Sunday, April 27, 2014

Climbing Mount Everest: Beethoven's Op. 130 & the Grosse Fuge

The Daedalus Quartet (photo by Lisa-Marie Mazzucco)
When the Daedalus Quartet ends the final concert of Market Square Concerts' current season Tuesday night at 8pm at Market Square Church - you can read more about the rest of the program here - with Beethoven's String Quartet in B-flat, Op.130 (with the original finale), what exactly does that mean?

Life-long classical music aficionados bandy about terms like “Late Beethoven” or “The Late Quartets” (without mentioning the composer's name but automatically implying it's Beethoven) and especially “Grosse Fuge” with such reverence it seems we're intent on mystifying a whole new generation of concert-goers (what is a “foo-geh” and why is it gross?).

(Quickly, Grosse Fuge means "Grand Fugue" in the sense of its expansiveness. A fugue is a procedure in which musical ideas unfold linearly with imitation between the... uhm... you know what? Just listen to it...)

On the other hand, how many of us who know only how to stick the key in the ignition understand what a mechanic is telling us when our car is making a noise that sounds like this (followed by a poor, onomatopoeic impersonation of something heard from under the hood)? Or have had to suffer through your child's explanation of how to cut-and-paste something into an e-mail and find yourself as befogged as before?

Beethoven's last quartets, all composed within a two-year period, have long had a reputation of being “difficult” – not just to play, but to listen to. At the first performance of the first of them, a critic wrote it was an “incomprehensible, incoherent, vague, over-extended series of fantasias – chaos, from which flashes of genius emerged from time to time like lightening bolts from a black thunder cloud.”

When a critic in the mid-1950s or so was reviewing a new quartet by Milton Babbitt which he found utterly indecipherable, he wrote “This must be what Late Beethoven Quartets sound like to a dog.” (Much to my delight, in the mid-1970s, a friend sent me this photo (see right) on a post card from Tanglewood with the inscription on the back, “Listening to Late Beethoven Quartets.”)

While it is impossible to demystify something like Beethoven's last five string quartets, it should be said they need not be so frightening to the first time listener. Many people know them by their reputation and see that they're long, dense and pretty intense and therefore only accessible to the initiated (and even then, maybe only for a 32nd-degree concert-goer).

Yet these same would-be listeners have no problem sitting through movies lasting hours with their convoluted plots, their own intrinsic language and history (comprehensible only to the initiated), and a philosophical and perhaps allegorical theme that can provide hours of discussion (think Tolkien).

Granted, the “Late Quartets of Beethoven” are, like, this monolithic Everest of classical music – more like a single mountain with five separate peaks which, inevitably, every string quartet eventually feels compelled to scale (no pun intended).

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Ever since Caesar divided Gaul into three parts, writers about music have talked of a composer's output in terms of Early, Middle and Late – especially Beethoven, but even Schubert who, after all, died at the age of 31 (had he lived longer, would we call his Late Quartets and Sonatas “Late” or merely “the first mature works of his Middle Period”? Elliott Carter, who didn't find his voice until he was 50, was writing what were called “Late works” when he was in his 70s: the fact he was still composing when he died just shy of 104 gives rise to the idea of calling the pieces he wrote after he turned 90 the “Post-Late Works,” but I digress...)

This is something that many “novice” music-lovers and even avid concert-goers sometimes do not realize: that not all Beethoven sounds the same. In fact, few composers do, usually going through “style changes” from their “youthful apprenticeship” to their “maturity” to the “wisdom of old-age” (especially confusing when applied to a 30-year-old Schubert). Even Beethoven, after all, was only 56 when he died, which is not, even today, something we would consider “old” (unless you're still under 30).

Now, I'll be getting into some of the details of this – how Beethoven's “late style” came about – at my pre-concert talk (which begins at 7:15 in the church sanctuary) – but for the blog, here are some video posts of the quartet-in-question with a few background comments.

