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.

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