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Beethoven, Verdi, and . . . Razumovsky?

<b>Beethoven</b> Hulton Archive/Getty Images

On Aug. 21, the Cape Cod Chamber Music Festival presents the Ying Quartet performing a program including the third of Ludwig van Beethoven’s op. 59 string quartets: the “Razumovsky” quartets, composed in 1806 and named after the Russian count who commissioned them. Andrey Razumovsky (1752-1836) was the czar’s ambassador to Vienna, the seat of the Hapsburg empire; for decades, he was a locus of diplomatic intrigues and artistic life. The quartets probably represent Razumovsky’s most lasting fame. But by their time he had already played an indirect role in what would prove to be another musical masterwork.

It was a royal affair that set Razumovsky on his diplomatic course: a liaison with Natalia Alexeievna, the future Czar Paul I’s first wife. When Natalia died after delivering a stillborn son (Razumovsky’s, possibly), the young Razumovsky was shuffled off as an envoy, first to Denmark, then to Sweden. The Swedish situation was volatile. King Gustav III, liberal and autocratic in equal measure, was feuding with the Swedish nobility, who considered Gustav’s reforms an assault on their aristocratic privileges. Faced with increasing unpopularity at home, Gustav decided to boost his support with military action, against Russia — a decision made easier, and easier to sell, once it became known how the Russian ambassador had assisted the dissenting Swedish nobles. “Razumovsky is working from dawn until dusk,” another envoy reported. “His house is a meeting place of all well-known enemies of the King of Sweden.” In June 1788, the king demanded Razumovsky’s expulsion; within a month, the countries were at war.


The war very nearly proved disastrous for Sweden, but, in July 1790, the Swedish navy dealt Russia a surprising defeat, and peace talks commenced. The outcome barely altered the balance of power, though, and did little to quell Sweden’s domestic unrest; in 1792 (the same year Razumovsky became ambassador in Vienna), the nobles finally assassinated Gustav at a masked ball in Stockholm — an event familiar to opera fans from Giuseppe Verdi’s “Un Ballo in Maschera.”

First performed in 1859, “Un Ballo” was based on an earlier operatic treatment of Gustav III by French composer Daniel Auber; by Verdi’s time, political winds had shifted such that censors demanded numerous alterations (the setting, for example, was moved from Sweden to colonial Boston). However, “Un Ballo” also incorporated a fiction already present in Auber’s version, changing the impetus for the assassination from power politics to a suspected adulterous affair. One can only wonder if Razumovsky would have been amused.


The Ying Quartet performs music of Borodin, Stravinsky, and Beethoven, Aug. 21 at 7:30 p.m. at the Church of the Holy Spirit, in Orleans. Tickets $38, students $15; 508-247-9400; www.capecodchambermusic.org.


Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@gmail.com.