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Emily Grossman

Late Quartets

August 14, 2013 at 6:46 PM

It began sometime in the spring, after watching the movie A Late Quartet and becoming curious about Beethoven's opus 131. At that time, I didn't even know that Beethoven's quartets were divided into periods (totally didn't get the title of the movie even), and I don't suppose I'd ever listened to a single recording of one before, maybe one or two performances, but that's it. Basically, I was entering completely fresh musical territory. I guessed most people listen through the entire 16-piece cycle, dutifully, like a parent who makes sure not to spend too much time with one child or another. The idea of listening through all of them has never appealed to me at all. Okay, it did, in a wholesome, multivitamin flavored sort of way: good for you, beneficial, but glad more at the thought of having done it already than actually going through with it. The only time I can really sit still long enough to listen through a several-movement work is if I'm at a live performance (knitting project handy, just in case...), or if I can listen while doing something else. It didn't feel quite reverent though, putting Beethoven in the background while paying taxes or cleaning the house, because after all, Beethoven always has something important to say. So, one late evening after midnight, I downloaded the first full recording of opus 131 that I came across, a performance by the Lindsay quartet, and went to bed to listen through my headphones in the dark stillness. In that sweet, open-minded space of time before the conscious is overtaken by the subconscious, the tale began to unfold.

Death's icy cold breath crept up the back of my neck. Someone uttered a eulogy, hushed and devoted, as an unseen audience mourned. Then came the ghosts. First came the Ghost of Christmas Past to pay a visit, and all the happy visions of my life passed before me, meadows of flowers all gauzy and golden-tinged. I don't remember the next part because at that point, I sailed off into a happy slumber. Would've made an excellent night of it, too, except that the seventh movement awoke me with a start, an angry ghost who had some unfinished business to attend to: Christmas Future. Groggily, I shut off the music and waited until the next day, where I entertained my curious puppy with the frightful finale of opus 131. Christmas Present, which I assumed must be lurking in the middle movements, could wait until the next evening. Only, I never could make it to the middle movements. Each night, I fell asleep to the ghost of Christmas Past and woke up to Christmas Future. This must have gone on for three weeks before I finally sat down during the day and finished the middle. Finally fulfilled, I broke away from the dynamic Lindsay quartet and took a peek at 130 with the Alban Berg quartet.

I don't recommend 130 late at night if you want to sleep well. The beginning fools you into relaxing a bit, but constantly tickles you back to alertness with a flurry of glorious runs, the plot line is way too involved, and the fugue at the end argues with you like a sour stomache at two in the morning. I found this composition, however, to be every bit as transcendental to time as 131; I probably listened to it in bits and pieces nonstop over the course of three weeks, settling into the Guarneri quartet's rendition of the cavatina eventually, certain that nothing greater has been written for string quartet.

Finally, I let go of the cavatina and moved on to 132 (with the Borodin quartet), this time already prepared for something absolutely spectacular. Beethoven, master of the universe, you never let me down! This time a dark, romantic stranger lured me to sleep each night with wine and chocolate. However, if you manage to stay awake to the Andante, it is nearly twenty minutes of one big bookend. (Please never try to listen to this movement on your way out the door, because it contains a series of false summits.) I thought for sure, Beethoven was a goner this time, the way he repeatedly knocks at death's door, but he pulls through with a lighthearted skip of relief into the next movement, cheating death one more time. The final waltz leaves just enough room for a sequel: maybe next time, death!

Some say Beethoven heralded the romantic period with these late quartets, but how can you ascribe something so narrow as a musical period to the gateway of the subconscious universe? He became a medium to something infinitely more expressive of the human soul, the magical stuff upon which dreams feed. But then, that's the way I feel about all of his works. They are best enjoyed from the window of the imagination; whatever, exactly, you experience, let your subconscious decide.

The late night sessions continue. At this rate of progression, I should finish the entire cycle in about a year. Opus 18 quartets, here I come. This time, Quartetto Italiano. This early quartet might be better suited for mornings, though: I dream of birds and giggles and pink candies...


From jean dubuisson
Posted on August 14, 2013 at 7:30 PM
thanks for writing this Emily, you have a great imagination!
From Emily Grossman
Posted on August 14, 2013 at 7:33 PM
Thanks, and thanks for reading:)
From Tom Holzman
Posted on August 15, 2013 at 12:51 AM
Emily - what a fascinating blog about the late Beethoven quartets, some of the most interesting, challenging,inspiring and disturbing (?) pieces ever written. There is even a recent mystery written by Peter Lovesey, The Tooth Tattoo, written with op. 131 as a backdrop. To me, op. 131 is incredible, particularly the short 6th movement which is clearly based on the most sacred prayer in the Jewish liturgy, the Kol Nidre chanted on Yom Kippur. I can only marvel that Beethoven was even aware of it and wonder how in the world he came to know it. I hope we will hear more about your exploration of the Beethoven quartets.

