Should amateurs play the late Beethoven quartets?

August 6, 2018, 2:05 AM · Stimulated by a certain controversy over whether non-luthiers should attempt to rehair their own bows I thought I might raise the above question. I can't remember exactly which book I read it in, but the writer thought it a bad idea bordering on blasphemy

Replies (41)

August 6, 2018, 2:22 AM · Why not, as long as these amateurs don't expect people to come and listen?
August 6, 2018, 3:44 AM · No reason why not (if you discount musical blasphemy), but SHOULD they? A bit like asking should they practise their scales but on a more spiritual level of musicianship. I expect you can guess what I think.
August 6, 2018, 5:05 AM · Assuming the late quartets of Beethoven are within the ability of said amateur musician, I can't see this being an issue. Progressing with works like these is the best way to gain experience and ability. I don't understand what could be potentially blasphemous about playing a piece of music?
August 6, 2018, 5:52 AM · The great thing about being an amateur is that you can play whatever you want. In your basement. When nobody else is home. I like to play along with string quartet recordings. Of course there is a lot that I simply cannot play. But even in the late Beethoven quartets there are a few movements that are "playable" which means I can move my bow fast enough to keep up.
Edited: August 6, 2018, 6:58 AM · I expect quartets composed in at least the classical and romantic eras are, and always have been, played far more by amateurs for their own amusement* than by professionals, if only because the amateurs outnumber the pros by a large margin.

* an older meaning of the word, signifying "interest". When Queen Victoria allegedly said "We are not amused" she meant she wasn't interested.

August 6, 2018, 7:02 AM · As long as the proper paper work is on file and the permits are granted, by all means.

However, if they are not in place, serious retributions will be applied instantly!

They are watching!!

August 6, 2018, 7:09 AM · Of course not, as bows could be permanently damaged by thrown rotten vegetables.
August 6, 2018, 8:52 AM · Why not? Certainly there's nothing sacred about particular pieces of music. I'd bet that plenty of amateurs who are more skilled routinely tackle the late Beethoven quartets at home. I've played them and there's never seemed to be any hesitation in proposing them for a reading.

I don't think there's any reason that amateurs shouldn't perform them, either. At least around here, amateurs will perform just about anything in chamber music settings. Plenty of free chamber-music concerts, and some very skilled groups.

Edited: August 6, 2018, 9:20 AM · I heard amateur players did a good job performing op 132. It was not perfect but very dedicated, passionate and touching performance. In fact I am working on the 4th mvt of op 131 right now and our quartet will be performing it in a chamber workshop next month in Tuscany.
August 6, 2018, 9:27 AM · "but the writer thought it a bad idea bordering on blasphemy "

The writer needs to take his head out of his butt.

Otherwise, I will have to write a lengthy complain about blasphemous it is to perform Bach with modern instruments and even with nasty vibrato.

August 6, 2018, 11:18 AM · It may be due to the hot weather but what I'm hearing is tepid enthusiasm. “Why not?” play this music because it's “the best way to gain experience and ability”. “Play whatever you want”, for amusement's (or interest's) sake. I agree with Demian but maybe this is what my name-forgotten writer meant, that it is offensive (injurious) to one's own aesthetic standards to treat this music with anything less than complete reverence, if not in the playing then at least in the mind. Yesterday I was intensely annoyed by a perfectly competent but casual Prom performance of Brahms 2. OK, it's probably the weather and good luck Yixi.
August 6, 2018, 2:13 PM · I think that name-forgotten writer exemplifies the elitism that has been killing classical music.
Edited: August 6, 2018, 3:37 PM · It’s some of the most challenging music I’ve ever played. I think it’s wonderful to work on the quartets - it will take your musicianship to greater heights.
August 6, 2018, 3:16 PM · Too much is made of the term "amateur", as if the term must describe "inferior violinists" vs the professionals. Indeed, most professionals are likely to be "better" due to their job focus, but there are exceptions to this rule, where many of these amateurs are highly dedicated to their craft or even may have a music degree and/or background.

