Tuesday, March 29, 2016

The Doric Quartet and Beethoven's Op.132

The Doric Quartet, in a serious mood befitting Late Beethoven
Who: The Doric Quartet
What: Haydn, Korngold & Beethoven
When: 8pm, Thursday, March 31st
Where: Temple Ohev Sholom (located at 2345 N. Front Street in Harrisburg, between Seneca and Emerald Streets)
Why: They played Beethoven's Op.131 here in 2012; this time, they'll be playing his Op.132

(You can read more about the Haydn and the Korngold quartets in this previous post, here.)

Imagine someone composing a piece back in 1982 – thirty-four years ago – and someone writing something premiered today. Regardless of who these two composers might be or what style they might be writing in, we would think both of them are “contemporary” (I mean, people still think Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire is contemporary and that was premiered over 100 years ago!). Except for surface elements of style and perhaps a generational attitude, we might think them quite similar, depending.

Now, Haydn's half-dozen Op.64 Quartets - No. 2 opens the Doric's program - were published in 1791 when Haydn was 59. Beethoven's Op.132 which ends their program, was written in 1825, thirty-four years later. Beethoven was 54.

Beethoven, likewise serious, 1823
But what a world of difference between Late Haydn and Late Beethoven. Even with the arch-Romantic style of Korngold in between, with its late-19th Century harmonies, textures and modulations (despite being written in 1933), the Beethoven will still probably sound “more modern.” Certainly more adventuresome.

Beethoven's Op.132 is in five movements – not the usual four – creating sort of an arch form around the central slow movement which is generally regarded as this quartet's “crown jewel.” This is surrounded by two faster movements – first, there's the seemingly old-fashioned dance of the 2nd Movement, and then it's followed by the march-like 4th Movement which hardly seems to have gotten started when a recitative-like solo in the 1st violin turns into the finale, a dramatic mirror to the opening movement – hence, the arch:

Drama – Dance – Prayer – March – Resolution of the Drama.

Nowhere in this quartet is Beethoven's signature “scherzo” (the earthy, jocular replacement of the old-fashioned minuet). In fact, compared to the previous two opus numbers, it seems almost a return to near-normal. After all, you say, Op. 130 is in six movements and Op. 131 is in seven – so what's new and unusual about Op.132 being in five?

Here is a live performance by the Orion Quartet of the complete Op.132 (meaning it's in “one clip”):

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For those of you who read music or like to follow along with the score whether you can or cannot, here is the Alban Berg Quartet's recording:

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Just from the opening introduction, follow the constant half-step motion of the G#-to-A (or its reverse, A-to-G#) as it appears in different voices. It's hard to imagine this is the “kernel” that generated this whole quartet and provided, apparently, some fertile soil for the Grosse Fuge – but that's Op.130, so didn't that come first? More (as usual) on that in a bit...

The 1st Movement is not familiar territory to the careful listener of 1825 – it seems to be in Sonata Form but rather than repeat the exposition (as one normally would) he writes it out in the wrong key – so was that bit of transition the development section and this is... uhm... wait, it's over? Nowhere are those clear-cut boundaries one was used to in Haydn's day which told us plainly where we were: Exposition, Development, or Recapitulation with its final return to the home key. And what to make of those occasional operatic-like flourishes in the first violin that sound a bit like old-fashioned recitatives? Hmmm...

The Doric Quartet, less serious
The 2nd Movement starts off like a minuet but then that G#-A movement on the downbeat makes it awkward to dance to (where's the beat?). And as it unfolds, it really not a minuet, more of a lilting ländler, the folksy precursor of the more elegant waltz. It's not really a scherzo either, until we get to the country dance in the middle section with its drones (the open A-string affording a hurdy-gurdy-like accompaniment to a simple tune in the 1st violin), one of the sweeter moments after all the unsettled turbulence implied in the first movement.

Yet every time I hear this movement, I think back to the Heiligenstadt Testament of 1802 when Beethoven, fearing for his hearing and near-suicidal over the possibility – no, the inevitability of his deafness – wrote...