Suffice it to say Beethoven's “Late Period” grew out of a difficult time in his life: in 1809, the deafness which had been threatening since before he was 30 finally kicked in with more increasing pain and frustration; in 1812, around the time he composed his joyous 7th Symphony, he was apparently in love, given the single letter addressed to a woman known only as “The Immortal Belov├ęd” but the following year it became obvious such happiness was not to be his. Then in 1815 began the long drawn-out crisis over the custody of his nephew. Between 1813 and 1818, he practically ceased composing.

Instead, he was writing trifles, publishing works previously unpublished (wreaking havoc with the relationship between chronology and opus numbers) and studying the music of Bach and Handel, two composers from a hundred years earlier whose music had largely been forgotten. From them, he learned more about counterpoint (especially the writing of fugues) than he ever did as a student in the 1790s. Fugue-writing became a new feature of the music he would compose from 1818 on.

It was a Piano Sonata that unlocked the creative block he'd been suffering – the Hammerklavier with its grander dimensions through expanding both the sense of traditional form and harmony, its renewed vigor and virtuosity and especially its complex fugal writing in the finale. Almost everything he wrote took on these same characteristics (if not always the fugues) – more sonatas, the immense Missa solemnis, the 9th Symphony (the famous “Choral” Symphony) and finally, these last five string quartets, all written between 1818 and 1826.

Beethoven (1823)
Most people wonder at the image of the Deaf Beethoven writing music at all – and many would disparage these last works (which many of his contemporaries found incomprehensible) as the result of his deafness (since he couldn't hear what he was writing, how could he tell what made sense and what were mistakes?). On the other hand, while many composers do not need to “hear” their music externally to hear it inside their head and transcribe it from there, one could argue that his deafness turned his creativity inward and he found a whole new way of expressing himself that was unlike anything being written by anybody else – and for a long time after him.

So, now – these quartets.

After the “middle” quartets – the three Op.59 quartets dedicated to Count Razumovsky, and the two separate works called the “Harp” from 1809 and the “Serioso” from the following year (though it wasn't published until 1815) – Beethoven did not think about writing more quartets until May of 1822 when he started sketching a new work which, unfortunately, his publisher showed little interest in.

That November, he heard from a Russian aristocrat, Prince Nikolai Golitsin who was a fine amateur cellist married to an accomplished pianist. Unlike his counterpart, Count Razumovsky, a music-lover who employed his own quartet, Golitsin played the cello in his. Golitsin wrote to Beethoven and asked him to write one, two or three quartets for him - and to name his fee.

Because of more pressing matters with the Missa solemnis and the 9th Symphony, Beethoven didn't return to his earlier sketches and couldn't begin writing the E-flat Major Quartet that became Op.127, the first of the last quartets, until the summer of 1824. He finished it the following February.

It was premiered the next month to a largely befuddled audience (not to mention players who admitted not knowing what to make of this piece). Subsequent performances fared little better.

Beethoven went ahead and wrote the next quartet – this was the A Minor Quartet which was later published as Op. 132. During this period of time, Beethoven had been quite ill, bedridden with an “intestinal inflammation” which interrupted its composition in the Spring of 1825. He celebrated his recovery with the famous Heiliger Dankgesang, the slow movement he called “Holy Song of Thanksgiving” that is the emotional core of the piece. He completed this quartet in July.

The next month he began work on a third quartet for Golitsin and finished it by November – this one in B-flat Major which would become Op. 130. This is the quartet the Daedalus Quartet will perform Tuesday night.

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If people had trouble comprehending what he was doing in these first two quartets he completed, even looking at the mass of this new one was enough to inspire fears and doubts. It was long, it had six movements and it ended with a monstrously difficult thing labeled “Grosse Fuge” or Grand Fugue ("somewhat free, somewhat academic" is one way of translating the subtitle) - by itself, it accounted for about one third of the quartet's entire length.

Keep in mind, since Haydn's day, a symphony or a string quartet might average about a half-hour long and was in four movements: the first movement was the main focus with its dramatic sonata form; followed by two shorter movements in contrasting slow and fast tempos, usually in a lighter mood; and then a finale that was originally almost an after-thought and generally (even in dramatic or minor-key works) a happy ending.

