August 14, 2013 at 6:46 PMIt 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...
IMHO, for the middle quartets, the old Budapest Quartet recordings cannot be equaled.
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):
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:
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!
"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.
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