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Tuesday, Sept. 9, 2008

Beethoven for Five

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   Fate was kind to us in that a singular genius such as Ludwig Van Beethoven (1770-1827) was in the right place and time to so enrich the world of music. His composing career fits into three musical periods. His earliest works are based upon Classical models-principally those of Mozart and Haydn (the young Beethoven met and played piano for the former and studied briefly under the latter). By his late 20s, however, Beethoven embarked upon his "revolutionary" middle period, marked by such ground breaking works as the third (Eroica) and fifth symphonies; a body of works that greatly expanded the musical vocabulary and so influenced the young Romantics of his time (Schubert, Berlioz, Schumann, notably). By the 1820s, with the Romantic era fully ripening, Beethoven's late period works came forth, written in a unique, highly personal language that profoundly changed the course of Western music, as evinced by the late Romantics who studied them (Wagner, Bruckner, Liszt, Mahler).

  A sense of that long reach can perhaps be experienced at the Fine Arts Quartet's first concert of the 2008-09 season; an all-Beethoven affair in which the UW-Milwaukee faculty quartet is joined by guest violinist Gil Sharon.

  Beethoven's String Quartet in C Minor, Op. 104 was completed on August 14, 1817 and was first performed on December 10, 1818, but its genesis goes back 20 years before that. In the summer of 1817 a heretofore-unknown composer known only to history as Kaufmann presented Beethoven with an arrangement of the latter's Piano Trio, Op. 1, No. 3 for string quintet. Although somewhat critical of Kaufmann's largely unimaginative and rather literal arrangement, Beethoven was nevertheless intrigued enough to take up the recasting of his youthful piano trio himself. He changed voice-leading, altered sonorities, added dynamics and, in places where Kaufmann added new melodic material, retained and even built upon those melodies. The result is fascinating: an early period Beethoven work recast and revitalized through his late period style. On the copyist's manuscript he wrote: "Trio arranged as a quintet by Herr Kaufmann and brought to the light of day…and at the same time raised from the most abject misery to some degree of respectability by Herr Beethoven."

  Beethoven's Quintet in C Major, Op. 29 of 1801 is an ambitious early middle-period piece entirely worthy of its chronologic place between the Op. 18 & 59 string quartets. It is far less well known than its cousins, however, mostly due to the somewhat shadowy existence of the string quintet as a musical medium in Beethoven's time.

  Beethoven's last work for string quintet is a Fugue in D Major, Op. 137 that he completed on November 28, 1817. This brief allegretto was written especially for a manuscript edition of Beethoven's compositions initiated by the Viennese publisher Tobias Haslinger as the basis of a projected-though never completed-complete edition.

  The Fine Arts Quartet with guest Gil Sharon performs these three works on Sept. 21 at the Helen Bader Concert Hall on the campus of UWM.