Beethoven had already started pushing the focus of the entire piece into the last movement, more of a summation than a curtain-closer. The last movements became longer, more dramatic and, in the case of the recently completed Ninth Symphony, not only the end-all but the be-all of a work now over an hour in length.

Here are clips of the individual movements (with different performers as I could find). First of all, my apologies if any of these start with loud blasting ads (please feel free to “skip,” under the circumstances).

1st Mvmt, Adagio ma non troppo / Allegro: Brentano Quartet

After a slow, searching and somewhat vague introduction, the fast main part of the movement begins with a flurry of notes, but keeps stopping and starting, going back to the introduction. This contrast takes on more and more significance (remember this when we get to the Grosse Fuge) as the movement develops so that that introduction isn't really a typical “intro” that just raises the curtain.

This is as good a place to point out that earlier, quartets were often works featuring the first violinist “accompanied” by three other string players, the cello playing the bass line and the 2nd violin and viola filling in the inner harmony. Haydn and Mozart had already begun changing this with their later works but it was Beethoven who began fully integrating the ensemble as a quartet-of-equals.

2nd Mvmt, Presto: Cypress Quartet

“Scherzo” is Italian for “joke” and they're usually fast, short and light. This one, after such an expansive first movement, is certainly short – two minutes as it rushes past. It's also very understated, hushed throughout except for the occasional outburst and the middle section with its rapid-fire work-out for the 1st violinist. Returning to the opening as the traditional form would have, Beethoven suddenly “kicks it off the stage.”

3rd Mvmt, Andante con moto ma non troppo: Quartet Casals

While Andante is technically not a slow tempo – it means, literally, “walking” – this is the required slower contrast following the whirlwind second movement, given one of Beethoven's more equivocating tempo indications: Walking tempo with motion (but not too much). It has a sense of “comfortableness” that would put the listener at ease.

Originally, at this point in the sketching process, Beethoven was considering various ideas for a finale, none of which seemed to involve a fugue. And there were ten possible ideas he jotted down. But instead of a finale – or perhaps because the idea of the great fugal finale came to him and was not suitably prepared by what he'd written so far – he added two more movements starting with this second scherzo: actually, the equivalent of an 18th Century minuet except more of a German folk-dance, not too rough but not smooth enough to be a minuet (or waltz).

4th Mvmt, Alla danza tedesca: Allegro assai: Juilliard Quartet (please ignore the over-romanticized graphic...)

This German dance (alla tedesca, in the German style) is marked “rather fast” and with its little swells in volume and sudden shifts from slightly louder to slightly softer, gives an easy, swinging feeling, possibly a bit like a hurdy-gurdy. As Michael Steinberg notes, it can create “something close to seasickness, the kind you induce with delicious deliberateness on a merry-go-round at the fair.”

After two quite down-to-earth movements, Beethoven now adds this touching and seemingly simple-sounding slow movement which he called a cavatina, a short, uncomplicated song: 

5th Mvmt, Cavatina, Adagio molto espressivo: Guarneri Quartet

This becomes the real slow movement of the entire work, a “song” for the 1st Violin, supported by the other players. Keep in mind he had already written the “Heiliger Dankgesang” in the A Minor Quartet (which will appear later as Opus 132) so there is already a precedent for the personal emotions Beethoven expressed here, not unlike those times he would visit friends – ill or grieving – and, without ever saying a word to them, improvise at the piano for an hour and leave them comforted.

In this case, a friend of his (young Karl Holz who was 2nd Violinist in Schuppanzigh's quartet which first played these pieces) recalled the Cavatina “cost the composer tears in the writing and brought out the confession that nothing he had written [before] had so moved him.” In fact, merely recalling it, Holz added, “brought forth renewed tears.” The brief middle sections, marked beklemmt in the sense one could feel unsettled “by the air just before a thunderstorm, by a nightmare, by an agonizing wait” (again quoting Steinberg). This then returns to the opening of the Cavatina, drawing back from this brief glimpse at the edge of the abyss.

And now for the last movement. With four “middle movements” of a somewhat light, uncomplicated nature (the Cavatina taking on a more charged emotional quality), all Hell breaks loose with the start of this immense and super-intense finale. Again, like the first movement, it begins with a unison passage that now erupts into contrasting flashes ("lightening bolts," indeed) with frequent changes of mood and tempo.

