Thursday, November 15, 2012

Beethoven & His Late Quartets: Part 1

Q&A with the Doric Quartet
Last night, at the Midtown Scholar Bookstore, the Doric Quartet gave us a preview of tonight's concert with excerpts from each work on the program, ending with the conclusion of  Beethoven’s Quartet in C-sharp Minor, Op.131. The program also includes quartets by Robert Schumann and Ernest Chausson – and will open with excerpts from Britten's Suite No. 1 for Solo Cello played by Julia Rosenbaum whom some of you may have heard play with the Harrisburg Symphony last weekend (she’s the 16-year-old winner of the latest “Rising Star” Concerto Competition held at Messiah College).

You can read more about the concert here in this earlier post (which includes directions to Temple Ohev Sholom at 2345 N. Front Street in Harrisburg). The concert begins at 8:00.

This post is about Beethoven’s Late Quartets, more or less in general. Part 2 of this post, Beethoven, the Late Quartets & His Audience, continues at my other blog which will also give you more background on these works, often described as the Himalayas of the String Quartet Repertoire.

It’s difficult to find the best performances or recordings on YouTube, even when there are so many good ones available. I’ve chosen this clip for two reasons: it’s complete in one “video” and it’s the Juilliard Quartet, recorded in 1960. However, the sound, transferred from vinyl, is not the best. But it is the Juilliard Quartet.

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The work is ostensibly in seven movements, though a few of them are little more than expanded introductions. The main difference between these movements and those in other works Beethoven composed, they’re played without interruption. It’s also interesting to realize how the composer balances the difficult movements (the opening fugue, for example) with a contrasting movement (at 6:47), a scherzo built on simpler phrase structures and dancelike rhythms that are more easily assimilated.

While the rhythmic design might give the whole work a more seamless flow, the frequent changes in tempo and mood might give it more discontinuity – rather than being closely organized around the tonal center of C-sharp Minor, there are six distinct “main” keys and thirty-one changes of tempo (ten more than in the longer Op.132 Quartet).

At 9:40, a brief recitative-like dialogue sets up the heart of the quartet, a long, largely slow set of variations (beginning at 10:34) with its own sense of unity and contrast.

This easier-to-follow movement is followed by a wild scherzo (at 25:56) ending with the glassy sound of the strings being played near the bridge, before rising up to a dramatic conclusion (31:03) that sets up a slow, tragic passage that leads us into the dramatic and intensely rhythmic finale (at 33:22).

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Beethoven in 1823
It’s possible these five late string quartets of Beethoven’s might never have been composed.

In 1822, Beethoven had been sketching at a new quartet while he was working on the Missa Solemnis and had offered both works (the nearly completed Mass and the as yet unfinished if unbegun quartet) to one of his publishers, C.F. Peters, who accepted the Mass but turned down the quartet, saying they were more interested in, say, piano trios or piano quartets. Besides, they had enough “beautiful quartets” by Ludwig Spohr, Bernhard Romberg and Pierre Rodé (how many of you have heard any quartets by either of these composer recently? Anyone? Bueller?)

So Beethoven put the quartet aside and resumed work on the Mass (he had finished the first draft).

Then, in late November, 1822, a Russian prince from St. Petersburg who had lived in Vienna and was quite familiar with Beethoven’s music, sent him a letter hoping to commission from him one, two or three string quartets. Beethoven immediately sent off a letter to a student of his then in London to look around and see if there was the possibility of “selling quartets” there which, it turned out, was answered in the affirmative. He also pursued other arrangements with another publisher, meaning he could write something for Prince Galitsin who would pay for its being composed, and then make additional money from publishers in England, Germany and Vienna.

They argued about fees, the publishers feeling Beethoven’s asking price too steep, though the Prince was willing to pay whatever Beethoven wanted. The only problem was, in early 1823, Beethoven had other projects still in the fire that needed to be completed first: the Mass, the 9th Symphony, the Diabelli Variations – all vast works – and that only after the May 1824 concert which saw the symphony’s premiere would he be able to turn his attention to the new quartets.