Not even the Beethoven violin concerto is sacred. Music is there to be performed and enjoyed, rather than "worshipped". I understand the value of this great work, but it's just beautiful music. Surely some amateurs can play it well and with great musical refinement.

Repertoire guidelines are just that. No one would suggest Paganini Caprice 17 to someone two years into the violin (barring a special case infant/young prodigy). But if able to, play whayever makes most sense, be it Vivaldi, Viotti, or Vieuxtemps.

So whether it's late Beethoven or Shostakovich quartets, go ahead, but make sure you are able to do them justice at some level. You will find no elitism from me-the other thread suggested that anyone with a bit of study can indeed make an excellent rehair, which I disagreed with, but made some caveats about. I don't think that by preferring professionals do the pro luthier work implies that only professional violinists can play this or that repertoire well (indeed many professionals spend years playing the same advanced stuff for years, rather than exploring new things to play-the amateur is generally freer to play just whatever he/she wishes, Beethoven or otherwise.)

No offense meant, and happy music-making to all, amateurs or professionals. We all are violinists in the end.

August 6, 2018, 3:59 PM · Adalberto, thank you!
August 6, 2018, 4:07 PM · I love the absolutists and all their rules. There are lists that say: "You must play these pieces..." there are also lists that say "you must never attempt these pieces unless you are a professional." Yeah-Right.

Composers, for most of the time that composers composed, wrote for amateurs because professional were few and selling music is how the composer made money.

To be sure, today we start three year olds on musical tracks and parents and teachers track their performance to a set of "standards." Yeah, some click with this approach. Yet, the youth orchestras where I volunteer my time is more about fun than hitting an arbitrary sent of goals.

I learned that in the over 60 years of the orchestra program there have been about ten of the young musicians who went on to be professional musicians. The rest went on to non-musical careers but at the 60th anniversary it was noted that about 80% of the former young musicians still play with amateur groups.

My guess is that more than a few of them play some difficult music. Not as well as the professionals to be sure but as long as they get pleasure and enjoyment, who can call it "Blasphemy?"

August 6, 2018, 5:01 PM · There is more I believe: These are difficult quartets, not only for the musicians but also for the listeners. It takes some exposure, a learning curve if you want to use an expression from business lingo to appreciate them (I don't say understand them, that would be a whole other can of worms).

But, at least to me, playing them and listening to oneself and one's friends playing them is a very good approach to get more deeply familiar with them.

Edited: August 6, 2018, 6:31 PM · Yixi good luck with Op. 131. That is the one where, after hearing the piece, Schubert allegedly said, "After this, what is left for us to write?"
August 6, 2018, 7:16 PM · I don't believe in good luck in chamber music. I believe in open mind and healthy attitudes, hard work, good team, good coaching and supportive audience. When you can put your fingers on a great piece of work, whether being professional or amateur players, the most important thing is be thankful for our privilege and be mindful of the reponsibilities that come with it. The rest is noise.
Edited: August 6, 2018, 8:30 PM · "Must it be?"
"It must be!"

August 6, 2018, 8:06 PM · Yixi, definitely I agree with you. "Good luck" is just a generic positive expression.
August 6, 2018, 8:39 PM · Paul, I often don't know what to make of that expression. It depends on the tone I guess. I trust that you meant it positively. Here in Canada, we say to the person "Break a leg!" "Have fun!" Or ""toi toi" before she/he goes on stage. Not same in the US?
August 6, 2018, 8:49 PM · I have a violist friend and we are going to work on the 7th symphony - just the 2nd violin and viola parts. It would be fun to try the same for the quartets. I like to hear the string symphonic arrangements of these quartets.
Edited: August 6, 2018, 9:14 PM · I think the key word here is "amateur". Amateur means "lover", in this case music lover.
Amateurs perform out of the love they have for music. The idea of stopping that, is the real blasphemy.

August 6, 2018, 10:39 PM · Yixi you're right that "good luck" can be a loaded expression. I just didn't mean it that way. Sorry! :)
Edited: August 7, 2018, 10:39 AM · Yixi, sometimes people say “good luck with that!” and leave no doubt as to what they mean : )
August 7, 2018, 12:15 AM · Why not?

