Monday, May 9, 2022

A Special Evening with the Emerson Quartet: Beethoven's Op.132

In appreciation of the Harrisburg community’s loyal support over four decades, Market Square Concerts presents a special concert featuring the eminent Emerson Quartet.

Who: The Emerson Quartet (with mezzo-soprano, Susannah Woodruff)

What: Borodin's 2nd String Quartet; Bartok's 1st String Quartet; "Of Troubled Times," Three Songs by Emerson Quartet violinist Eugene Drucker; Beethoven's String Quartet in A Minor, Op.132

When & Where: Saturday, May 14th, 2022, at 7:30, at Temple Ohev Sholom 

Read about the Bartok & Drucker in the second post in the series, and about the Borodin in the third


Mask wearing is optional to attend this concert and
proof of vaccination will not be requested.

There are many aphorisms like “all good things must come to an end” which could begin this post. Suffice it to say, the Emerson Quartet has decided, after the 2022-2023 Season, to retire following a career spanning 47 years. And so we are glad that, given the number of times their tours have brought them through Harrisburg during Market Square Concerts' 40 seasons, they give us one last chance to hear them and celebrate their legacy.

Back in the mid-1970s, while walking down Broadway from the 72nd Street subway station on one of my many infusions of New York City's concert-life, I ran into a violist I'd met a few years earlier when he was a freshman at the Eastman School of Music and I was a teaching assistant. I didn't know him well, but he occasionally sat in on my 9:00 theory class when he overslept his 8:00 class. I knew he had transferred to Juilliard at some point, so I asked him how things were going.

“Great,” he said. “Some friends and I just formed a quartet,” very enthusiastic about their prospects in what is admittedly a difficult world to break into, much less survive in.

Knowing how many quartets there are and how few of them survive to make it to the top (if that's not too much to aspire to), I wished him well and hoped things would turn out for the best. Also knowing that, after finding a few friends to make a compatible group, one of the more challenging Rites of Passage for new quartets was to establish their “brand,” I asked him, “Have you decided on a name yet?”

“We have – we're going to call ourselves the Emerson Quartet.”

“After Ralph Waldo? Well, that's something to live up to...” I wished him well and the best of luck.

And with that, Larry Dutton continued on his way, and I, on mine.

So here, almost 46 years, 9 Grammys and countless other awards and accolades from around the globe, recognized as one of the finest quartets in the world today, Larry and his friends in the Emerson Quartet are getting ready to retire!

The quartet is unusual in there is no set “first violinist” or “second violinist” but rather two violinists who share the responsibilities. So you may see Eugene Drucker playing First on one piece, but on the next piece, Philip Setzer may be sitting in the First chair. (In addition to his responsibilities as a performer, Eugene Drucker is also represented on this program as a composer, but I'll get to that in a second, subsequent post.) In addition to Lawrence Dutton, the violist, there's cellist Paul Watkins who joined the Emerson Quartet at the end of the 2012-2013 Season, replacing long-time cellist David Finckel. If you're wondering what that does to an established ensemble, it means after 34 years, in addition to just getting used to somebody new in their midst, they would have to go through and “re-learn” everything in their repertoire with “the new guy,” bringing him up-to-speed but also reworking how the four of them now interact with the music itself.

Here's a brief video prepared by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center for their “Spotlight” series, posted in 2014: 

For a “virtual concert” recorded during the Pandemic in the Staller Center for the Arts at Stony Brook University (NY), the Emerson Quartet prefaces their performance of Beethoven's Op.132 (preceded by Britten's arrangement of Purcell's “Chaconny”) with a pre-concert Zoom interview, ranging from “what was this past year like, dealing with Covid” to giving their various insights about Beethoven – which you can view here. While you can continue viewing the link beyond the talk's conclusion at 32:03, I've included the complete and continuous Beethoven performance, recorded enmasked in an empty hall, as an embedded video following the individual movements from their 1997 recording of the Complete Beethoven Quartets (which won the Grammy for Best Chamber Music Performance that year). 

The program opens with Alexander Borodin's String Quartet No. 2 in D Major (the source of several of his best-loved tunes, by the way), and Bela Bartók's 1st String Quartet. In addition, mezzo-soprano Susannah Woodruff joins two members of the quartet for a performance of three songs composed by violinist Eugene Drucker. But I will discuss these works in a subsequent post. This post is concerned solely with one of the towering masterpieces of the repertoire, one of Beethoven's "Late Quartets" - which, incidentally, we owe to a violist who suggested, when a music-loving Russian prince was thinking of commissioning some new works, he should contact Beethoven...

