Archive for String Quartet No. 13

The Last Song on the Voyager Golden Record

Posted in Music with tags , , , , on December 22, 2014 by telescoper

Totally spontaneously and without any prompting whatsoever from any reader of this blog (?), I’ve decided today to post a piece of music. I don’t usually like posting single movements from classical works. I much prefer listening to them in the context for which they were orginally devised rather than as “bleeding chunks” because the entire composition should be greater than the sum of its parts. That is true of Beethoven’s magnificent late String Quartets, but some of the parts are nevertheless so exquisite on their own that I don’t mind at all hearing them separately. I posted the wonderful Heiliger Danksgesang (the third movement of Quartet No. 15 in A Minor, Opus 132) some time ago. That’s a piece of music that is very special to me for a number of reasons. This time, though, it’s String Quartet No. 13 in  B♭ major, Opus 130.

This is an unusual quartet, consisting of no less than six movements. In the original version the last movement was a very long and intricate double fugue, but for all its magnificence this enormous movement perplexed audiences who were no doubt expecting something closer to the traditional structure of a string quartet. Beethoven then wrote an alternative final movement, much shorter and lighter, and published the original final movement as a standalone work, the Große Fuge (Opus 133).

But it’s the penultimate, fifth, movement that I wanted to share. This is marked “Cavatina. Adagio molto espressivo.” This is one of those pieces of music that makes everything else disappear from my mind whenever I hear it. Its poignancy and lyricism are felt even more deeply when you realise that Beethoven himself never heard it, except in his mind’s ear. He was already profoundly deaf when he composed this work and indeed he died before the first performance of the final version of the quartet, so never even saw it being played.

Of all the pinnacles of European culture and civilisation, Beethoven’s late quartets must be among the very highest, but this short movement transcends even that level of achievement and reaches something utterly sublime. I think it’s entirely apt that this is the last piece of music on the famous Golden Records which the Voyager spacecraft are carrying into the depths of interstellar space. Close your eyes and think of that as you listen to the music.

PS. A “cavatina” is a “short and simple song”, hence the use of the word “song” in the title, but it doesn’t really do this piece justice, but there really aren’t any words that can describe it adequately.