Thursday, February 15, 2007

Beethoven's Late Quartets

The squadron-leader replied: "I am going to spend my week-end leave with God and the late Beethoven string quartets." Music is the most intangible of the arts, unfolding in time, unlike paintings, which capture a moment in time for ever, or literature which can take its time to capture and elaborate a moment or an idea. Music cannot express an idea; it can (occasionally) imitate reality but more often it reflects mood or consciousness of an idea; that is, when it is not abstract. Mendelssohn once said that if you could explain a piece of music in words then it was no longer music. And Aaron Copland once wrote that his answer to the question "Is there a meaning to music?" would be "Yes". But to the question "Can you state in so many words what the meaning is ?" his answer would be "No".

So how could my squadron-leader and countless others equate Beethoven's late quartets with God ? My answer is 'listen to them and you might find the equation accurate'. Although before that might come another question: is it not really God in that equation? By most accounts, Beethoven was not an orthodox believer; but neither was he an atheist. It would seem that he believed in a Supreme Being. And it has been said that all composers of truly great music must have been similar believers, orthodox or unorthodox; many have testified to that.

Recently I spent a week listening to the last five Beethoven quartets. I was transported and feel that I have been in touch with some higher state of being. Those quartets are not easy listening or necessarily the most beautiful music ever - although there is beautiful music in them – but they are surely the most meaningful, and thought provoking music that exists. The thoughts are moods, consciousness of shapes and patterns that are totally satisfying, reactions that are subjective, maybe, but ones that induce feelings of spirituality.

The five late quartets were some of the last music Beethoven composed: Opus 127 in E flat, 130 in B flat, 131 in C sharp minor, 132 in A minor and 135 in F, all composed between 1823 and 1826. In 1827 Beethoven died of dropsy and pneumonia at the age of 56. 130 is the quartet that has two endings, the original finale being the (great) Grosse Fuge (although Beethoven later composed an alternative finale, an easy going one), 152 has the Holy Thanksgiving slow movement-hymn 'from a convalescent to the Deity’ (ah, ha. Deity!) whilst 135 has a lighter touch (cf. Verdi's old age opera Falstaff) except for the profound slow movement, and ends with question and answer 'must it be?’, 'it must be' spelt out in notes. As opposed to many of the symphonies, concertos and overtures which are somehow public works, the quartets tell of the composer's rich but often troubled inner life.

They are serious utterances but by no means devoid of humour and lightness, but they are instincts with the experience of a lifetime. By his fifties Beethoven was old before his time, weighed down with the crushing blow of his deafness and the various circumstances that stood in the way of the marriage that he so longed for. Perhaps too, the intensity, the high tension of writing the late quartets hastened his death. His inner sense of music was so acute that in his mind he heard everything that he put down on paper in such astonishing detail as to notation, gradations of volume, tempo, articulation and texture. His communication with the listener is complete: with a single phrase or two or three chords he can induce feelings of love, joy, morality, mysticism and a thousand nameless impressions that cannot be put into words.

Most of his first listeners and performers thought that Beethoven had gone off his head and that the late works were not performable. Certainly he strains his players to the limit and the music is often much in advance of its time. The Grosse Fuge is some of the wildest and most forceful music ever written yet its construction is cast in steel being continuous variations on four motives, every bar related thematically, an intellectual miracle yet shattering in its emotional effect. The music is rarely sensuous but full of masculine tenderness.

Occasionally we get a vision of a soul in anguish, as in the Cavatina of opus 150 (which Beethoven thought his deepest Adagio) in which the first violin sobs out his message. The whole quartet that he thought his finest was the C sharp minor opus 151 whose opening slow Fugue seems to attain a state of grace. These words are maybe futile but if you will try (or try again) the experience of listening to these quartets, you may understand what I am trying to say; they represent a perfect marriage of heart and mind, there is no padding but there are hints of the romantic age shortly to be born.

I listened to performances of the quartets made way back in the 1970's by the Vegh Quartet that are still acknowledged to be consistently the best. Also very fine are the Lindsay Quartet and more recently the Brodsky.


vladimir said...

Thank you for this thoughtful essay, which I've returned to several times, as I listen to various performances of the late quartets. Alban Berg, the Hollywood, LaSalle, Italiano. Waiting for the Capet to arrive.
It's not that I'm searching for the perfect performance, but that each group lives these pieces in their own way and I have the expansive luxury of participating in those different realms of beauty.

barcud said...

I remember as a teenager in W.Cornwall, on a fading Medium Wave Third Programme broadcast in the early 60s, hearing the Busch Quartet play Op 135, esp the slow movement. I was never the same again. A few months earlier, God had become real to me in a new way - like Beethoven said of the Missa Solemnis, it was "from the heart, to the heart".
It's mono and not hi-fi, but I don't think any quartet has gone deeper than Adolf Busch and his friends

E.H. said...

What a splendid evaluation of the late quartets! You put it better than I ever have: it truly is not the easiest music to listen to, but it certainly is about the most forthrightly intellectual music anyone has ever written.