Thursday, March 11, 2021

The Verona Quartet, Part 2: Voices from Central Europe

The Verona Quartet, Informal Mode

This Sunday, the Verona Quartet returns to Harrisburg for Market Square Concerts at Whitaker Center – that's 4:00 EDT (note the “daylight” in EDT) – this time as the winner of the prestigious Cleveland Quartet Award. They're making their nationwide tour under the award's auspices (Harrisburg is one of eight locations to host these tour concerts, including Carnegie Hall and Washington's Freer Gallery) even though, with everything else, it's been an otherwise inauspicious year to be touring...

For their program here, they'll play selections from Antonín Dvořák's Cypresses and Karol Szymanowski's 2nd String Quartet on the first half; and on the second half, Beethoven's Quartet in C-sharp Minor, Op.131 (which was the subject of the previous post). 

The Verona Quartet has programmed five selections from the twelve “songs” making up Dvořák's Cypresses so I've selected these “audio clips” via YouTube recorded by the Cypress Quartet which takes its names from this work (these works?). You may remember them from frequent visits to the Mid-State: introduced by Ellen Hughes during the “Next Generation Festivals” of yore, they appeared often with Market Square Concerts and other venues across the region in the past.

I've also included links for four of the original songs' translations but note that the numbering for the songs may differ from the numberings of the quartet arrangements. And being translations, those texts may differ from the titles given here.

(#2) Allegro ma non troppoDeath reigns in many a human breast

(#3) Andante con motoWhen thy sweet glances on me fall

(#12) Allegro animato – You ask why my songs

(#9) ModeratoThou only dear one, but for thee

(#11) Allegro scherzandoNature is held in light sleep 

If you're interested in the whole set (which, apparently, may not have been intended to be performed as a continuous set), you can listen here to a performance (presumably) by the Prague Quartet complete with score. 

And since the Verona Quartet says they enjoy telling stories in their music-making, what story exists behind these short works that are originally, after all, setting poems about... well, unrequited love? (I mean, the first one they've chosen starts off "Death reigns in many a human breast"...!)

Typically, this story is quickly told: twelve pieces for string quartet based on a selection of earlier songs.

Josefina Čermáková
The slightly longer version would be something like: “The composition of the song cycle Cypresses was a response to the young composer’s rejection by the actress Josefina Čermáková whom he'd met working at the Provisional Theatre and she'd become one of his piano students. He found a reflection of his state of mind in the collection of poems, Cypresses, by Gustav Pfleger Moravsky, 18 of which he set to music between July 10th and 27th, 1865. Dvořák later married her younger sister Anna in 1873. They had 9 children. Later, Dvořák arranged 12 of them for string quartet.

The version you'd expect from Dr. Dick is a little more complicated and a lot longer than that – but may give you more of the composer's state of mind both when he composed them initially and why, perhaps, he returned to them 22 years later.

His first published songs, Cypresses (the song cycle) is among his earliest surviving works, written when he was 23. Keep in mind that, though his musical talents developed fairly early, his first public performances didn't come about till 1872, and success only later. By then he was already in his 30s.

Going to Prague, a young man previously destined to follow his father in the butcher's trade, Dvořák joined an orchestra (since he couldn't afford tickets, it gave him a chance to experience a lot of music he might not have heard otherwise) and shared an apartment with five other young men, including a couple other musicians, one of whom owned a small upright piano. Since (as more than one source says) he was making the equivalent of about $7.50 a month (however and whenever that figure was estimated), he supplemented this by becoming a piano teacher, in those days one who went to the students' homes to give the lessons.

One of his students was a young actress, Josefina Čermáková, still a teenager and specializing in ingenue roles at the theater where he played in the orchestra. He fell in love with her but she (as they say in the romance novels) “did not return his love” – hence, songs of unrequited love.

However, one of Dvořák's other piano students was Josefina's younger sister Anna and whether their relationship began on the rebound or was genuine – the same thing had happened to Mozart and his wife-to-be Constanza – they married in 1873 and, yes, would eventually have nine children.

The Kounic's Vysoka “chateau”
But at the time Dvořák married Anna, Josefina was still unmarried. Later, she met a count and a prominent politician named Vaclav Kounic who owned an estate outside the village of Vysoka. He and Josefina married in 1877 and the Dvořáks attended the wedding at their Vysoka “chateau”. In 1880, the composer and his wife spent the summer there and, after he began earning enough money (particularly after his first London visit which resulted in a commission for the 7th Symphony), Dvořák bought some land from Kounic and converted an old farmhouse there into a summer residence and studio in 1884.

