Beethoven never wanted his string quartets to have a programmatic nature, as some other composers had been given their own works. But years after being published, a story came to light that expressed Beethoven’s love of the work of William Shakespeare.
As part of our upcoming If Music Be the Food of Love concert featuring chamber music inspired by Shakespeare, we’d have been remiss to leave out Beethoven’s small nod to his enjoyment of Romeo and Juliet in the String Quartet Op 18 No 1.
While sketching some striking passages near the end of the second movement, Beethoven jotted down references to Romeo and Juliet, curiously in French. He writes these words for successive musical phrases: “il prend le tmobeau,” “dese[s]poir,” “il se tue,” and “les dernier soupirs,” thus depicting Romeo at Juliet’s tomg: his arrival, his despair, his suicide, and the last sighs. Reflecting Beethoven’s love of Shakespeare, these allusions are confirmed by a remark attributed to Karl Amenda, Beethoven’s close friend and the recipient of the first version of the quartet. Amenda reported that when he hear Beethoven play this slow movement (presumably at the piano), Amenda said, “It pictured for me two lovers parting,” whereupon Beethoven said, “Good! I was thinking of the burial vault scene of Juliet.”
Though he shared these insights with his friend, he did not include the references in the printed score, showing his reluctance to provide explicit literary programs for his string quartets.
Join the SSO Chamber Ensemble on February 3rd to hear this beautiful work.