This request from Galitsin almost didn’t come about.

Having heard Carl Maria von Weber’s new opera, Der Freischütz, he thought perhaps he would contact Weber for his newest commissioning project. Galitsin was then 27 years old, a talented amateur cellist married to a talented amateur pianist. He employed his own string quartet (of which he was the cellist). But when he announced he thought about commissioning Weber, the violist in his quartet, himself a composer, advised against it and said he should contact Beethoven instead.

Now, Beethoven may have already had a quartet on a back burner – he always had new works on numerous back burners but didn’t always complete them (an opera based on Macbeth at least provided some ideas for his “Ghost” Trio, for instance). Without a possible performance outlet, would Beethoven have spent the time and effort on a quartet for the sake of writing another quartet? And would he have written, as it turned out, five of them?

He picked up his discarded quartet sketches again before he completed the 9th Symphony, put them away again. He had initially proposed completing the first quartet by March of 1823 but then put Galitsin off with more delays and excuses that the prince probably feared he would never see his quartets.

Then, in May of 1825, after the premiere of the 9th, Beethoven settled down to work on the quartets. Originally there were going to be three for Galitsin. But he kept on writing them, perhaps keeping an eye to the other publishers and the lucrative deal he had made with them for those three. At one point, while working on the third of these quartets, he wrote to a publisher in Berlin that, ultimately, he planned on writing a total of six quartets – imagine, another Late Beethoven Quartet!

Beethoven’s friend, the violinist Karl Holz (recently, the new 2nd Violinist of Ignaz Schuppanzig’s quartet) had joked there was enough music in the Op.130 Quartet for two works – and then the decision to separate the difficult finale known as the Grosse Fuge resulted in at least an additional fee.

By February of 1825, over two years since Galitsin first wrote to him, Beethoven completed the first of these quartets, the E-flat Major, Op.127. Then in July, he had completed the A Minor which would be published as Op.132. Come November, the B-flat Major, Op.130, was finished.

But he just kept going.

In May of 1826, Beethoven informed his publisher Schott that a new quartet was ready – this was the C-sharp Minor, op.131 – though he didn’t send them the manuscript until mid-August. It was announced by the publisher in February of 1827 but didn’t go into print until June. By that time, Beethoven had died.

Immediately after sending off Op.131, then, Beethoven started work on the F Major, Op.135, which he finished in October.

Sometime during this span of months, there’s a fragment of a sketch for a Quartet in C Major, what might have become the sixth quartet from this set.

Between October and November, then, while visiting his brother in Gneixendorf, along with his nephew in what turned out to be a most unfortunate visit, Beethoven composed the new finale for the Op.130 quartet, replacing its original Grosse Fuge ending.

This would turn out to be Beethoven’s last completed composition. He and his nephew returned to Vienna. Beethoven’s health took a decided turn for the worse and he died on March 26th, 1827.

In April, 1825, while composing the A Minor Quartet, Op.132, Beethoven had suffered another relapse, this time with intestinal complications and spitting blood. A letter to his doctor ended “Doctor, close the door to Death! Music will also help in my hour of need.” In late May, he began to feel better: he composed the famous slow movement of the quartet, the Heiliger Dankgesang with its prayer of Thanksgiving to God on his convalescence with a sense of renewed strength in the contrasting sections.

A few days later, his nephew wrote to him “God is my witness that my sole dream is to get away completely from you.” Karl was 18 at the time.

There followed a precarious truce. But it was a time filled with tension and several letters back and forth between Beethoven and Karl’s teacher who was not supposed to allow Karl out of the house at night under any circumstances.

Then, on July 31st, 1826, Karl attempted to commit suicide, shooting himself in the head with a pistol but succeeding only in wounding himself (apparently, a week later, they had not yet removed the bullet). Among other things, this caused the need to cover it up since attempting suicide was a state crime. Something had to be done to get Karl out of this state of mind – perhaps a military career would give him the necessary discipline and, also, get him out from under the obsessive watch of his Uncle Ludwig.