Dvořák at his Vysoka home
So keep in mind that though he had “loved and lost” Josefina in a sense, she became his sister-in-law and after 1884, they were in close contact since Josefina spent much of her life on the estate in Vysoka. While this should imply nothing beyond their relationship than his having been turned down by her the first time – Dvořák may have admired Wagner's music in the '60s and '70s, but he was not the kind of man who'd have an affair with his landlord's wife (Matilda Wesendonck, a relationship which also gave us a set of love songs and, not coincidentally, inspired Tristan und Isolde) or with his closest musical associate's wife (Cosima von Bülow) – it's interesting to note that, a few years after moving into his summer house, Dvořák's thoughts turn again to the songs of unrequited love written over his First Love who happened to live in the next house over...

Years after they'd been written, the composer characterized the idea behind the songs, saying, Just imagine a young man in love – that’s what they’re all about! When he arranged them for string quartet and originally called them, tellingly, “Echoes of Songs,” he was in his mid-40s. It was his son-in-law, the violinist Josef Suk, who decided they should just be called Cypresses when they were eventually published. However, that didn't happen until 1921, 17 years after the composer's death. Four of them had been performed privately in 1888 at a “composers' forum” in Prague and under the title "Evening Songs" – but if Dvořák himself chose not to publish them, why did he come back to these songs (especially now) and make these arrangements if he didn't intend to make them public?

While Dvořák would rework several of the original songs from Cypresses into opera arias and even other song collections as well as these famous string quartet pieces, the most famous recycling Dvořák employed of any of his songs can be found in the beatific final moments of the Cello Concerto, before the triumphant ending, where quotes his song (not one of the Cypresses, however, in case anyone was wondering) "Leave Me Alone", Op.82/1, a favorite of Josefina's. She died in May 1895, shortly after Dvořák returned from America, after which the concerto was further revised to include this most personal of tributes. 

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Dvořák, famous in the wider world, is one of the key figures in establishing a Czech musical voice in a region dominated by German culture. Karol Szymanowski, not so internationally recognized, played a similar role musically in his native Poland during the early-20th Century, blending elements of folk music (though not as overt as those of his colleagues Bartók and Kodály in Hungary) with other influences from German, Russian, and squeezed in between both culturally and politically and overshadowed by both Polish music. 

Szymanowski in 1924
If you're not familiar with his name or his “story,” much less his music, this biographical background may help you appreciate the string quartet the Verona Quartet plays on the first half of their concert.

Born into the Polish landed gentry on an estate near Kiev, his home was once part of a greatly expanded Poland (long divided up over centuries among its neighbors), that was by then part of the Russian Empire but is now in Ukraine. The family's estate was burned to the ground during the unrest following the 1917 Revolution and the family fled to the regional city of Elizavetgrad (a city which, since 1924, has undergone four name-changes) where Szymanowski had previously gone to the music school in the 1890s.

Eventually he settled in Warsaw, traveled extensively, pursued interests in Islamic Culture, Ancient Greek drama, and philosophy – at this time, in his mid-30s, he also wrote a lengthy novel (more on that later) – before settling more comfortably into becoming a composer. Initially influenced by Wagner (as Dvořák had been) and Richard Strauss (as Bartók had been), Szymanowski later absorbed the middle-period music of Scriabin (who'd died in 1915) along with Impressionism from Paris (including a more colorful sense of orchestration, courtesy of Stravinsky and Ravel) spiced up a bit with some “atonality” from Germany – his lushly orchestrated 3rd Symphony, “The Song of the Night,” begun in 1914 (just that opening chord!) and his 1st Violin Concerto (from 1916), both rejecting traditional tonality as well as generic Romantic attitudes while still maintaining the beauty of texture and sound we associate with them. In fact, the violin concerto, when I first heard it, reminded me a bit of Ravel's G Major Piano Concerto, except Ravel started writing his concerto in 1929! 

Keep in mind also that “rejecting tonality” does not necessarily mean “embracing atonality” – he would still use triads and key-centers but without using them in traditional “tonal” ways. (Never mind, it's a long, technical, and, to all but the geekiest of musicians, boring story!) Don't forget, though, Bela Bartók said his String Quartet #3 was in C-Sharp Major!

Boring and technical they may be, yet these were major issues – aesthetic things, stylistic things – happening all across Europe and every composer, one way or another, had to deal with them, all part of the artistic turmoil before the outbreak of World War I and the eruption of mind-blowing and tradition-bursting works like Pierrot Lunaire and The Rite of Spring.