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“...what a humiliation when one stood beside me and heard a flute in the distance and I heard nothing, or someone heard the shepherd singing and again I heard nothing, such incidents brought me to the verge of despair, but little more and I would have put an end to my life - only art it was that withheld me, ah it seemed impossible to leave the world until I had produced all that I felt called upon me to produce, and so I endured this wretched existence...”
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He had written this “last will and testament” in the fall of 1802 – in the midst of writing the finale of his 2nd Symphony – and yet kept the document in his desk (quite likely having shown it to no one) where it was found after his death. Six years before he began writing these Late Quartets, Beethoven was reduced to using the "Conversation Books" where friends would write down questions for him, thus recording for posterity one side of what conversations Beethoven had but leaving us ignorant of his responses. Still, to communicate with the world this way...?

The third movement – the “Convalescent's Holy Song of Thanksgiving” – is a hymn that seems simple enough (the fact it is in the Lydian Mode – F Major with a B-natural instead of a B-flat – doesn't make it sound as “ancient” to our ears as it must have done to someone in the 1820s) with its “white notes” (in this case, open half-notes) even evoke the look of Palestrina's 16th-Century polyphony.

These alternate with more lively passages he marks “feeling new strength.” (More about this, later.) There is little music more transcendent than this in the whole repertoire of classical music.

The fourth movement comes as something of a shock after the spirituality of this hymn – a simple march-like passage that barely gets going before it is interrupted by one of those operatic flourishes (remember, in the first movement?) which leads directly – again, no boundary to cross, no pausing to turn the page – to the finale.

This is basically a rondo, not unexpected as a finale – incidentally, paging through the sketch-books if you could read them, the main idea of this movement was originally intended for a fully instrumental finale to the 9th Symphony, before he decided on adding a chorus and setting Schiller's Ode to Joy (imagine, you're listening to one of Beethoven's rejects, here!) – and here, the lyrical element which never got to take the lead in the first movement comes to the fore yet not without bits of turbulence along the way.

As we near the end – how many times do we think we're “nearing the end” in Beethoven's finales only to find “wait, there's more!”? – this lyricism takes on new heights (literally) and it almost seems as if everything is going to ascend into the air. A happy A Major ending, finally, as the music transcends the drama, the expectations, the implications of the past, to achieve humanity.

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Beethoven's original manuscript, opening of Op.132
The first sketches for Op.132 appear in late-1824 during the final push to complete the first of these quartets, the E-flat Major, Op.127, a more “standard” quartet in four movements, which he completed in February of 1825, moving immediately into the new A Minor Quartet, Op. 132.

Wait, what happened to Op. 130 and Op. 131? They were actually composed later: the B-flat Quartet with its original Grosse Fuge ending was begun in August of 1825, immediately after finishing the A Minor. This makes more sense when you realize the opening slow introduction of Op.132 is actually an integral part of the Grosse Fuge from Op.130 (the Fugue was later surgically removed and published separately as Op.133, but that's another story). Then, having completed this “Great Fugue,” he began another quartet which opens with a great fugal movement – if minuets were old-fashioned in the 1820s, fugues were like “ancient, scholarly stuff” – the C-sharp Minor Quartet (eventually Op.131) which he “finished” in May of 1826, as he told his publisher, though he apparently kept working on it until he submitted the score that August. Again, he immediately began work on Op.135, the F Major Quartet, which he completed in October, 1826.

Keep in mind, in the same sketchbook, there are ideas intended for a String Quartet in C Major. Wait – there could have been a sixth Late Beethoven Quartet?

Beethoven died in March, 1827, at the age of 56.

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While all five of his “Late Quartets” are considered the Mount Everest of Chamber Music, both for performers as well as listeners, it's amazing to consider the personal world of Beethoven when he was writing them.

Unfortunately for Prince Nikolai Galitsin's legacy - he commissioned Beethoven to write “a few quartets” for him - “The Late Quartets” never became known as “The Galitsin Quartets” as we generally know those three Middle Quartets dedicated to Count Razumovsky. Many people – at least, Classical Music Lovers – know Razumovsky's name even if they have no idea what a Razumovsky is (you can read more about Razumovsky in this post) only through his association with Beethoven's quartets.

First of all, Prince Nikolai Galitsin (Голицын in Russian: it can spelled different ways phonetically in different Western European languages) had to wait so long for them, asking Beethoven in 1822, offering to pay him “whatever amount you deem adequate.” Beethoven thought 50 ducats seemed adequate, though I've never found any way of comparing an 1822 Ducat to a 2016 Dollar.