I don't really see the connection to rehairing your own bow, though. That could be a disaster...

August 7, 2018, 1:48 AM · I made the connection with the self-bow-rehairing thread because this is another activity that seems to provoke disapproval from the grown-ups - story of my life as a perpetual teenager.

Now it's good to get some passionate responses! And for me "good luck!" only has one meaning.

August 7, 2018, 7:13 AM · I managed to get my quartet to try the Grosse Fugue once, on an occasion when it turned out everyone had thought we were playing different things and brought different music. I'd been carrying round a complete set of parts just in case that happened, because I really wanted to have a go at it.

No thunderbolts struck us down from on high.

August 7, 2018, 7:46 AM · The Manhattan String Quartet runs week-long coaching programs in the summer that focus on one work. I’ve managed to work on Opp. 127, 135, and 131 there. Along with many other amateurs.
Edited: August 7, 2018, 1:25 PM · Oh my goodness, Yes! For me, late Beethoven is a lot more fun to play than it is to listen to. It's so much easier to appreciate what the composer was doing when you're inside the construction.

As a player you don't mind the repetition and the length so much because it is just fun and challenging to play, and each iteration (the structure is often kind of circular) you can try to bring something musically different -- or maybe you're just trying to get some notes that you missed on the first go-round.

You absolutely need 4 competent musicians, four people who can count and play with rhythmic integrity, or it can be tedious stopping and restarting every couple dozen measures. But that's not unique to late Beethoven -- Brahms, Schumann, late Dvorak all are tests of counting ability.

Start with Op. 132 which is incredibly gorgeous, very approachable and technically not that hard. After that maybe 130 and 127 -- they have a few wicked passages mainly for the V1 but they're playable.

I think it's also maybe a good idea to read with 2 of your four players having played the piece before. That way you have two people to lead and help you through the rubatos and transitions.

My other advice is not to fixate too much on the few very difficult passages. Beethoven wrote erratically near the end of his life and asked for things that do not lie well on a violin (or a human voice), but just don't worry about it if you're not trying to win a string quartet competition.

The thing about late Beethoven -- in contrast to middle Beethoven or even Op. 18s, is that the effect is very much NOT about virtuosity. It's folk tunes, it's the musings and meditations of a brilliant old man. Most of it should be played softly, lightly, delicately, THOUGHTFULLY.

This was Beethoven writing for his own pleasure, not needing to impress anyone. He was writing for himself and for his friends. He probably would be surprised to see them played in concert halls today.

I don't belong to the Late Beethoven Cult and probably never will. They're incredibly brilliant, the musical highs are incredibly high, but structurally they're problematic -- sometimes just overlong and self indulgent, in need of editing just like late Schubert.

They're great to perform IF you have enough late Beethoven cultists who know them and want to hear them again; otherwise, for a lot of people listening to Late Beethoven is an obligatory cultural literacy experience -- not quite a trip to the dentist but not without some discomfort because of the odd structures and lengths.

Yes the Lates have so many astonishingly beautiful moments, but so do Op 59, 18, 74, the trios, the Septet....

Edited: August 7, 2018, 1:25 PM · Stephen, my husband went to the Manhattan String Quartet workshop last year and he really enjoyed it. The 1st violinists are required to learn the second violin part and play with different groups and you really have to be well-prepared and know all parts very well. I might be applying it next year.
August 7, 2018, 12:59 PM · As a fully paid-up, card-carrying member of the Late Beethoven Cult I'm delighted to hear and echo Thomas's enthusiasm, but "in need of editing"?!! With the solitary exception of the second movement of Op.132 which, like some other Beethoven scherzos, does arguably come round once too often, I'd say every mind-bending minute is essential to Beethoven's conception. And "more fun to play than to listen to"? The problem with having to play the notes in concert is that you don't dare surrender yourself too freely to emotion. The best performances, in my view, are those that retain a certain degree of detachment and leave the heavy breathing to the audience.
August 7, 2018, 1:11 PM · The MacNaghten Quartet prescribed two movements from Op 130 as one of the two quartets participants in a particular summer school were encouraged to prepare.
Edited: August 8, 2018, 12:14 PM · Steve, that's funny, I love the Op. 132 scherzo, I wouldn't cut a note, I think the task is for the players to play games with the iterations, vary the articulations and phrasings, tease it a little bit as they pass the gestures back and forth. (and yeah, Ludwig would be furious to hear this kind of insolence from a mere violin player.) Think of it like a game of rummy and you go around the table and people put different cards down.

