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Wednesday, February 02, 2005
  String Quartet in C-sharp Minor, No. 14, Op. 131, a) Adagio ma non troppo e molto espressivo (first movement)
Ludwig van Beethoven
Norton Recorded Anthology of Western Music, CD 8 Tracks 67-69

Does a key signature have meaning beyond the technical information it provides the performer?

Perhaps the answer depends on how you have been spending your time. For instance, if you have been sitting in a string quartet the open strings on those instruments would effect your feelings towards various keys. Those notes, 'C-G-D-A-E,' have a powerful resonance for string players and thus keys that use them as a home base are lent a feeling of stability we do not hear in our piano exercises. 'D' is an exceptionally stable place to be since the low 'D' will instigate sympathetic vibrations in the open 'D' and 'A' strings above it.

To the string player, a pitch a half step shy of an open string, C-sharp for example, has that sense of otherness Bernstein spoke about with or without the E-flat tonality of the Eroica. The pitch is full of all sorts of colors and we find out, after some time, that it has been leaning toward 'D.'

Beethoven makes sure we are aware of this as the subject of his fugue lands so heavily on the flat sixth scale degree, an 'A.' (sol, ti, do, la) The second voice, transposed down a fifth, lands heavily on a 'D.' If only because of our scholar's choices, I am reminded of the ringing fifth that started Clementi's piano sonata. However, here Beethoven is no longer the young promising pianist nor the politically charged symphonic writer. This music comes from the long walks in the woods he took and the vision of what music could be that came to him.

Here the key signatures serve the idea of the piece completely. This first movement is an extended, ornate C-sharp that carries us toward the 'D' of the second movement. Though ornate it is as tightly written as one would later expect from Bartok, as we hear in the opening of Bartok's sixth string quartet. Using the micro to establish the macro, Beethoven modulates to the key of 'A' after a few solemn adventures elsewhere. Before we return to the low C-sharp, we enjoy the upper register of the instruments whose sounds, during these few bars, can only be described as angelic. Like the key signatures, the form of the piece, a fugue, is purposeful. Too often fugues are gratuitous: the third movement of Brahms' unwieldy first piano concerto comes to mind. (Radu Lupu performed that piano concerto in Hamilton county just last month.) In the case of Opus 131, it is as if the fugue were discovered in the way these themes intermingle. 
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In January 2004 I starting writing an opinion for each selection in the Norton Recorded Anthology of Western Music. Now, more than a year later, I am almost finished. Soon, I will have an archive full of opinions on the music we so carelessly call "classical." And no one can stop me.

Location: Cincinnati, Ohio, United States

Director of the Contemporary Performer's Workshop... Music Teacher for St. Aloysius Gonzaga School... Principal 'Cellist of the Springfield Symphony Orchestra... Composer

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