Friday, April 17, 2020

Quartets in Quarantime: Beethoven & Schumann to the Rescue

As we continue our time apart together, this week’s dose of great music includes two masterpieces which, as Peter Sirotin described them,  radiate warmth and generosity of spirit. Beethoven created his 'Harp' Quartet during the final stages of his hearing loss, and Schumann composed his String Quartet in A Major during a bout of severe depression. Remarkably, these miraculous works continue to inspire and lift our spirits after almost two centuries. We are  grateful and delighted to share with you extraordinary performances of this music by the Philharmonia Quartett Berlin and the Avalon Quartet.

The Philharmonia Quartett Berlin performed Beethoven's String Quartet in E-flat Major, Op. 74, the “Harp” Quartet as part of their performance with Market Square Concerts first program of the 2012-13 season at Harrisburg’s Market Square Presbyterian Church. (Both of these performances were recorded by Market Square Church's sound technician, Newman Stare.)

Beethoven in 1806
The “Harp” Quartet earns its nickname from the unusual passages where the instruments pluck the strings – called pizzicato – as part of the opening theme at 2:07-2:17 but especially at two structurally significant moments, 6:11-6:27 (as the “development section” turns into the “recapitulation”) and again at 6:58-7:22, both leading up to the return of the main theme. There's one last hurrah at 8:53-9:22 and 9:41-9:48 during the “coda” (or tail) which wraps up the first movement.

The second movement (at 10:15), the slow movement, is a straight-forward adagio in A-flat Major, which Philip Radcliff in his book on the quartets calls “one of the most directly appealing movements that Beethoven ever wrote” with its “mood of Olympic serenity.” Judging from the sketches, this long-breathed theme came into existence more spontaneously than usual for Beethoven who frequently struggled with his ideas, the final version sometimes lacking any similarity with his first attempt.

The third movement (at 19:38) abruptly changes the overall mood. In Beethoven’s darkly dramatic key of C Minor (think especially the C Minor 5th Symphony), it bears many resemblances to the scherzo of the 5th with its almost constant “fate” rhythm in the background. Unlike the 5th, however, the transition to the finale (at 21:50) works in reverse: rather than building up to it, it’s more like the Storm movement in the 6th Symphony, the Pastorale, where the thunder and tension recedes into the background, leaving you hanging on an open-ended Dominant 7th chord which resolves directly into the 4th Movement without (hopefully) a break.

This finale (at 24:48) starts off almost anticlimactically with a seemingly mundane theme. This, however, sets up a series of variations that soon shifts into the patterns we’d normally associate with Beethoven. The harmony is simple, almost prosaic – easy for a listener to follow than some of the things he’d written before which often left listeners unwilling to leave the 18th Century behind them.

Rather than being old-fashioned, it’s his way of taking “something old” and turning it into “something new.” Perhaps not as new as the variations that would conclude his late piano sonatas and would fill the Late Quartets with some of their most magical moments, but well on its way.

And this quartet is a difficult work to “place.” It follows the symphonic brilliance of the three “Rasumovsky” Quartets (Op. 59) and though it seems to be a “one-off” work, not part of a larger set, it’s actually part of a pair of quartets that were written about the same time, though its companion piece, the Op. 95 Quartet in F Minor, which Beethoven called the “Serioso,” was published several years later. It would be twelve years before Beethoven would begin his last set of string quartets, known collectively as the “Late Quartets.”

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *

If you are a fan of the Dialectic – where, basically, an idea (or thesis) generates its opposite (or antithesis) which then combine to form some combination of the two (the synthesis) which in turn becomes a new idea generating its own opposite and so on – both Mozart and Haydn were interested in fashioning something new out of a combination of the current and the old. Beethoven, in his own way, was doing the same thing in the next generation: we have no idea how Mozart would have reacted to it (he would’ve been 44 in 1800, when Beethoven’s first quartets and 1st Symphony were premiered) but Haydn (who was 68, then) couldn’t make much sense out of this “new music,” admiring some of it but basically at a loss to accept it.