In need of judicious editing? The Op. 130 finale maybe (the Grosse Fuge replacement movement)? The 1st part is like 7 pages. Not that I'd have any idea what to leave out. Again, sorry Ludwig.

August 7, 2018, 2:04 PM · Amateurs should play whatever they want to play. That's the beauty of amateur playing.
August 8, 2018, 12:33 AM · "This was Beethoven writing for his own pleasure, not needing to impress anyone. He was writing for himself and for his friends. He probably would be surprised to see them played in concert halls today."

If this was the case LvB would not have rewritten the finale of the Op. 130. He wrote the quartets withe the aim of selling them to a publisher (and even hoped to be paid twice in the case of the Op. 130).

Also, they were premiered and performed by a professional quartet, the Schuppanzigh, a group that also toured. So basically LvB envisioned these pieces getting played for people he'd never met.

Edited: August 8, 2018, 10:40 AM · I play every week in a non-performing string ensemble. Our conductor is a local composer and string player whose speciality as far as we are concerned is to place before us without warning his string ensemble arrangements of music from early medieval to the present day, including sometimes his own compositions. We never know what the next rehearsal is going to bring, but we know it will make for exciting sight-reading.

On one memorable occasion we found on our stands most of Beethoven's massive Diabelli Variations for the piano, transcribed by our conductor – confirming our suspicions that he doesn't get out much :) Now, I've never played a Beethoven quartet so I took on board the opinions voiced by some in the ensemble with quartet experience that playing some of those Diabelli variations reminded them of the later quartets. Or should we be surprised at the resemblance?

August 8, 2018, 5:30 AM · Yes, if they have sufficient technique and musical ability to make reasonable sense of them. If not there's lots of earlier Beethoven which is more manageable (we got as far as Op95). One of my regrets is that I was never part of a quartet which was anywhere near good enough to tackle these pieces. One attempt to read part of the Grosse Fuge was a disaster - we got as far as the first line(!) of the first fugue and dissolved into chaos, anarchy and laughter.
I'm surprised at Thomas's comments - Beethoven has been described as "music's supreme architect" and I've never heard anyone suggesting that any of his music would benefit from cutting. But these divergent opinions are what makes this forum so stimulating. I've only ever heard one Beethoven performance with a cut - the seventh symphony without the double repetition of the scherzo. An otherwise outstanding performance from a conductor I have a great respect for. The result was disastrous for the proportions of the piece (the finale then became disproportionately long and over-emphatically in A major)and the sense of unstoppable energy was much diminished.
I used to share reservations about the second movement of op132 but I've since discovered that they were probably a consequence of turgid, unsympathetic performances.
I too am a member of the Late Beethoven cult. If I had to salvage one body of music from earthquake, fire or flood it would be these pieces.
August 8, 2018, 7:42 AM · Karajan used to cut the repeats in the scherzo of the Pastoral Symphony! Another of the quartets where I'm tempted to do likewise (or end before the repetition of the trio) is Raz 2. Third time around the scherzo always elicits a groan. But I'll have a serious think about what Thomas says re Op.132. We usually take the second movement pretty swiftly but I'm not sure that's the whole answer.
August 8, 2018, 12:35 PM · Herman, yes it's true everything Beethoven wrote at this stage in his career would be played publicly and he knew it. And yes it would be sold as sheet music and make him money. I just think at this point the audience, or the commercial potential or even the players were not much of a consideration for him. He was rich, knew he'd be remembered as a genius so he was writing for himself and posterity and maybe a few patrons who appreciated avant-garde. Nobody else understood the late quartets or liked them much. Yes he did replace the Grosse Fuge but that was his publisher refusing to publish it as part of op 130. (then later, ironically, the publisher published the Grosse Fuge on its own as Op. 133).

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