IMHO, for the middle quartets, the old Budapest Quartet recordings cannot be equaled.

From Emily Grossman
Posted on August 15, 2013 at 5:33 AM
I love the sixth movement! Now I'm completely intrigued... have you done any research? It totally makes sense to put that in there, specifically at that pivotal moment.
From Yixi Zhang
Posted on August 15, 2013 at 10:41 PM
Emily, Great blog again!

I’ve been listening to recordings and live performances of Beethoven’s string quartets for more than 15 years but I'm no expert. Like you, I too have to keep my hands busy when listening to something, and let the music grow on me and it usually does. Some pieces grab me so much that I’d stop my hands and hold my breath. Beethoven’s string quartets, Archduke piano trio, Brahms's 1st piano trio, and Schubert’s string quintet are a few such pieces.

There are tons written materials about Beethoven. I find musician’s notes tend to be more insightful and intriguing than those books written by musicologists or music historians. Check out these articles about Beethoven’s early, middle and late string quartets (among others) written by the Brentano Quartet (make sure you click the "full text" to get the whole thing):

http://brentanoquartet.com/notes/

The article on the Op. 131 starts like this:

"I saw recently a striking illustration by William Blake. A woman in flowing robes with arms extended reaches and glances upwards, floating, suspended in air, yet is shackled by her ankle to the ground. She is the personification of the soul, reaching toward heaven whilst tied to the earth. It seemed to me a perfect visual manifestation of the opening figure of Beethoven’s C-sharp minor string quartet, Op. 131, which despite an upward stretch finds itself forcefully pulled back down, a moment marked by almost suffocating heaviness."

Another gem not to be missed is Robert Greenberg’s lectures (recently available at Audible.com) on Beethoven String Quartets. The audio books are quite affordable to download if you get the membership:

http://www.audible.com/pd?asin=B00DHQL4J0

From Tom Holzman
Posted on August 16, 2013 at 1:09 AM
Emily - over the years there have been various theories about where Beethoven got it from, but they are all speculation. The Cantor at the main Jewish Temple in Vienna for much of the early-mid 19th century was a man named Solomon Sulzer, who was a rock star of sorts. Schubert and Schumann used to go to Jewish services to hear him, and Schubert composed a setting of Psalm 92 for him. He was considered one of the foremost interpreters of Schubert's vocal music, and Liszt did a concert with him. But Sulzer did not start his career there until 1826, when Beethoven could no longer hear anything. There is no evidence Beethoven ever went to Jewish services. He had one close Jewish friend, pianist Ignaz Moscheles, who might have exposed him to the Kol Nidre at some point, but no one knows. Google will take you to all the theories if you are interested. Sorry I cannot provide more information.
From Emily Grossman
Posted on August 16, 2013 at 1:59 AM
Yixi, thanks for the gold mine of links! I love the quote about op. 131, which describes exactly how it made me feel, and exactly why I feel that there are ghosts in it: they can't quite seem to make it to heaven, can they? It has a strong sensation of being torn between heaven and earth, a longing for things past and an unreconciled urgency toward unfinished business. I will read up on 131 and study the score this evening during practice breaks--thanks!

And Tom, wow, I did a little googling last night, but did not manage to find the wealth of information you just provided. Thank you so much!

From Tom Holzman
Posted on August 16, 2013 at 11:56 AM
Emily - here is a version combining two of the theories:

"When the first Reform temple in Vienna, the Seitstettengasse Synagogue, was about to be dedicated, the trustees in 1824 asked Beethoven to write a cantata for the dedication. Ludwig eventually declined to do so, but it seems that he did spend some time studying Jewish traditional music. Added to the fact that he was dating a Jewish woman at that time (which was eventually stopped by her parents), Beethoven must have absorbed a goodly amount of Jewish music."

The problem with both -- synagogue dedication music and Jewish girl friend -- is that I have never seen a cite to any source for either one. So, I remain skeptical, especially since, by 1824, he was really deaf. I suppose he could have been shown transcriptions of Jewish music and heard them in his head, but, .... Anyhow, that's the problem.

From Peter Kent
Posted on August 17, 2013 at 2:47 PM
There is a wag from one of the eastern colleges connected with the camera industry....that claims, whereas Beethoven was the most significant of composers, and whereas his quartets are his most significant works, and whereas the cavatina is the most significant of the entire collection, there is an "A" natural in the 2nd violin (???) part that sets the mood for the piece and therefore may be the most significant note even written....and you think YOU like Beethoven ?????
From Emily Grossman
Posted on August 17, 2013 at 6:47 PM
Actually, there are no A naturals in the second violin part.

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