Galitsin had lived in Vienna for a while and was familiar with the latest German music. An amateur cellist who played in his own house quartet (as Razumovsky played 2nd violin in his), he arranged several of Beethoven's piano pieces for his ensemble. At one point, he decided to commission the latest rage in German music, Carl Maria von Weber, but the violist advised he should contact Beethoven instead.

Considering Beethoven had not written a string quartet since he finished the Op. 95, the one he called the “Serioso,” in 1810, it is unlikely Beethoven would simply have decided “oh, okay, now that the Missa Solemnis is done and the 9th Symphony has been premiered, let me write these five string quartets for no reason at all.”

So we have a violist to thank for bringing them about! (Think on that, ye collectors of viola jokes!)

To help his cause, Galitsin arranged what turned out to be the world premiere of the Missa Solemnis in St. Petersburg, the Russian Imperial capital in 1824. For his troubles, Galitsin also received the dedication to Beethoven's new overture, The Consecration of the House, written for the opening of a new theater in Vienna.

Once he was ready to start work on the quartets, it was 1824, two years after Galitsin's letter, and while the legal issues dealing with his nephew's custody were behind him, the composer still had to deal with a rebellious 17-year-old who clearly had no interest in living with his rough, demanding, and not to mention stone-deaf uncle, regardless of his being The Great Beethoven.

While working on the Op.127 quartet, the constant yelling between uncle and nephew, not to mention the deaf composer's pounding at the piano when he composed, proved too much for the landlord who threw them out and Beethoven was forced to find new lodgings!

There were problems with the boy's occasionally running off to his mother (the infamous sister-in-law Beethoven referred to as “The Queen of the Night”) and there were always problems at the boarding school the boy'd been sent to. Later, while Beethoven was in the midst of composing the Op.135 Quartet, the boy, just before he turned 20, tried to commit suicide.

Listening to these quartets, it is amazing to imagine a composer being able to concentrate on writing anything, much less works of this profundity. Perhaps the drama surrounding Beethoven's final years had as much to do with shaping the inner world where these quartets came from as did the isolation from his deafness.

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There is a habit among commentators (and performers) who often explain these works as a kind of “summing up” in Beethoven's career – as if the term “Late Beethoven” refers to “the late Beethoven,” recently deceased. Beethoven had no idea he was going to die in March of 1827. If you don't know that the Op.135 Quartet was his last completed work, neither did he.

After his death, people found in his sketchbooks and in his desk, among other things (like that letter to the Immortal Belovéd as well as the Heiligenstadt Testament), sketches for a 10th Symphony's first movement, a C Major String Quartet, a string quintet – hardly the stuff of someone who was dying. Granted, between October of 1826 and his death, he completed only that alternate happy-go-lucky replacement finale for the Op.130 Quartet, for those who argued the Fugue was impossible to play and made the quartet too long for mere mortal attention spans. Yes, he was ill and yes he'd been sick before, perhaps even worse, but thoughts he was on the verge of dying never occurred to him before he completed the quartets, much less began contemplating them three years earlier.

He had written three quartets for Galitsin but then immediately produced two more – in Haydn's day, it was typical that quartets were produced in sets of six or maybe three: even Beethoven produced six quartets for his first set, Op. 18, and three for Razumovsky in Op. 59 in 1806. Perhaps, now, he decided he would go for six again, another complete set.

There are “whiffs of mortality” about these works because we find them there, and if Beethoven put them there, it's probably because most of his music from 1803 on also contained elements exploring the human condition – in the opera, Fidelio, but certainly the dramatic moments of the Eroica and the 5th Symphony. Could anything sound more “mortal” than the great Funeral March of his 3rd Symphony or even the slow movement of the 7th, even though one could argue these are essentially conventions Beethoven imbued with super-mortal inspiration?

copyist's MS, cello part, 3rd Movement
The title of Op.132's slow movement, the justly famous Heiliger Dankgesang, can be translated literally as Holy Song of Thanksgiving of a Convalescent to the Deity in the Lydian Mode. While many commentators (and listeners) dislike the intervention of reality behind the creation of Art – who cares what Brahms had for breakfast on the day he composed such-and-such? – the reality that intruded into this quartet at this point is significant: Beethoven was unable to continue work on his new quartet because of a bout of illness in the early spring. It wasn't until May that he began work again, and then began writing the slow movement. Keep in mind also this is a title he gave the movement, not a nickname given by some critic or editor somewhere decades later who thought “you know, this movement reminds me a lake in the moonlight, so I think I'll call it The Moonlight Sonata.”

