Beethoven — String Quartet in C Sharp Minor, Number 14, Opus 131

This post continues my Story Structure series.

Some people may have found the writing examples in my previous posts, Pieter Brueghel and W.H. Auden and Two Frescoes, by Giotto and by Taddeo Gaddi, unconvincing — because a painting, which tells its story in a static snapshot, isn’t like a movie, which progresses in time.

I disagree: I think there’s significant overlap. But, OK.

I can give examples from music, which does progress in time.

In fact, classical music from the “Classical” Period (Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven) and the “Romantic” period (Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Brahms) had something that superficially might seem like 3-Act Structure.

Most of their symphonies, sonatas, and string quartets were in 4 movements — and those composers often made similar choices about many aspects of what those movements could be. And, especially, there was a commonly used architecture for the first movement: “sonata form.”

Beethoven’s 5th Symphony would be a standard example — but there were many standard examples.

The topic of the present posting is Beethoven’s String Quartet in C Sharp Minor, Number 14, Opus 131.

I pick one recording of this quartet off my shelves and what do I see? Four movements?


I see seven movements:
1. Adagio ma non troppo e molto expressivo (7 min 25 sec)
2. Allegro molto vivace (3 min 26 sec)
3. Allegro moderato – Adagio – Piu vivace (0 min 51 sec)
4. Andante ma non troppo e molto cantabile (13 min 49 sec)
5. Presto (5 min 34 sec)
6. Adagio quasi un poco andante (1 min 59 sec)
7. Allegro (6 min 25 sec)

What?? Was Beethoven off his nut? Was Beethoven stupid?

What could L. van B. possibly have imagined he was going to do in that 3rd movement that lasts only 51 seconds? (It gets worse: as the markings indicate, the 51 seconds is divided into 3 different sections.)

Why could he have thought he could put a tiny, 51-second 3rd movement in front of a giant, 13-minute-49-second 4th movement? Especially when he was running out of movements and was supposed to stop after 4?

And later on, with no remorse at all, he sticks in a 6th movement that has a mere 1 minute 59 seconds.

Why wouldn’t Beethoven have made his movements equal-sized and put some development into those short ones? Was he lazy?

Answer: When you make a cake, do you put in equal amounts of flour, baking soda, milk, sugar, chocolate, and vanilla? Or do you put in the amount of each ingredient that makes the whole cake turn out correctly and taste right?

It depends on what you’re baking, and what the ingredients are.

My suggestion is to listen to op. 131 and try to satisfy yourself about its structure. What is the contribution of that 51-second 3rd movement? The answer has got to be something like “you put in the amount of each ingredient that makes the whole cake/quartet/screenplay turn out correctly and taste right.”

This doesn’t necessarily have to do with plot structure — in most classical pieces, the movements don’t have common themes: they tell different stories.

It has to do with making the viewer feel you’ve got the right proportion of ingredients in your screenplay so that it tastes right.

But, wasn’t Beethoven the guy who wrote the rulebook? No. Beethoven didn’t write rulebooks: he wrote music.

See the table of contents for this topic: Story Structure.

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