By the time Beethoven wrote his Late Quartets – the ultimate in individualism, music so private it was deemed, for better or worse, the result of his isolating deafness – he was well past the heroic outbursts of his Eroica and 5th Symphonies, now in his 50s (we tend to forget Beethoven died at the age of 56 – his music has not only made him timeless, it’s also made him ageless).

In a sense, Mozart’s K.499 Quartet, the earlier work on this original program, is also a transition work that never had a chance to go anywhere since the composer didn’t live long enough to complete the transition (one can only imagine, given the contrapuntal complexity of, say, the “Jupiter” Symphony’s finale from 1788, written only two years later).

Performers, programmers and program-note writers never seem to know where to put Beethoven’s two “lone” quartets – the “Harp” (Op. 74) and the “Serioso” (Op. 95). They’re not quite Middle Period and not yet Late Period. What they are, basically, is an example of how Beethoven did not wake up one morning with a whole new stylistic approach, the Late Period, which seems to begin around the “Hammerklavier Sonata” (1817-1818) before we get to the last three piano sonatas (1820-1822), the 9th Symphony (1822-1824), the Missa Solemnis (1819-1823) and, finally, those Late Quartets (1823-1826).

There is also that very long, very frustrating unproductive period between 1815 and 1818 or so, when his creative output was the lowest during his career and many of his contemporaries thought he had written himself out. Today, we might think of it as a musical extension of a Mid-Life Crisis (he was in his mid-40s, after all) and it would also be easy to blame it on the sheer amount of time and emotional energy consumed by his legal battles with his sister-in-law Johanna for the custody of her son, Karl, not to forget the sudden change in lifestyle when a man who could not imagine marrying, as much as he might seek the companionship of a wife, suddenly found himself with a teenaged boy under his roof.

What we also don’t realize is, after looking after the dates the “Harp” and the “Serioso” were composed, how much further away they are from this “Late Style” and how very much closer they are to the major works – in fact, even in between some of these major works – of the Middle Period: the 5th Symphony (1804-1806) and the 7th Symphony (1812).

The “Harp” Quartet (Op. 74) was written between late 1808 and 1809 and the “Serioso” (Op.95), despite its later opus number, was completed in 1810, not published for some reason until 1816.

Yet they still sound like “transition works.”

Given the regard the public has always had for Beethoven, even in his own day, it’s difficult to think of him as humanly fallible, at least in his music, that he could ever have doubted his own genius – this man who became the Titan, the supreme example of the confident artist.

But a creative style is a fluid thing – or at least, should be – and once you realize you've said all you can say “this way,” you start branching out for “new ways” to express yourself. But such breaks with the past, if conscious, are often scary – and as much a financial risk if your livelihood depends on the audience response to your work.

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *

The reality of 1809 can’t be ignored: Beethoven’s world was being turned upside down (again) by the siege of Vienna and its subsequent occupation by Napoleon and the French Army. While composing the A Major Cello Sonata, he had to hide in the basement of his brother’s house, covering his head with pillows because the noise of the bombardment so aggravated his delicate hearing, he was in terrible pain (he was not, as we sometimes overlook, “completely” deaf since the Heiligenstadt Testament of 1802: that, with its tragically necessary conversation books, would come much later).

It was also the time Haydn, recognized as the greatest composer of the day, was dying – Napoleon was respectful enough to put an honor guard in front of Haydn’s house at the time during the bombardment. Whatever their often prickly relationship may have been, the impending loss of this colossal figure in his life must have had some impact on Beethoven, his former student.

During the occupation, the Imperial Family fled the capital – including Beethoven’s friend, student and, more significantly, patron, the Archduke Rudolph, the Emperor’s youngest brother, a talented pianist and a composer in his own right. Several of Beethoven’s works are dedicated to him – not the least of them the “Archduke” Trio but also the Triple Concerto (written for him to perform) and the towering Missa Solemnis, initially composed for his being elevated to the post of Archbishop.

The piano sonata Beethoven composed at this time, always known for some reason in French as Les adieux (the “Farewell” Sonata), reflects the farewell to the Imperial family, the desolation of their subjects during their absence, and then looking forward to their hopefully quick, eventual return.