But he knew that he would pull through – he knew he had been through worse: hell, he'd gone completely deaf, hadn't he, and showed God and the world what he could do despite these afflictions! Another bout of bowel distress, an inflammation brought on all manner of stuff you'd rather not think about while listening to this music! In April he was, in addition, dealing with bleeding from the nose and mouth but by May felt well enough to resume composing – hence the Hymn of Thanksgiving in the 3rd Movement.

This is a purely 19th Century Romantic idea, the artist inserting himself into the narrative, becoming the subject of his art, the exact opposite of what he did while composing the 2nd Symphony and writing the Heiligenstadt Testament. The writer E.T.A. Hoffman, whom Beethoven read, used similar techniques in his stories – they were considered quite innovative – but let's be thankful Beethoven chose to focus on his recovery rather than on the preceding illness.

We think of Beethoven as this great colossus of Classical Music – the one who terrified young Brahms, tramping behind him – and forget that Beethoven was far from being “typical” of his time. All you need to do is look at his contemporaries, those who were being performed, to know there was no one to compare him to, much less equal him. For most of us enjoying classical music, since Haydn had ceased composing with his oratorios in 1800, there really was no one of comparable stature: there would be Clementi, Cherubini, Hummel, Rossini, Weber, Paganini, all leading composers of their day, still remembered, along with Kalkbrenner, Moscheles, Weigl and hundreds more who are not – I do not include Schubert because, at this time, he was virtually unknown, though Beethoven met him and supposedly admired some of his songs (for his part, Schubert was just coming into his own in 1825, inspired by Beethoven: hearing a private performance of Op.131 may well have been too much emotionally for the young composer who died at the age of 31 only a few days later), or Berlioz who had only gotten started by the time Beethoven died; Mendelssohn composed his Octet the same year Beethoven wrote his Op.132, and would write his Midsummer Night's Dream Overture the following year but then he was still in his mid-teens, wasn't he?

Those who came after Beethoven had much to contend with, dealing with his legacy. And nothing was more confusing to the audiences and performers then than these Late Quartets. Even today, they are a sign of accomplishment for both and yet always leave us wondering “what if...?”

If you want, by the way, to understand the quartets better, listen to them in the order they were composed. Usually they are played in “opus order,” but to hear the A Minor Quartet as a response to the E-flat Op.127 quartet helps pave the way for the increasing complexities of the next two – the B-flat whose original finale is so carefully tied into the opening of the A Minor; the C-sharp Minor whose fugal writing is an outgrowth of the complex fugue that ended its predecessor – and the seeming reaction in the shorter, seemingly less daring in not quite so innovative F Major that was the last one he completed.

But, tell me, who could imagine, given that trajectory over three years' time, what a sixth quartet in C Major might have been like?

And now for some reality: Beethoven had requested a fee of 50 ducats per quartet before he'd started work on them. Prince Galitsin paid Beethoven a down-payment of 25 ducats for the first quartet, Op.127, but due to financial difficulties, he was unable to pay the debt he acknowledged in a subsequent letter. By the time Beethoven died, perhaps Galitsin figured it no longer mattered and Beethoven's heirs – acting on behalf of Karl van Beethoven, the nephew, who, despite everything, turned out to be a pretty good fellow after all, once the soldiering life straightened him out – had to pursue the Prince through the courts until it was finally paid in 1852 – twenty-five years after the composer died! It's a good thing this hadn't come out before he had completed the 2nd of these “Galitsin Quartets,” or Beethoven could have easily said, “the hell with you and your quartets – I'll write something else!”

But then, nobody commissioned Op.131 and Op.135 or the C Major Quartet left abandoned in the sketchbooks.

So, thank Galitsin's violist for that much!

- Dick Strawser

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