Beethoven String Quartets

July 20, 2019, 11:51 AM · ยท What is the difficulty level of the middle Beethoven String Quartets? It seems to me that the op.74 is easier than the op.59 for intermediate/advanced violist & cellist, and the violin parts are definitely for advanced players.

Please comment; esp. if you have worked with adult students. Thank you.

Replies (14)

July 20, 2019, 1:16 PM · Easier than the Rasumovsky quartets (op. 59), which have unusually challenging 2nd violin parts (the 1st violin parts in Beethoven quarters are usually no cakewalk though op. 18 is usually less difficult).

Adult amateurs in coached chamber music events -- which I am guessing is your scenario -- vary widely in skill so "adult student" is not a very useful distinction. There are amateur quartets that can readily handle late Beethoven and even more challenging works. There are adult beginners who would struggle with most standard literature. And everything in between. And getting the notes is distinct from being able to mesh well together.

July 20, 2019, 4:27 PM · For coached adult chamber experiences my own experience teaches me that you want music that is not pushing the players' technical limits. The goal of coached chamber is to learn about the ensemble aspects -- listening, blending, interpreting according to the interplay of the four parts. You won't get there if you have to deal with rhythms that are out of sync because your players are struggling with their parts.
July 20, 2019, 7:23 PM · This is from the experience of an amateur who has played--in the privacy of our living room--all of the middle Beethoven quartets and has had coaching on op. 74, first movement. And yes, op. 74 is easier than the rest of them. Easier at least in terms of violin technique (and still quite hard, at least for the violins). It still poses many ensemble problems.

None of them are unplayable though and none need Paganini level skills. In fact, unlike in the Brahms or Schumann quartets there are hardly any un-violinistic sections. I'd say look at the parts (each player individually), decide if you trust yourselves to learn them, practice them and then sit down together and try the quartets. Try them all; there is nothing quite like them anywhere else in the repertoire.

I assume you have been playing Haydn and/or Mozart quartets. If you haven't be patient, work on this less demanding repertoire first, then "promote" yourselves to Beethoven, best by beginning with op. 18.

Lydia, when you say the second violin parts of op. 59 are "unusually difficult", what is your definition of "usual"? I do not find those parts more difficult than the other three, nor more difficult than the 2nd in Brahms or Schumann or Tchaikovsky.

July 20, 2019, 8:34 PM · My recollection, from having previously read all of them, is that the Razumovskys move at a sufficient tempo, with greater note density in the 2nd violin part, to not be trivially sight-readable pretty close to note-perfect, which is reasonably viable for Schubert 2nd violin parts , usually.
July 21, 2019, 4:20 AM · My amateur quartet has worked quite a bit on the first Rasumovksy quartet, and yes, you need 'advanced' violinists for it to be worth working on.

Of course there's no one definition of 'advanced' which doesn't help, unless you are in a part of the world that routinely uses the ABRSM grading system, where you should probably be a fairly decent way past grade 8 before attempting it. (...Pretty much anything from Op.59 is the kind of thing you could perform in the FRSM (=conservatoire MMus) exam. )

July 21, 2019, 4:38 AM · I can't play the last page of Op.74 mvt 1 vln1 but luckily have friends who can. And the other parts have the real jam - lift-off time!
July 21, 2019, 5:02 AM · How would people here compare said Beethoven quartets with Schubert Death and the Maiden? I am currently working on the 1st violin part of the first movement. I have of course heard this fantastic piece many times and always thought it to be impossibly difficult, but am now glad to discover that it is actually doable (always talking about amateur level of course).
July 21, 2019, 6:47 AM · The first movement of Death and the Maiden is pretty approachable, as well as very rewarding. I'd say it was clearly easier than most of op.59.

The rest of DatM is more challenging - I am particularly thinking of the 2nd movement which is certainly possible to hack through it, but actually bringing out sustained musicality is a big challenge.

July 21, 2019, 1:33 PM · thanks Chris for the info, yes, the second movement is of course from another world and for me one of the best pieces of music ever. hacking through not recommended :-)
July 21, 2019, 4:04 PM · I usually recommend students getting into Beethoven to start on the Op. 18 No. 4, followed by the Op. 18 No. 6. From there, I think that Op. 95 is more accessible than Op. 74 or the Op. 59's (or the late quartets for that matter).
July 21, 2019, 4:44 PM · I think DatM is significantly easier than the op 59s. The first violin part is sightreadable (though not easily) and the ensemble is fairly straightforward. One of my favorite quartets.
July 21, 2019, 6:18 PM · I believe that Schuppanzich postponed the premiere of the Schubert because it was too difficult-- and replaced it with a late Beethoven. To me, this suggests that they hadn't bothered to rehearse the Schubert or perhaps didn't get parts that were properly copied. It is a lot easier than middle and late Beethoven.
July 22, 2019, 9:38 AM · My chamber orchestra has performed DatM without any problems, possibly due to several members being already familiar with the piece as a quartet. The performance went well.

July 22, 2019, 10:35 AM · Thanks to the comments of the Beethoven String Quartets.

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