Somehow, the string quartet has allowed for the creation of architecturally significant castles in the air. Its combination of enormous expressive breadth with limited musical forces has created a uniquely focused repertoire. And there has been no finer quartet-architect than Ludwig van Beethoven, whose late quartets in particular defy known laws of what should be musically possible.
The string quartet in C-sharp minor, Op. 131, a huge work even for Beethoven, cannot be summed up in metaphorical language, so what follows is a brief, rather technical, description of its path. First movement: The quartet opens with a fugue. There is an impression of the loneliness of playing with notes. The fugue subject is as follows:
Worth noting about this bit of music: it comes in two parts, A and B, above; A has a crescendo to a crisis note (creating a sense that there is, so to speak, a problem); B has a response, but no answer, to the content of A. A contains the notes of the top half of a harmonic minor scale; B retreats. The fugue, being a fugue, repeats and reconfigures these figures without losing its cool, but without settling on any answers, either.
The second movement comes as a big surprise at a small volume. It kicks the quartet from its home in C-sharp minor to D major — a big jump from closed to open sound — and the motion switches suddenly from fugue to gigue. The new music has only a faint reminder of A from the fugue theme. Although the movement remains bright and gains force, it maintains an unsettled mood.
The third movement is very short, perhaps a minute. It can be divided into two halves: one of questioning figures dodging around the quartet; and the other (introduced by an element of fantasy-cadenza in the first violin) serves to set the stage for the fourth movement.
The fourth movement is the heart of the piece, and although it is a fairly strict theme-and-variations, it is quite weird. The variations are defined by their theme, but they have a dangerously improvisatory quality, as though they are only moments from breaking down. Running through them all is a fragile fantasy of an impossible or imaginary duet. The variations spill into each other, switch identities or moods in their middles, and venture far enough from the theme itself that one can only feel its shape.
The fifth movement is frankly crazy, very fast, and describes itself best in sound. It is formed as Scherzo/Trio/Scherzo/Trio/Scherzo (quiet)/Coda.
The sixth movement is brief like the third: two minutes or so. The difficult intervals and crisis sforzando from movement one reappear, as does the phrase- form A-B of the unresolved problem:
The seventh (and final) movement is extremely powerful. The problematic intervals from the first movement return with great force, no longer rising, but falling straight down the scale.
This is a rough outline only, and massively reductive. Broadly speaking, it seems possible to say that the piece deals continuously in the problematic nature of escaping to musical fantasy. Ideas appear full of possibility, but other matters (which seem ‘realistic’ even though they are also musical fantasies) keep appearing. This problematic element feels a little like biography or reality — where we must face that the facts from which fantasy arises are so often those from which one might have hoped to be freed. We don’t really know any non-musical facts from Beethoven relevant to this particular quartet, and speculation on his interior states can only remain speculative. We do know a bit of our own thoughts, though, or at least what they feel like, and somehow this quartet feels like the best and worst — or perhaps merely the purest distillation — of thought itself.