However, all that is beyond the scope of this post. Still, it's good for a listener unfamiliar with Szymanowski's music or his place in the 20th Century to be aware of these issues and the impact they could have had on his music.

In 1927, the same year Szymanowski composed his 2nd String Quartet and around the time he was gaining an increasingly international reputation, he had been offered two music school directorships: he chose the Warsaw Conservatory over the one in Cairo – even though Cairo had offered him better terms and was in a better climate given his health concerns (dealing since childhood with the threat of tuberculosis) – primarily because he saw this as an opportunity to improve the state of Polish music which had been largely overlooked during past decades. And what better time, now, than when Poland, free of its Russian occupation, was finally an independent nation.

Szymanowski sent his new quartet off to a competition, hopeful of winning a prize (as he wrote to friends – see below). As it happened, he did not win: the prize went to Bela Bartók for his 3rd String Quartet which was – (wait for it) – written in September of 1927.

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I'll include two videos for you – a live performance with the Belcea Quartet, and the second, one of those “videos with score” for those who want to follow along, regardless of your geekiness (performed by the ensemble called the Schoenberg Quartet):

At this point, I'm just going to quote extensively from the University of Warsaw's Karol Szymanowski website because of its wealth of detail that I see no sense in paraphrasing (my edits are marked with [italics] or […]) 

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Szymanowski's apartment
In the autumn of 1927, [a friend] was climbing to Szymanowski’s flat in [Warsaw...] “On the stairs I heard thoroughly familiar sounds. It was Szymanowski at his old, trusty piano, working on the second Quartet… the work was not flowing. He would repeat one musical phrase a number of times, looking, perhaps, for the appropriate shape or harmonic background for it. It was a reminiscence of some Highland melody [from the Tatra Mountains and the area around Zakopane, a favorite vacation spot of Szymanowski's in the south of Poland]… Then silence, as Szymanowski made notes.”

The composer’s return to the quartet genre after ten years was brought about by an invitation received from the Musical Fund Society in Philadelphia, encouraging Szymanowski to take part in a competition for a chamber composition. The aim of the competition was worthy: “to add valuable works to the repertoire of chamber music”, as Szymanowski reported in a letter to [close friends]. Additional motivation was provided by the high value of the prizes: “[...] what a delight it would be to get even that last one of $2,000”, he said in that letter, enclosed with the finished score.

Szymanowski at that time was short of time, busy with work at the conservatory. He thus viewed his new composition with a degree of reserve: “I have no idea if it’s worth anything! (But I do think it will sound very well).” Unfortunately, the quartet was not worthy of a prize in the opinion of the jury (the prize went to Bartók and Casella), but it would be difficult to disagree with the remark in brackets: out of an ensemble of four related instruments Szymanowski really did extract an enormous richness of timbral effects.

Like the earlier quartet, this one is also constructed in three movements. The form of the first movement is sonata-allegro, the second combines rondo with variations. In the third movement, Szymanowski put into practice an idea he had many years earlier, crowning the quartet with a fugue, and a double one at that. The main theme of the first movement (Moderato) is intoned by the violin and the cello in a high register characteristic of Szymanowski, against the background of rustling tremolo. As the theme undergoes transformation, the music becomes not only more expressive, but more colourful. It owes this last characteristic to the great diversity of articulation, such as sul tasto (with the bow close to the fingerboard), sul ponticello (near the bridge), a punta d’arco (at the point of the bow) as well as numerous tremolos, trills and use of harmonics. After a rhapsodic Moderato the resolute rhythmic patterns of the scherzo introduce a more lively tempo. The chords sound rough, even dissonant. The quartet is one of the most “modern” of Szymanowski’s compositions, perhaps inspired by the modernist music which he had the opportunity to hear, if only by participating a year earlier in the festival organised by the International Society for Contemporary Music in Zurich. Today, however, its most striking aspects are the motifs clearly associated with the highland folklore of Podhale, more precisely the brigands’ melody “Pocciez chłopcy”.

Echoes of the highland [melodies], similar to [his still incomplete ballet set in the Tatra highlands] “Harnasie,” can also be heard in the finale (LentoAndanteModerato, tranquillo), while the quartet closes with chords which stylise the play of Zakopane folk bands, to which Szymanowski had for years been listening with great enthusiasm. This must have given additional pleasure to the persons to whom the Quartet is dedicated, doctor Olgierd Sokołowski and his wife Julia, the composer’s friends from Zakopane.

View of Zakopane with the Tatra Mountains

String Quartet No. 2
op.56 was first performed by the Warsaw String Quartet on 14 May 1929. However, a performance of it a few months later and far from Warsaw created a much greater stir. In the autumn of that year Quatuor Kréttly presented the new work at a concert of the Association of Young Polish Musicians in Paris. After that performance, Szymanowski received many letters of the highest praise from [several] members of the young generation of composers.