Another of Beethoven’s “public” projects was Incidental Music for Goethe’s play Egmont with its famous Overture but also numerous songs and marches. Considering the play is about the Dutch patriot’s stand against the tyranny of the occupying Spanish Army and its Inquisition, would there be any more reason for Beethoven – who had torn off his 3rd Symphony’s dedication to Napoleon after he’d crowned himself Emperor and proved himself to be just another power-hungry human – to compose this during the French occupation of Vienna? He began the work in October of 1809, though it wasn’t completed and performed until June of 1810, at which time he then began work on the Serioso Quartet. The French, meanwhile, had left Vienna on November 19th, 1809, and the Emperor returned on the 27th.

Another important event happened: the economy was tanking and Beethoven was looking for a way to get out of Vienna, hopefully finding a more stable location with an actual “gig.” As it turned out, Jerome, King of Westphalia – Napoleon’s brother who’d been placed on the throne of a newly created German kingdom to ensure its political loyalty and act as a “model” for other Germanic states – invited Beethoven to consider becoming his court composer, an attempt to turn his capital, Kassel, into an overnight cultural center.

Though it’s hard to imagine Beethoven, the composer of the Eroica Symphony, who broke his friendship with his patron, Prince Lichnowski because he refused to play for French officers who were guests in his castle, becoming an employee of Napoleon’s brother, but he let it be known he was considering it.

His friend, Baron Ignaz von Gleichenstein, helped to negotiate a pension supported by three of Beethoven’s wealthiest friends and patrons: Prince Lobkowitz, Prince Kinsky and the Archduke Rudolph. This annuity allowed Beethoven the financial support to stay in Vienna. While funding was sometimes difficult, especially with the fluctuations of the Austrian economy during these years of Napoleonic Wars, the Archduke was the only one who never reneged on his obligation.

Now, Baron Gleichenstein was also an amateur cellist. After these finances were finalized, Beethoven composed the A Major Cello Sonata and dedicated it to Gleichenstein.

As it turned out, Gleichenstein was courting a niece of Beethoven’s new physician, Dr. Johann Baptiste Malfatti, and she had a sister, Therese, whom Beethoven liked very much (she was 21; he, 40). Beethoven again engaged Gleichenstein’s help in his pursuit of Therese Malfatti which continued for some time without any encouragement from the would-be bride. Eventually, Beethoven gave up and apologized to her for his “mad behavior.”

Afterward, Beethoven wrote to Gleichenstein, “I can therefore seek support only in my own heart; there is none for me outside of it. No, nothing but wounds have come to me from friendship and such kindred feelings – so be it then: for you, poor B[eethoven], there is no happiness in the outer world, you must create it in yourself. Only in the ideal world can you find friends.”

(Gleichenstein was more successful: he and Anna Malfatti were married in 1811.)

However, in 1810, Beethoven apparently was again making plans to marry someone and there have been rumors (the Beethoven Myth Machine is still potent, even today) he was secretly married to another Therese, this one one of his piano students, one of the von Brunsvick sisters – both of them have long been candidates for the mysterious and so far unidentified “Immortal Beloved.” They, by the way, had a cousin named Giulietta Guicciardi with whom Beethoven had earlier been in love with. To Giulietta, he dedicated the “Moonlight” Sonata of 1801; to Therese von Brunsvick, he dedicated the Op. 78 Sonata in F-sharp Major, a seemingly slight work in two short movements but one he frequently called one of his favorite pieces. It was also composed in 1809, around the time he was writing the “Harp” Quartet!

Because an artist is often like one long fabric flowing through time, we discover numerous strands weaving together that can create a complex life as well as an equally complex context for the creative works.

There is another aspect I’ve only barely touched, and that is Beethoven’s health – seriously, much more than just his increasing deafness – which also had serious impact on his life though perhaps less so on this particular piece.

But, also seriously, there comes a time I must simply stop writing or you’ll end up with a book.

* * ** *** ***** ******** ****** *** ** * *

The second work in this week's “dose” is Robert Schumann's String Quartet in A Major, Op. 41, No. 3, performed by the Avalon Quartet from Market Square Concerts' November, 2014, program, recorded at Market Square Church:

It's in the standard four movements with the first movement's graceful main theme (0:40) growing out of a motive of its tenuous introduction.

