Last week, we were lucky enough to be transported to a Europe that was in full revolution-fever, at the end of the 18th century. What a treat. Old man (well, mid-60s) Haydn returned to Vienna from his triumphant second visit to London in 1795. His patron Prince Nicolaus II Esterhazy seemed to work him less hard than before, respecting his age and general exhaustion – just birthday masses for his wife, and the odd (utterly fabulous) oratorio (e.g. The Seasons). But there were lots of other commissions and he was kept very busy. Meanwhile, along comes young Beethoven who arrived from Bonn in 1792, a jaw-droppingly accomplished pianist, who increasingly turned his hand to composing. Beethoven was a revolutionary whose influence would eventually change the entire musical landscape of Europe, but he was also in awe of Haydn, whose example he followed quite closely at this time.

The concurrent residence of these two men in wealthy Vienna just at that moment has many resonances. Europe was in the throes of epochal changes. The violence, passion and hope of the French Revolution were fresh in the memory – passions that particularly animated the massively talented Beethoven. Haydn was an acknowledged genius, a towering giant. It was probably the case that few people could imagine that music had anywhere further to go. Musical forms and conventions were well understood and largely fixed. But not for Beethoven: from Haydn’s summit, he saw new mountain ranges forming in his mind, emerging in the next few years.

Both of these men had an affinity for one of the most intimate of all instrumental groups, the string quartet. Two violins, a viola and a cello are able to convey as powerful and emotionally eloquent a range of musical experience as any other grouping. Many of the greatest composers have turned to this medium to express their most personal emotions of joy, of love or of despair. My husband Christopher (Engineering 1968) always says that being introduced to Beethoven’s late quartets as a Fitz undergraduate transformed his life, opening up previously unimagined landscapes of beauty.

So the point of all this is that last Thursday the wonderful Fitzwilliam Quartet  were in residence in Fitz to deliver a workshop with Richard Wigmore. In the evening they gave a public concert. The Fitz Quartet was founded in 1968 (the year that Christopher was first introduced to string quartets in the same College!) by Cambridge undergraduates, two of whom, Nicholas Dowding (Music 1968) and John Phillips (Classics 1968) were Fitz students, and they rehearsed in the College. It is wonderful that the quartet, somewhat changed over the years, continues its link with the College.

The Fitzwilliam Quartet workshop at Fitzwilliam College

The Fitzwilliam Quartet workshop at Fitzwilliam College

The concert was glorious and transporting. After the workshop, they were all “in the zone” together, playing at their best, in Fitzwilliam’s brilliant new-ish auditorium, designed by Allies and Morrison. They played one of Beethoven’s six Lobkovitz quartets (Opus 18 No 1, 1799) and Haydn’s unfinished quartet (Opus 103, 1803) in the first half. Music that was complex, beautiful and absorbing, but somehow ‘polite’.  In the second half they took us down the other side of Haydn’s mountain, into the territory that Beethoven was creating from the raw materials in his mind. Just six years after the reverential Opus 18 quartets, and fresh from amazing the western musical world with the ground-breaking Eroica symphony, Beethoven was stimulated to return to string quartets by a commission from the Russian Ambassador in Vienna, Count Rasumovsky. The first of the three so-called Rasumovsky quartets, which is, and was in performance, just six years since the Opus 18 works, an altogether different experience; another musical paradigm: a ‘huge’ piece of staggering beauty that truly transports and engages the listener. It must have utterly amazed the listeners at the time, who couldn’t begin to imagine that this was just the beginning of the revolution that Beethoven would effect in almost all forms of western musical expression … (I acknowledge having cribbed from Alan George’s wonderful programme notes for this blog).

The Fitzwilliam Quartet will be back in College on 10 May, with more Beethoven. If you’ve got intellectual curiosity and a taste for discovery, come to the next concert!  Beethoven really can change your life!

Nicola Padfield

About Nicola Padfield

Nicola Padfield MA, Dip Crim, DES became Master of Fitzwilliam College in October 2013. She is a Reader in Criminal and Penal Justice at the Law Faculty, University of Cambridge, and has been a Fellow of Fitzwilliam College since 1991.

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