Beethoven was still working on the final version of Op.131 in July of 1826, only sending the score off a couple of weeks after his nephew’s attempted suicide. Originally, the score was to be dedicated to Johann Nepomuk Wolfmayer, a devoted friend of Beethoven’s, but instead he gave the dedication to General Baron von Stutterheim who had secured a place for Karl in his regiment: Karl joined the regiment in January of 1827 and never saw his uncle again. Wolfmayer, instead, received the dedication of the next quartet, Op.135. A wealthy textile merchant, Wolfmayer had advanced Beethoven a large sum for a Requiem that Beethoven promised he would write but never did. (Imagine the irony of both Mozart and Beethoven writing requiems at the times of their deaths?)

Alternating between depression and defiance, Karl’s life was not an easy one, kept in almost virtual imprisonment at his school and forbidden to see his mother. Whatever tensions led to Karl’s attempt to take his own life must not have been easy for the composer to bear, either.

For lack of space and time, we’ll have to leave the biographical details at that, but it’s enough of a headline to give you an idea Beethoven was not working on this quartet in an idyllic setting.

Click here for Part 2: Beethoven, the Late Quartets & His Audience.

Dick Strawser

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The Doric Quartet Drops By with Schumann, Chausson & Beethoven

The Doric String Quartet stops by in Harrisburg after Washington’s Phillips Collection and New York City’s Morgan Library before heading back to Europe for concerts in Berlin and Amsterdam.

They’ve just released their fifth recording, a CD of string quartets by Franz Schubert – the “Rosamunde” and “Death & the Maiden” Quartets – which will be an excuse to hold a CD Release Party at the Midtown Scholar Book Store tonight at 7pm where we’ll hear some Schubert played live and have a bit of Q&A about the life of a quartet. This event is free and coupons for a $10 discount on Thursday night’s concert with the Doric Quartet will be available to attendees.

Then Thursday night, at Temple Ohev Sholom, they’ll play three quartets – Schumann’s 2nd; the last work Ernest Chausson almost finished, his only String Quartet; and one of the monuments of the repertoire, Beethoven’s Quartet in C-sharp Minor, Op.131.

The program opens with a performance by Julia Rosenbaum, the 16-year-old cellist who performed the Tchaikovsky Rococo Variations with the Harrisburg Symphony and Stuart Malina this past weekend at the Forum. The winner of the latest “Rising Star” Concerto Competition, she’ll play excerpts from Benjamin Britten’s Suite No. 1 for Solo Cello.

Incidentally, Market Square Concerts standard student ticket policy for all concerts offers $5 tickets to college students with a valid ID. School-aged children (K-12) attend for free and an accompanying adult can purchase a $5 ticket.

The concert begins at 8:00. Temple Ohev Sholom is located at 2345 N. Front Street in Harrisburg, between Seneca and Emerald Streets. Since most of Harrisburg’s one-way streets always seem to be going the wrong way, if you’re approaching the Temple from downtown, take 2nd Street past Seneca to Schuylkill Street, turn left toward Front: the parking entrance is just beyond Seneca.

This post covers the Schumann and Chausson quartets on the program. You can read more about Schubert and his Death & the Maiden Quartet here. The Beethoven quartet requires a post of its own.

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In the past, I’ve written a great deal about Robert Schumann’s life and his Year of Chamber Music – you can read this post which is primarily about the Piano Quintet but which will give you the biographical background to that summer when he composed all three of the Op.41 String Quartets as well as the Piano Quintet and Quartet, all between June and November.

Better known at the time as a writer about music than a composer of it, Schumann had recently complained about the fate of the string quartet genre, how, the glory days of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, no one of the next generation had written string quartets of any comparable value.

It’s important to realize, given the easily jumbled chronology of the music we’re familiar with in the concert hall or on recordings, that Schumann was writing this about 15 years after Beethoven’s death (and the Late Quartets were generally unknown and largely unpopular with the typical concert-going audiences of the day – more on that, later) but also about 10 years before he met a young composer named Johannes Brahms (when Schumann composed his quartets, Brahms was still only 9 years old).