The second movement, Assai agitato (“very agitated”), takes the place of Beethoven's standard scherzo (usually the third movement), but he's put it here for a stronger contrast after a more leisurely and less dramatic first movement. A set of variations, the theme (starting at 7:22) is full of off-kilter syncopations, with the subsequent variations in more agitated moods: at 8:57, it breaks out into an intense round of canonic writing, not quite a fugue; at 9:45, it returns to a more lyrical mood; before (at 11:58) one more manic episode eventually resolves rather suddenly into a far calmer state at 13:16 to conclude.

The slow movement, Adagio molto, beginning at 14:32, is a lush-textured, slowly unwinding song-without-words.

The finale, marked Allegro molto vivace, beginning at 22:51, is full of rhythmic contrasts, from the main themes' joyful dotted rhythms to slightly stormy passages or rustic dances in the other episodes, until (at 28:38) the coda drives everything to a joyful conclusion.

It's almost difficult to tell Schumann had been dealing with depression only a few months before writing these three quartets of Op. 41.

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *

In late-April of 1842, Clara Schumann, one of the greatest pianists of her day, had returned home following some concerts in Denmark, one where her husband Robert had decided not to continue traveling with her (he'd not been feeling well, having one of his depressive bouts). As the spring progressed, plans for an American tour were receding (much to Robert's relief) and eventually canceled: he was also 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 (it was so nasty, Schumann did not include it later when he re-published most of his articles) which ended up in a libel case which netted him a 6-day jail sentence which was commuted to “a five thaler fine.” The 3rd Quartet was finished on July 22nd, seven weeks after he’d begun work on the first.

During August, there was a bit of a summer vacation – I should mention, without getting too personal, the Schumann’s second child, Elise, was born nine months later – then back to Leipzig for rehearsals of the three quartets in early September. All three were performed in a house-concert on September 13th, Clara's 23rd birthday.

On the 23rd, then, he began work on the Piano Quintet which, after sketching it out in just five days, he completed on October 12th, 19 days after he'd started. Twelve days after that, despite the “constant fearful sleepless nights,” he began the Piano Quartet which he finished in a month. In the next month, he also composed a piano trio which he later recast as the Phantasiestücke (Op. 88) and a work for two pianos, two cellos and horn that later became a set of variations for two pianos (Op. 46).

All of that in seven months!

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *

Schumann in 1844
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, since 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, Schumann wrote this article only 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) 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).

By 1842, Felix Mendelssohn was the only major composer of the time who wrote string quartets during the period since Beethoven’s and Schubert’s deaths, at least any which endured in the repertoire: his first two were written when he was 18-20; the three quartets of Op.44 were composed when he was 28-29 (one more quartet, Op. 80, came later).

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

But if Beethoven had his deafness to deal with, in addition to numerous other physical ailments, Schumann had his own issues. Today, it's called “Bipolar Disorder,” but until fairly recently it was still known as “Manic Depression.” Whatever you call it, this is more than mood swings between being happy and feeling sad (“depression” is a word thrown around much too lightly, but there are different levels between “the blues” and the debilitating depths that too often lead to suicide). Essentially, without getting too clinical about it, it's a “mood disorder” defined by “manic episodes” which often involve sleeplessness, sometimes for a period of days, along with hallucinations, delusions, or paranoid rage, and “depressive episodes” which can be more devastating than merely being incapacitating.

Eventually, an extended episode in 1854 led to Schumann's attempt to drown himself in the Rhine, jumping off a bridge near his home in Düsseldorf.

The year Schumann was born, his father, then 37, was diagnosed with a “nervous disorder” which afflicted him the rest of his life: he died when Schumann was 16. The year before, Schumann's sister Emilie died of “a nervous stroke,” officially, though it was known in the family she'd committed suicide. When he was growing up in Zwickau, Schumann's family lived near what was then called “a lunatic asylum” and the idea of that building (where, according to one unsubstantiated report, fact or myth, his father may have died) gave him a life-long dread of such institutions in general.

His “manic depression” first manifested itself in 1833 as the result of the death of his older brother Julius and his wife – but I've only just learned this detail today: how did they die?

