joke), gains so much momentum and inertia that Beethoven has to apply the brakes before seamlessly entering the fourth movement, a clever two-part theme and six quirky variations. The finale rushes headlong towards a triumphant finish, but Beethoven deftly subdues the merriment and puts the piece to bed with two quiet chords. Night night.

Written by the Honorable Stephen S. Trott