Only Felix Mendelssohn wrote quartets during the period between Beethoven’s and Schubert’s deaths and Schumann’s article which have endured in the repertoire: the first two were written when he was 18-20; the three quartets of Op.44 were composed when he was 28-29.

It’s not unusual, then, to see Schumann sitting down to write some string quartets to see how he would fare – and then dedicating them to his friend and colleague, Felix Mendelssohn.

In the spring of 1842, Clara Schumann, one of the greatest pianists of her day, had returned home after a long tour. Plans for an American tour were receding and Robert was glad to have his wife home with him as housewife, mother and hostess rather than concert artist. It was a time they had both begun studying string quartets by Mozart and Haydn when Robert decided to put into practice what he had learned.

By June 2nd, he was sketching “quartet essays” and two days later began the 1st String Quartet. On the 11th, he began the 2nd Quartet even before the first one was finished. In between the 2nd and the 3rd Quartet, not begun until July 8th, he wrote a scathing article about Clara’s ex-boyfriend Carl Banck and his new composition (it was so nasty, Schumann did not include it later when he re-published most of his articles) and also ended up in a libel case which netted him a 6-day jail sentence which was commuted to “a five thaler fine” (I don’t know what the equivalent of the standard German unit of currency would’ve been, but an 1841 thaler recently sold on E-bay for $270). The 3rd Quartet was finished on July 22nd, seven weeks after he’d begun work on the first.

We often talk a lot about Schumann’s “split personality,” not that he was schizophrenic in the medical sense or that he was any different from any artist who might be 50/50 Right-Brained/Left-Brained, as we might think of it today. Like the ancient Greek philosophers writing dialogues between teacher and student, Schumann often wrote articles or reviews from the viewpoints or with direct conversations from characters he named Florestan and Eusebius, among others. Florestan was the free and happy one and Eusebius the more pensive and dreamy. The 2nd of these three quartets from 1842 is definitely the Florestan side – hearing the opening theme can’t help but make you smile.

It’s difficult finding decent performances (much less recordings) on-line to post as examples, here, especially of the 2nd Quartet which, for some reason, is under-represented compared to the 1st and 3rd. This performance, by a group called the Manfred Quartet which I’m unfamiliar with, may give you a good idea of what to expect or if you want to hear it again after the performance (though you could come to the concert and buy the Doric Quartet’s CD on Chandos of all three Schumann quartets!).

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Robert Schumann: String Quartet No. 2 in F, Op.41/2 – 1st Movement.

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2nd Movement – Andante

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3rd Movement – Scherzo

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4th Movement – Finale

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Ernest Chausson’s music is not that well known, at least in this country. He was primarily trained as a lawyer though he had little interest in the profession. His father made the family fortune during the 1850s, helping with the rebuilding of Paris into the modern city we think of today, one of the greatest urban development programs of all time. Chausson was something of a dilettante who dabbled in drawing and writing before deciding on music.

Chausson’s string quartet is Op.35 and compared to Schumann’s Op.41, written when he turned 32, and seeing a number like Op.131 a little later in the program, we might assume it’s a fairly early work. In fact, it’s his last almost-finished composition. He wrote little, published less, and may be best known for the Poeme for Violin and Orchestra and a little less for the Concert for Violin, Piano and String Quartet. His songs should be better known (of course, in these days when song recitals are almost a thing of the past, any songs should be better known) and his sole Symphony could be heard more often in this country.

He was something of a late-bloomer, taking up composition in his early-20s and studying with Jules Massenet, the then-reigning opera composer in France. He heard the world premiere of Wagner’s Parsifal along with his friend, fellow composer Vincent D’Indy, and this became a major influence on his style at a time when most French composers viewed the Germanic style of Wagner or even Beethoven and Brahms, as anathema, though in the late-1880s, he saw that a “period of de-Wagnerization is necessary” in order to rediscover a musical language free of “Nordic mists” and “extreme Romanticism” in favor of “a healthier, more classical expression,” again pointing out the artistic personalities of the right-brained and the left-brained artist.