Danuta Gwizdalanka

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When I was first following the score video – the first time I've listened to the work in decades – I was struck by the realization, “geez, this sounds like Schoenberg” (the same way the 1st Violin Concerto reminded me of Ravel). And enjoying being a forensic musicologist on occasion, I thought I'd check it out: compare the opening of Szymanowski work, composed “in the autumn of 1927,” with the opening of Schoenberg's String Quartet No. 3, the work it reminded me of – which was premiered in Vienna on September 19th, 1927! It's not that this "sound" is unique, here, to either of them (in fact, Ms. Gwizdalanka mentions it as a kind of fingerprint of Szymanowski's, the high melody over "a rustling tremolo") and while Schoenberg's is not a rustling tremolo, there's something about the harmonically vague patterns in both (Schoenberg's is serial, Szymanowski's is "non-traditionally harmonic") that spark some aesthetic kinship, not dissimilar from how Mozart or Brahms (or Sibelius in his Violin Concerto) might open a piece, but each in their own way.

Now, the chance Szymanowski might've just returned from Vienna and hearing Schoenberg's new quartet there are slim – the report above does mention how he'd been inspired by hearing several new works, recently, before beginning his own quartet – and of course it could be sheer coincidence that two composers found a similar “sound” in the texture they used here, but there are connectivities that sometimes exist between works and composers, even styles, whether it's inspiration, or what Vaughan Williams called “cribbing” (which he admits to frequently, borrowing ideas from other composers to do them “his way”), perhaps a referential homage, or even an outright plagiarism. Or just because there are only 12 notes and they're always going around in the atmosphere waiting to be picked out and placed in whatever order a composer chooses to use them.  

As a child, I was introduced to Szymanowski's music through the Mazurkas included in Artur Rubinstein's historic 1961 Carnegie Hall Recital (I'm not sure when I first heard the recording). If you have a chance, I highly recommend spending a few minutes with the video (and score) here. Composed between 1924-1925, the first set of four (published in 1926) was dedicated to Rubinstein.

Another work I first heard in the late-1970s was Rubinstein's recording of Szymanowski's 4th Symphony which is really a piano concerto (he subtitled it “Symphonie concertante”), dating from 1932. Here's a 3 minute clip from the end of the first movement in a performance by the Berlin Philharmonic with Marc-Andre Hamelin, also highly recommended. There are melodic and rhythmic influences here from the regional folk music around Zakopane (by then, he was living there) but also, especially in the big brassy climaxes, harking back to those middle-period symphonic works of Scriabin's like “The Divine Poem.”

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For extra credit, here's some information about Szymanowski's novel I'd mentioned earlier.

Maybe 30 years ago, I'd read somewhere that Szymanowski wrote novels (plural) as well, but I can now only find references to one, a two-volume draft of one entitled Efebos, finished in 1918 or so but which was never published. Always interested in how creative artists in one medium create in a different one – composer as novelist; think also Schoenberg (or Gershwin) as painter – I was curious about this aspect of it, too.

After Szymanowski's childhood home was destroyed during the Revolution and the family was displaced, he found himself unable to compose. Instead, he explored religious and homosexual themes in a novel inspired by his studies of Greek drama and his coming to terms with his own identity. While the final draft of Efebos has been lost, burned in the fires of Warsaw at the start of World War II, its central argument has been preserved in a 150-page Russian translation the author made and sent to a friend in 1919. It was discovered among the friend's papers in 1981 and was published in German in 1993.

The book's plot focuses on ideas Szymanowski expressed in his music, as well, specifically with the opera King Roger (begun in 1918; premiered in 1926) which explores the "Apollonian" and "Dionysian" as it affects faith, given a medieval Christian king contending with a handsome stranger, a pagan prophet (a not too thinly disguised adaptation of Euripides' The Bacchae). The plan had been to publish Efebos but he wanted to wait until his mother died, presumably to spare her any embarrassment, given the contents of the book. As it turned out, he died in 1937. His mother died in 1943.

You can read an excerpt from this summary of the work, here.

