Academic journal article The Beethoven Journal

An Examination of Two Proposed Models for the Melody of the Sixth Movement of the String Quartet in C-Sharp Minor, Opus 131: An "Old French Song" and the Kol Nidre

Academic journal article The Beethoven Journal

An Examination of Two Proposed Models for the Melody of the Sixth Movement of the String Quartet in C-Sharp Minor, Opus 131: An "Old French Song" and the Kol Nidre

Article excerpt

I. Introduction

An often fertile subject for scholarly inquiry is the identification of musical models and the circumstances and motivations surrounding their selection. Beethoven studies teem with hypotheses about the parentage of his thematic materials from both the art and folk traditions. The sixth movement of the String Quartet in C-sharp Minor, Opus 131, attracted just such speculation during the nineteenth century, producing two quite different candidates as sources for the movement's main theme. An assessment of the relationship of Beethoven's melody with these two possible ancestors is only a modest footnote in the vast literature on the composer, yet it illustrates the potential rewards as well as the challenges and perils of seeking relationships between Beethoven's thematic materials and their ostensible sources.

II. "An old French song"

Beethoven's last five quartets were the subject of frequent comment as soon as they were published. They were first discussed as a group in 1830 by Francois-Joseph Fétis, known primarily today for his contributions to musical lexicography. In this case, however, Fétis's influence was a negative one. In a two-part article in his Revue Musicale, he expressed strong reservations about Beethoven's late-style works, including this cool assessment of the sixth movement of Opus 131: "[The Adagio], whose principal melodic phrase is taken from an old French song, is also an extravagance of imagination without limit, where here and there one again encounters a superior talent, but whose dazzle is more fatiguing than agreeable."1 Such criticism prompted later writers to put little credence in Fétis's musical acumen. Perhaps as a result, his observation regarding the provenance of the theme was rarely reiterated. Gustav Nottebohm, after transcribing a sketch for the melody, tartly dismissed Fétis's observation: "After he had written that sketch Beethoven would not have changed two notes and moreover, as he had done in the [Rasumovsky] Quartets, Opus 59, would have written it unchanged if he had used a borrowed melody."2 Nottebohm here refers to the exchange of quarter and half notes in measure 4 of the score (Example 1 in the viola) and measure two of the sketch (Example 2, staff 3) from the pocket sketchbook Autograph 10, Bundle 1, now in the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin, Preussischer Kulturbesitz.3 The possibility of a borrowing, however, cannot be discounted simply on the grounds of this modest alteration. Nottebohm's parallel with the Rasumovsky Quartets is understandable since he first identified two of their tunes as coming from Ivan Prach's collection of Russian folksongs (St. Petersburg, 1790). Yet his analogy is not applicable here. The presence of Russian melodies in the Rasumovsky Quartets had been imposed upon Beethoven by Count Razumovsky, who had commissioned their composition, whereas there does not appear to have been a similar outside agency at work on the creation of Opus 131.4 Nevertheless, after Nottebohm's dismissive conclusion, no further study of Fétis's observation was undertaken, and a thorough assessment of its validity first requires a proper identification of the borrowed melody.5

Fétis's old French song can now be identified: "Joseph est bien marie," an enormously popular noël for almost three centuries (Example 3). In 1828, two years before he wrote about Beethoven's quartets, Fétis declared that "Joseph" was one of the most celebrated noëls to be found in the numerous editions of Le grande Bible des Noëls.6 Many French composers employed it as a theme for keyboard variations, especially for organ. With new secular texts of an often satiric character, such noël tunes /found their way into popular usage. The melody thus appears under the title "Lucas est bien marie" in the collection, La Clef des Chansonniers, published by Ballard in 1717. Its melody subsequently served the needs of post-revolutionary patriotic fervor when, in 1791, a certain T. …

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