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

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

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

Beethoven's original MS, opening of Op.132

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

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

Allegro ma non tanto (Not too lively) – The second movement starts off like a minuet but then that G#-A movement on the downbeat makes it awkward to dance to (where's the beat?). And as it unfolds, it really not a minuet, more of a lilting ländler, the folksy precursor of the more elegant waltz. The middle section, the "trio," is a gentle country dance with its drones (the open A-string affording a hurdy-gurdy-like accompaniment to a simple tune in the 1st violin) beginning at 4:27 one of the sweeter moments after all the unsettled turbulence implied in the first movement. Not without its own interruptions from reality, harking back to that half-step motive of the first movement's introduction (a premonition of the Grosse Fuge yet to come), it then relaxes to a gentle conclusion.

Every time I hear this movement, I think back to the Heiligenstadt Testament of 1802 when Beethoven, then not yet 32 years old and near-suicidal over the possibility – no, the inevitability of his deafness – wrote...

= = = = =
“...what a humiliation when one stood beside me and heard a flute in the distance and I heard nothing, or someone heard the shepherd singing and again I heard nothing, such incidents brought me to the verge of despair, but little more and I would have put an end to my life - only art it was that withheld me, ah it seemed impossible to leave the world until I had produced all that I felt called upon me to produce, and so I endured this wretched existence...”
= = = = =

He kept that document in his desk (quite likely having shown it to no one), however many times he moved over the years, where it wasn't discovered until after his death. Six years before he began writing these Late Quartets, Beethoven was reduced to using the "Conversation Books" where friends would write down questions for him, thus recording for posterity one side of what conversations Beethoven had but leaving us ignorant of his responses. Still, to communicate with the world this way...?

Molto adagio – Andante (Very slow; a walking tempo)

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

The hymn itself (those slow-moving notes in simple block harmonies) alternates with different approaches to the opening prayer-like motive (sometimes inverted, sometimes overlapping itself). These alternate with more lively passages he marks “feeling new strength.” There is little more transcendent, indeed consoling music in the whole realm of classical music to become one of the most universal moments in all of Beethoven.

Alla marcia, assai vivace (Like a march, very fast) The brief fourth movement will come as something of a shock after the spirituality of this slowly unfolding hymn – a simple march-like passage that barely gets going before it is interrupted by one of those operatic flourishes (remember, in the first movement?) which leads directly – again, no boundary to cross, no pausing to turn the page – into the finale.

5th Movement, Allegro appassionato (Lively, very emotional) This is basically a rondo, not unexpected as finales go – incidentally, paging through the sketch-books if you could read them, the main idea of this movement was originally intended for a fully instrumental finale to the 9th Symphony, before he decided on adding a chorus and setting Schiller's Ode to Joy (imagine, you're listening to one of Beethoven's rejects, here!) – and here, the lyrical element which never got to take the lead in the first movement finally comes to the fore yet not without its own bits of turbulence along the way. 

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

Here is the Emerson Quartet performing the complete quartet in one continuous video, from a "virtual concert" recorded at the Staller Center of Stony Brook University in April, 2021.


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Beethoven in 1823
The earliest sketches for Op.132 appear in late-1824 during the final push to complete the first of these quartets, the E-flat Major, Op.127, a more “standard” quartet in four movements, which he completed in February of 1825, moving immediately into the new A Minor Quartet which became Op. 132.

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

Keep in mind, in the same sketchbook, there are ideas intended for a String Quartet in C Major.

Wait – there could have been a sixth Late Beethoven Quartet?

Beethoven died in March, 1827. He was 56.

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

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

N. Galitsin (1820s)
First of all, Prince Nikolai Galitsin (Голицын in Russian: it can spelled different ways phonetically in different Western European languages) had to wait so long for them, asking Beethoven in 1822, offering to pay him “whatever amount you deem adequate.” Beethoven thought 50 ducats seemed adequate, though I've never found any way of comparing an 1822 Ducat to a 2022 pre-inflation Dollar.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, thank Galitsin's violist for that much!

- Dick Strawser

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