One thing that intrigues me is how this contrast of “Apollonian” and “Dionysian” is reflected in our regular use of “classical” and “romantic” (with or without a capital C or a capital R) as well as “logic” and “emotion” (as in “following rules versus “proceeding intuitively”). For example, the Classical Period had strict ideas about chords, how they're used (tonality), form and how musical structures evolve. The Romantic Period is more about emotional responses with a lack of concern for those old-fashioned rules: form becomes more intuitive, composers don't care about the clear definition of a work's structure. Not all 19th Century composers were Romanticists – there was Wagner and Liszt on one side, and Mendelssohn and Brahms on the other, Liszt being viewed as “anarchic” by artistic conservatives and Brahms being “too intellectual and archaic” by the left. This was again a big part of the artistic changes going on in the early-20th-Century, too, this time with its approach to tonality: those who adapted tonality (or never changed from it) to those who abandoned it altogether.

At the same time Szymanowski was writing this novel, he sketched (but did not complete) a cantata setting the climactic scene near the end of Euripides' The Bacchae. The whole plot of Euripides' drama (its interpretation is more complex than any summary can provide) focuses on the destructive nature of both the Apollonian (exemplified by Pentheus' rigorous logic) and the Dionysian (the Stranger is really Dionysus himself in disguise, with his emotional irrationality). In this scene, Agave, the mother of Pentheus, returns from the bacchanalian frenzy where, thinking she has just killed a lion, tearing it apart with her bare hands, slowly realizes as the ecstasy wears off that is not the head of a lion she holds in her hand, but that of her son.

While “classical” versus “romantic” is a common thread in art – for that matter, think of those police detective shows where one partner uses scientific logic to solve a case and the other “jumps to conclusions” without evidence but figures it out at the same time (going with the gut) – it might be interesting to listen to the stylistic conflict still going on in Szymanowski's quartet ten years after these Greek-inspired pieces. Imagine the composer's approach to tonality and form and, most evidently, to the use of contrast and the creation of tension. Often, ambiguous or dissonant passages resolve to a consonant chord or what sounds like a “tonic resolution” you might hear in a work by Beethoven. Listen again to the very ending of the quartet, beginning at 18:45 which, after an earlier fugue (really? that old hide-bound tradition from Bach's day?) is saturated with this flexible 4-note "cross motive" (sometimes whole steps, sometimes half-steps sounding like an inverted B-A-C-H motive or hey! a premonition of Shostakovich's signature D-S-C-H). Through all its frenzy (Bacchic or otherwise), it finally ends with an abrupt Dominant-to-Tonic Cadence in A Major, perhaps here more Bartók than Beethoven, but still definitely A Major

It is interesting to follow the course of this musical tension in his style in subsequent works. Did a more tonal style (or a less dissonant sound) have more to do with his change in health (illness can affect an artist that way as we've seen in Beethoven and his deafness) or just that, coincidentally, he'd already "done all that," gotten it out of his system and moved on (as, say, did Stravinsky after The Rite of Spring)?

as a patient in Davos, 1929
Speaking of final cadences, it's time to bring Szymanowski's biography full-circle: the year after completing the 2nd Quartet, he was diagnosed with an acute form of tuberculosis and went to "take the cure" in Davos, Switzerland, a famous sanatorium (the actual setting for Thomas Mann's fictional Berghof in The Magic Mountain, published in 1924). When he returned to Poland in 1930, he retired to Zakopane where he composed a great deal of music, including the 4th Symphony, the 2nd Violin Concerto, and a pair of mazurkas completed in 1934. But in 1936, he returned to Switzerland for more treatment and died there at the age of 54 the following year. 

Today, he is recognized as one of the greatest Polish composers. I'm glad you'll have a chance to hear his 2nd Quartet in a live performance, though. It's a very powerful work and a voice unfortunately not that familiar in our nation's concert halls.

Dick Strawser


Wednesday, March 10, 2021

The Verona Quartet and Beethoven's Op.131: Classical Music's This Week Ahead

This Sunday, March 14th, isn't just the day you set your clocks ahead for Daylight Saving Time. It's also the day you can attend a concert by the Verona Quartet at Whitaker Center at 4:00 EDT (that's Eastern Daylight Time). Returning to Harrisburg following their 2017 appearance here with Beethoven's 2nd "Razumovsky" Quartet, they're now here as winners of the latest Cleveland Quartet Award and performing Beethoven's C-sharp Minor Quartet, Op.131, along with some of the "Cypresses" of Antonin Dvorak and the 2nd Quartet by Karol Szymanowski. 

For more information about Covid-19 protocols and ticket availability, check the Market Square Concerts website

The Verona Quartet

I've written about these last two works in the next post, but in this one, we'll focus on one of those legendary Late Quartets Beethoven composed in the last years of his life.

For a live performance of the complete Op.131 with the Danish Quartet (courtesy of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center), you can scroll down to the bottom of the post if you not interested in reading the post itself.

And now for something completely different...