First, a little bit of medical history, considering the times we're living in in the 2020 Coronavirus Pandemic. The “2nd Cholera Pandemic of 1826-1837” spread from India across western Asia to Europe, Great Britain, the Americas, then Japan and China, though many feel this particular pandemic was a resurgence of the “1st Cholera Pandemic of 1817-1824” which had lingered in Indonesia until 1830.

I only mention this because – timing aside – Schumann's brother and his wife died in October, 1833, as a result of this pandemic and the news of their deaths triggered his first “severe depressive episode,” a term defined as “at least two weeks of 'low mood'... often accompanied by low self-esteem, loss of interest in normally enjoyable activities, low energy, and pain without a clear cause.” He recovered in early spring of 1834 and went on to found Die Neue Zeitschrift für Musik("New Journal for Music" though it's more of a “Journal for New Music”), first published on April 3rd, 1834. This became one of the most famous music journals in Europe and still publishes today under the aegis of the German publishing house of Schott Music.

Clara & Robert Schumann (1846)
Perhaps the central episode of Schumann's life at this time was his relationship with the young pianist and composer Clara Wieck and his piano studies with her father, Friedrich, which began in 1830. This became a prolonged trial ending in an actual trial after Robert and Clara sued Herr Wieck for permission to marry, a long-delayed event which finally happened on September 12th, 1840 (she was a day shy of 21; he was 30). As a composer primarily of piano music at the time, it might strike us odd this happy outcome should result in a flood of some 120 songs!

Since Robert had to abandon his dream of being a concert pianist after wrecking his hand with one of Wieck's “practice-facilitating” contraptions, he focused entirely on his journal and on composing. Even before their marriage, Schumann had already composed his most famous piano pieces: Carnaval, the Symphonic Etudes, Kinderszenen, Kreisleriana, and the Fantasie in C.

But in 1841, he composed two of his four published symphonies – the “Spring” Symphony, his first, and what eventually became his fourth, in D Minor (but not performed and published until ten years later after being substantially revised) – but also sketched four movements of a C Minor Symphony he never completed (the scherzo became one of his piano pieces, Op. 99 No. 13; material from the Adagio ended up in his 2nd Symphony a few years later), and there's the curious Allegro, Scherzo, and Finale which is essentially a symphony-without-a-slow-movement.

Meanwhile, Clara was becoming one of the greatest pianists of her day. Quickly, he realized he was better known as “Mr. Clara Schumann,” overlooked by her adoring public (even when she played his pieces) and soon, Robert found excuses – usually health-related – not to accompany her on some of these tours. This is all a future part of the story, especially following a more serious break-down in October, 1844, preceded by long fits of melancholy, when Clara wrote in her diary how she often found him sleepless, “swimming in tears,” that ten years later led to his attempted suicide on February 27th.

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *

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 between characters he named Florestan and Eusebius, among others. Florestan was the free and happy one and Eusebius the more pensive and dreamy. You can figure out which side of his nature is behind the music in each of the movements of this quartet, written at white heat in the summer of his Chamber Music Year.

People often say Schumann might have lived longer had he been treated for his illness but one has to wonder what impact a healthy life might have had on his music – first of all, would he have had the manic energy to tackle so many works in a single genre all at one time over the span of a few months? He might have been like many of his contemporaries, composers he wrote about and even championed, who were talented and perhaps even popular or at least well respected but, from our standpoint today, completely forgotten.

There's a great deal of biographical information regarding Schumann's illness in the remaining years of his life, too much to go into, here (you can read my post, And Schumann at the Close, for some of it), but if you recall his family history I'd mentioned earlier – his father and his sister – and that dread if not fear of the local “lunatic asylum,” the story only becomes more sad when you realize this brilliant and famous composer, one of the leading lights of 19th Century German Romanticism, spent the last 2½ years of his life locked away in such an institution in Bonn, not far from his beloved Rhine, his wife not allowed to visit him. When he composed his last works under the cloud of an increasing depression full of hallucinations and paranoia not to mention self-doubt and creative paralysis, he was 43 years old.

And yet this string quartet, a product of one of his more manic creative swings, remains a work full of life-affirming beauty, doesn't it?

Dick Strawser

No comments:

Post a Comment