The late Joseph Kerman thought this opening was like the composer hurling "all the thematic versions at the listener's head like a handful of rocks." Out of this chaos, Beethoven assembles one of the most amazing things he ever wrote.

6th Mvmt, Grosse Fuge: Brentano Quartet

Ultimately, it's as if Beethoven wasn't sure how to end it. Reversing the process that began the finale of the 9th Symphony (less the famous “terror fanfare” if the whole fugue itself isn't a “terror-fugue”), he tries a snippet of this – silence – no, maybe the slower idea – no, not that, either: then they all go back to the unison of the opening bur rather than starting (OMG) over again, it quickly works itself out into something both exalted and humorous – and ultimately resolving the drama with, at long last, a “happy” ending.

a page from Beethoven's manuscript: Grosse Fuge
But while the first audience encored the two easy-to-process scherzos (which annoyed Beethoven), most everyone was thoroughly confused by the finale and an immediate campaign began from his friends, from the performers and most of all from his publisher to replace the Fugue with something more manageable, more accessible. Six months later, after writing two more quartets - Op. 131 in C-sharp Minor (which begins with a long, slow fugue of its own) and Op. 135, the last one - he began sketching the totally new, much lighter conclusion that for generations would be the official finale of Op. 130, once he was guaranteed the Fugue would be published separately (he also provided his own piano four-hands version, mostly for study purposes). Even so, it didn't receive its next performance until 1859, thirty-three years later, the same year Wagner completed his Tristan und Isolde.

While Beethoven's colleague Ludwig Spohr considered it “indecipherable, uncorrected horrors,” Igor Stravinsky said the Grosse Fuge was “an absolutely contemporary piece of music that will be contemporary forever.”

In this Graphic Animation version of Grosse Fuge (no performers acknowledged), ignore the information about the impending performance in California – while it's a maze of images to follow (the music is complicated enough), it might help you keep track of what's happening in the texture not to mention differentiating between the different motives (like the longer, sustained notes from the opening and the wildly jumping, rhythmic figure). The instruments are color-coded: 1st Violin = orange (or brown), 2nd Violin = magenta; Viola = green; Cello = bluish-purple. Good luck!

It might be of interest, having heard the Fugue, to go back and listen to the opening few minutes of the first movement: you may notice some similarities between this and the two themes of the fugue: the slow introduction of the first movement has been transformed into the “long-note” theme or subject of the fugue; the jagged, leaping theme of the fugue has its roots in the first fast section of the opening movement. Notice how, in both of these movements, there is so much give-and-take between these two contrasting tempos. Even though he had no idea how he would end the piece when he started it, it was like the seeds of the finale were there, one thing that ties the quartet together.

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While selection of performances of the complete quartet on YouTube are somewhat limited, for those who now want to experience the whole quartet “in context” and performed by one ensemble, here's the Zemlinsky String Quartet recorded at Festival Wissembourg in September, 2013:

Now, having been tossed back and forth over the abyss, you may want to retire to some distant corner to contemplate what you've just experienced in this piece.

On the other hand, since Beethoven gave in to pressures from his publishers, friends and performers to replace the over-sized Grosse Fuge with something “more manageable,” knowing the Fugue could stand on its own, he wrote what is essentially the Haydn-esque happy ending most people were hoping for. Though it's only about four or five minutes shorter than the original finale, it is much less difficult to play and far less exhausting to both play and listen to.

However, the “alternate finale” can't stand on its own and now that most quartets would play Op. 130 as Beethoven originally intended (as they should), it's a shame to lose this delightful piece if for no other reason than it's the last piece of music Beethoven ever completed.

He added it in November of 1826. He died on March 26th the following year.

So, while it's unlikely you'll hear it in concert as an “encore” except by Quartetto Masochismo, here is your chance to hear it (as you can in most recent recordings) as an added “bonus” track, performed by the Takacs Quartet:

And there is so much more to say about this piece - well, I'll still have plenty to talk about at my pre-concert talk!

Dick Strawser

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