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Announcer's Voice [off-camera] – When we think of the Pandemic and all its effects on our daily lives, one of the many things we may not have considered is the rather hefty impact it's had on the International Beethoven Year, which officially began with his 250th Birthday Anniversary on Dec. 16th, 2020, though many institutions had begun playing his music even more than usual throughout the year. With this month's concert by the Verona Quartet, since it includes a work Beethoven himself thought his “most perfect single work,” this edition of the Market Square Concerts Blog will be our Mini-Beethoven Celebration. So join us, now, as Dr. Dick talks about "Beethoven's Op.131" with his guests on CLASSICAL MUSIC'S THIS WEEK AHEAD.

Dr. Dick – Thanks, and thank you for joining us. So I thought we'd gather a few people here for a kind of socially distanced round table about Beethoven and his Late Period in particular and his C-sharp Minor Quartet, Op.131 specifically.

A few years before all this 250th Anniversary business began – Beethoven hardly needs a Big Anniversary Year to get lots of attention – critic Alex Ross wrote in the New Yorker Magazine that “Beethoven is a singularity in the history of art—a phenomenon of dazzling and disconcerting force. He not only left his mark on all subsequent composers but also molded entire institutions.”

He goes on to describe how the orchestra developed because of the symphonies Beethoven had composed, so different in content and the necessary technical skills required in his teacher Haydn's days. Or how the string quartet changed from the 18th Century idea of a violinist with three other string players to four players on a more equal footing, thanks to Beethoven's technical demands on the individual players and on the ensemble's need to play as one unit. 

Herr Beethoven, thank you for taking the time to join us. Did you ever think, when you were composing these works, what impact they might have on the future of music?

Ludwig van Beethoven [peering into the camera] –

Dr. Dick [aside to technician, off-camera] – (Can someone tell Beethoven to unmute himself?)

Beethoven [looking around] –

Dr. Dick – Well, okay then. Maestro – may I call you "Maestro"? if you had one thing you'd want to tell a listener to your C-sharp Minor Quartet 250 years after you were born, what...? Oops [Beethoven's screen goes blank]...

So, uhm... let's begin instead with Jan Swafford who's written a wonderfully readable biography of Beethoven that, even at 940-some pages, I admit, is still not as “complete” about some things as I'd hoped. In addition to putting the facts of his life together, or as much as any biographer can do these days, you offer many wonderful insights into the man and the Genius we, today, regard him to be.

Dr. Swafford, what is it that led Beethoven to what we call his “Late Period” which includes works like the 9th Symphony and these five amazing string quartets?

Jan Swafford – I'm sure I could write another 900 pages just about that alone, especially thinking about Beethoven and his Legacy in this, as you put it, Beethoven Year That Didn't Really Happen...

Dr. Dick – So, what kind of impact did these works have on composers, on audiences in the future?


Dr. Dick – That's something most of us today would probably agree with: “He was after something else.” And the question is still open.

Ludwig Spohr, one of the most popular composers of the early-19th Century, a contemporary of Beethoven's, wrote about a performance he was giving of one of the Late Quartets, back when they were still new, and he realized he was losing the audience. As he put it, “his accompanists” clearly didn't understand this complex music. So he stopped the performance and suggested instead they play one of his own quartets to a much better effect.

Johannes Brahms – If he's considering the other three players “his accompanists,” perhaps he was the one who didn't understand this music... (He had called them 'indecipherable, uncorrected horrors,' remember...)

Dr. Dick – And anybody who's attended classical music concerts, read program notes or music appreciation books will know the story of Johannes Brahms and the impact this “tread of the giant behind him” had on his own development as a composer. Welcome, Herr Brahms! Now, the influence of Beethoven inhibited your own development as a composer, leaving you struggling for over twenty years over what would become your first symphony.

Brahms – Ja, and not just that symphony – also, my first string quartet and what had started out to be my first piano quartet, too (it finally got published third). Each of them over twenty years in the oven, waiting...

Dr. Dick – What was it that... well, affected you so strongly about his music?

Brahms – Well, look at it this way, I could've been like every other young composer coming down the pike, then, and written a whole bunch of symphonies trying to figure out how you write a symphony. These days, I think you folks call it “on-the-job training”? When you have a friend of yours calling you Beethoven's Heir – [a visible shudder] – that really does a number on your self-confidence. Nothing was going to be good enough.

Richard Wagner – (grumbling) Still wasn't...

Dr. Dick – Ah, Herr Wagner, thank you for joining us. I was trying to find that statement you wrote about Beethoven's Op.131 String Quartet back in 1870...