You can read more about Chausson’s life in a post from one of Market Square Concerts past Summermusics which featured a live performance of the “Concert(o) for Violin, Piano & String Quartet.”

For Chausson, composing was an often painful process. Talented as he may have been, it did not flow as easily for him as it did Schubert or even Schumann (who still, for all his many bursts of creativity, had to contend with subsequent periods of depression and exhaustion). About the time he turned 40, mid-life crisis or not, he became increasingly pessimistic, though whether that was a natural development or the result of discovering Russian authors like Dostoievsky, Tolstoy and Turgenev (or perhaps what drew him to these writers), who can say? He was also heavily influenced by the Symbolist poets of the day. Some say his music sounds more influenced by Debussy with whom he was on friendly terms until the mid-1890s when Chausson disapproved of Debussy’s promiscuous lifestyle. But realistically, it would be more his being influenced by the same things – poetry and painting especially – that influenced Debussy.

His String Quartet is a work I’ve never heard either in performance or in recordings. I’ve heard his Piano Trio and his Piano Quartet, both live, but the only thing I can find written about the String Quartet beyond the story of its composition is this, from the Grove Dictionary:

“…and the austere String Quartet, begun in 1897 and left unfinished at his death.”

And this:

“He wanted to prove, above all…, that a sonata or a quartet may contain as much music as a whole opera. In the first bar of the String Quartet Op. 35, the basic elements of the work are superimposed on each other – a 3rd in the first violin, a 5th in the second violin and viola, and a 6th in the cello; the principal theme is composed of just these three intervals.” This sounds definitely like he’d given up his intense Romanticism for the more intellectual world of the classical architect.

As for the biography of the quartet itself, Chausson was spending the summer at one of his country estates in 1899 when he decided to go for a bike ride. Though details are sketchy (there being no witnesses), he was riding downhill, perhaps lost control of the bike and, in those days before safety fanatics urged everyone to wear helmets, crashed into a wall (stone or brick, according to different accounts I’ve read) and died instantly. One source inferred he had recently been depressed and therefore implied possible suicide but that would also suggest a decision to put everything in order beforehand, which he didn’t seem to do.

An undated quote may impose a certain context, here: "There are moments when I feel myself driven by a kind of feverish instinct, as if I had the presentiment of being unable to attain my goal, or of attaining it too late.”

The quartet was left “unfinished” but how unfinished, I’m not aware. If it’s mentioned anywhere, it seems he was “almost finished” with it but are we talking the last several measures or simply going through an otherwise complete draft and doing some editing? Whatever needed to be done, Vincent D’Indy prepared the work for its premiere the following January.

Curiously, Chausson appears to have “adopted” (consciously or otherwise) a theme from Wagner’s Das Rheingold in the second movement.

When we think of composers who’ve died young, Franz Schubert and Mozart come first to mind, Schubert at 31 and Mozart at 35. We forget that Mendelssohn was 38 or Schumann was 44 when he tried to commit suicide, dying a few years later in a mental institution.

Chausson was also 44 when he went on that last bike-ride through his country estate, just as his career was taking a whole new turn.

And Beethoven, who seems so universal and agelessly titanic compared to every other composer even vaguely familiar to the mass audience today, was 56 when he died, not long after he had completed his last five string quartets.

When a friend asked him which he thought was the best, Beethoven responded “Each of them, in their own way.” But one of them – the C-sharp Minor, Op.131 – was his favorite and it concludes the Doric Quartet’s program for Market Square Concerts.

I’ll write about that in a separate post, which you can find (eventually) here.

Dick Strawser

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The photos of the Doric Quartet are copyrighted by the quartet. The photo of Julia Rosenbaum was taken at the Harrisburg Symphony concert, Nov.10th, 2012, by Kim Isenhour.