Wagner – Oh, that old thing? That was for his Centennial Year and, yes, I was asked, as one of the greatest living composers of the modern day to say a few words about the greatest composer of an earlier age. Let me think... [clears his throat] oh, yes...

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Tis the dance of the whole world itself: wild joy, the wail of pain, love's transport, utmost bliss, grief, frenzy, riot, suffering, the lightning flickers, thunders growl: and above it the stupendous fiddler who bears and bounds it all, who leads it haughtily from whirlwind into whirlwind, to the brink of the abyss - he smiles at himself, for to him this sorcery was the merest play - and night beckons him. His day is done.”

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Brahms – A tad over the top, as usual, Herr Wagner, just as I'd expect from you... Always good for a healthy dose of hyperbole, our Richard...

Wagner – (Ah, what was that, Cosima?) Sorry, I have another cake ready to come out of the oven... Gotta go. [screen goes blank]

Brahms – (Oh God, please not another prequel to The Ring...?)

Dr. Dick – That reminds me of something else Alex Ross wrote in that article, that “the joy of listening to Beethoven is comparable to the pleasure of reading [James] Joyce: the most paranoid, overdetermined interpretation is probably the correct one.”

Brahms – Can't say I've ever had the pleasure of reading Mr. Joyce. Any good?

Dr. Dick – Wagner also said the opening fugue – and Wagner was never one to be kindly disposed toward fugues – the first movement of Beethoven's C-sharp Minor Quartet "reveals the most melancholy sentiment expressed in music.”

Oh good, I see Franz Schubert has been able to join us... You were another composer greatly influenced by Beethoven, especially his late music... and a contemporary of his. You were even a pallbearer at his funeral in 1827. What I find fascinating is, at the time (this would be, say, starting in 1824), he was still writing these Late Quartets when you were already working on expanding your own sense of structure and development of content in those last symphonies, string quartets and piano sonatas of your own.

Franz Schubert

Dr. Dick – Umm... Herr Schubert, you can unmute yourself now?

Schubert – Hmm? Oh... okay, is that it? ...Right, well, things for me changed even before those quartets. I remember how many of us young composers hated stuff like his 7th Symphony, back when we were teenagers and studying with Salieri.

Dr. Dick – Yes, you wrote some not very flattering remarks in your journal at the time...You mentioned "eccentricity which combines and confuses the tragic and the comic, the agreeable with the repulsive, as to goad people to madness instead of soothing them with love, to incite..."

Schubert – Okay, cut me a break. I was like 19 and still writing like Haydn. There were those who'd wished Beethoven never stopped writing like Haydn, for that matter, but we all eventually, if we're honest, move out from under the past to find our own voices, I think. I know that's what I started to do when I was 25...

Dr. Dick – With the B Minor Symphony, the one you left unfinished in 1822? Followed by the Wanderer Fantasy?

Schubert – Illness can do that to you, make you think the Deep Thoughts. And Beethoven was always sick then and had become almost totally deaf. I mean, how could he write the 9th Symphony when he couldn't hear what he was playing on the piano? The image had a very profound impact on me, just like the music he was composing, now – so different from before.

Dr. Dick – You'd composed your own last quartet, the G Major (we call it D.887), at the same time Beethoven was writing the last two of his Late Quartets in 1826 – but except for Op.127, they weren't published until a year later, the year Beethoven died. Yet you were actually one of the first people in Vienna to hear the Op.131 Quartet, weren't you?

Schubert – Speaking of illness... Yeah, I'd heard about it but it wasn't being performed in public, yet, not in Vienna. And Karl Holz, a friend of mine, was a friend of Beethoven's too – he told me Beethoven himself had told him this was his favorite of these quartets. Since he played 2nd in Schuppanzigh's Quartet (they were playing it privately at the time), I asked him – Holz if I could hear it, but I was too sick to be moved. So they made a house call. It made a hugely powerful impression on me, very haunting...

Dr. Dick – What kind of inspiration did it give you, this amazing music?

Schubert – I remember saying something like “after this, what is left for us to write?” But after all, I died five days later, you know...

Dr. Dick [trying not to say something sentimental like "Sorry for our loss"...] – It always surprises me that the opening of Op.131 is this slowly unwinding fugue, so unlike the tempest of the Grosse Fuge he'd written shortly before starting this one. Such a complete opposite of mood and expansiveness that...

Schubert – Well, Beethoven was never one to write the same thing twice [he reaches for another beer], even if the first four notes of the subject – the theme, you know – are the same, just transposed and in a different order. And Stravinsky said the Grosse Fuge was “an absolutely contemporary piece of music that will always be contemporary,” something like that. I forget who it was was arguing one night that Beethoven invented atonality with that one...

Dr. Dick – Wait, you know about atonality and Stravinsky?

Schubert – Oh sure, we all hang out at that tavern he runs – kind of a Club Après-Vie... Ooops, gotta go – don't want to miss Last Call. [screen goes blank]

Dr. Dick – Ah, okay, well, thank you, Franz, for those wonderful insights. My last guest, now, might come as a surprise...

Christopher Walken – Why, because I'm following a bunch of dead composers...? Oh, sorry, thought the mute was on...

Dr. Dick – Well, considering the wide range of roles you've played in movies throughout your career, finding you as a cellist in a movie where the real main character is Beethoven's Op.131 – yeah, I think that'd be kind of surprising? Here's the trailer for A Late Quartet before its release in 2012.

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I know I enjoyed the film – I mean, what classical musician wouldn't want to see an intelligent, decently made, well-acted, and knowledgeable film about classical music that isn't full of idiotic Hollywoodisms – though I tend to agree with one critic, the guy in The Guardian who wrote, “The actors play Beethoven like they're embalming a corpse, approaching the music far more reverently and glumly than real musicians do.” Don't musicians, especially old friends – even ones occasionally at odds with each other – joke around backstage before going out and playing seriously?

Walken – Well, you know what Beethoven said to one of his critics: “What I shit is better than anything you have ever thought.” No – the truth is that no matter what the movie is about, when good actors get together there’s a playground aspect to it. Whenever we got together as a quartet, those days could be fairly hilarious.

Dr. Dick – But you don't play an instrument – in real life?

Walken – When I was a kid, I played the piano a bit, some guitar lessons, but my hands are clumsy, you know? So of course I got to have lots of cello lessons. String instruments are particularly difficult – it’s both hands, bow strokes, body language. I never learned to play, but I learned how to fake it a little bit. Philip Seymour Hoffman, the 2nd violinist in the quartet, got to the point where he could play, somewhat. He had a natural aptitude.

Dr. Dick – It was Beethoven's favorite among these Late Quartets, he thought it was his one perfect work. After spending so much time with this music, how did you feel about it – any differently after the movie was finished than what you'd thought of it before?

Walken – You know, I really have to run, I'm sorry – we're doing a cooking video, another "At Home During Isolation" thing, next: we're cooking a chicken, I think... [the screen goes blank]

Dr. Dick – Ah, well, thank you for... uhm, stopping by. [Notices all the screens are blank, sighs]

Beethoven remarked to a friend around the time he'd begun working on it he wanted to find "a new manner of part-writing and, thank God, less lack of imagination than before."

And while we think of it at times as a sprawling but still tightly-constructed work – regardless of its seven movements, it's basically a four-movement work with a few interludes thrown in – Beethoven described it in a letter to his publisher that it was “stolen together from a miscellany of this and that” – which is how most critics have always heard it, more sprawling than tightly constructed.

We know,” one anonymous critic wrote, “there is something there, but we do not know what it is.”

So basically, every musician who comes to it to learn how to play it – play one's own individual part, then play it as a group of four musicians – who must come to terms with what Beethoven told them about the notes and with what Beethoven didn't tell them between the notes; and every listener who comes to hear them play it, whether it's for the first time or, who knows, maybe it's for the last time, maybe we've come a little closer to figuring out what's there, about discovering what it can be.

Technician (off camera) – You done yet?

Dr. Dick – Uhm, yeah, I guess that about... [screen goes blank]

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Here, then, without interruption (well, except when the audience applauds after the scherzo, not the first time an audience has gotten caught by one of the greatest fake-out finales in Classical Music...), is a live performance by the Danish Quartet of the complete String Quartet, Op.131, by Ludwig van Beethoven:

Stay tuned for a future post about the other works on the first half of the Verona Quartet's program which, don't forget, is this Sunday, 4pm EDT at Whitaker Center.

- Dick Strawser (with apologies to anyone whose sanity was affronted by my attempt at a little so-called fan-fiction humor...)

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Speaking of "fan-fiction" and an imagination that sometimes gets too fraught with "What If...?", you can celebrate the Beethoven Year with Dick Strawser's third 'classical music appreciation comedy/thriller' in The Klangfarben Trilogy

Imagine, if you will, the possibility of a newly discovered Beethoven string quartet, a companion to the Serioso he called the Giocoso; plus the untold story of Beethoven, his Immortal Belovéd and their great-great-whatever-granddaughter. Prepare to enter The Labyrinth of Klavdia Klangfarben.