MAY PROGRAM NOTES
By Andrea Moore
The two pieces on this concert are both late works in their composers’ lives and oeuvres. Although Strauss and Beethoven lived in drastically different conditions, it is perhaps tempting to identify qualities of “lateness” in these pieces. The late cultural critic Edward Said wrote that we tend to assume a certain “timeliness,” in art and life—that with age would come “a spirit of reconciliation and serenity…often expressed in terms of a miraculous transfiguration of reality.” Transfiguration was a recurring theme for Strauss (one of his best-known orchestra works is Tod und Verklärung, Death and Transfiguration), but that does not guarantee reconciliation. This season, too, has been concerned with late style, most notably with the conclusion of the late Beethoven cycle, but also with the inclusion of Schubert’s last piano sonata, and even Aaron Copland’s Duo for Flute and Piano. Said asked, “But what of artistic lateness not as harmony and resolution, but as intransigence, difficulty, and contradiction? What if age and ill health don’t produce serenity at all?”
Richard Strauss, Metamorphosen
Richard Strauss lived from 1864 to 1949, meaning that he was steeped in the German musical culture of the 19th century, while also witnessing its destruction, and the destruction of the Europe he knew, over the course of both world wars. Musically, his lifespan allowed him to compose in genres inseparable from 19th-century musical debates and standards, like the tone poem, and to produce operas in the 20th century that were shocking even in their more modern times, like Salome.
Metamorphosen, as its title indicates, picks up on a theme that Strauss worked with repeatedly over his lifetime, that of change and transformation. Written originally as a “study for 23 solo strings,” Strauss composed Metamorphosen between March and April 1945, during the last months of the war. The cities at the center of Strauss’s musical life, Berlin, Vienna, and especially Dresden, had been destroyed, and it is tempting to consider Metamorphosen as a piece that, as musicologist Bryan Gilliam writes, “seeks to probe the cause of war itself.” Yet the piece has also been closely analyzed by scholars in strictly formal terms, as either a kind of extended sonata form or a set of variations. Edward Said saw the piece as the latter, writing that in his late works, “Strauss turned almost exclusively to various quite extraordinary transfigurations of the variation idea…most remarkably of all, Metamorphosen, an essay in almost pure repetition and contemplation.”
Whatever interpretations we might bring to the piece, it was written near the end of Strauss’s life. Strauss’s attempts to be “apolitical” during the war did not serve him well, nor have they served his posthumous reputation—his hopes of staying removed from German crimes in favor of writing music were ill conceived, and his early closeness with some powerful members of the Nazi party are impossible to overlook. The autograph score is marked “In Memoriam,” and some critics have wondered if this referred to Hitler himself. Although this is unlikely, it is not impossible. However, it is more likely that the piece’s memorial aspect is aimed at the disappearance of the German musical culture that had nurtured Strauss. In early 1945, Strauss wrote in his diary, “The most terrible period of human history is at an end, the twelve-year reign of bestiality, ignorance, and anti-culture under the greatest criminals, during which Germany’s 2000 years of cultural evolution met its doom.” The idea that German culture had been “evolving” for 2000 years was the kind of concept that helped enable National Socialism, but nonetheless, Strauss seems clear in his rejection of the regime at this late date.
Inspired by Goethe’s poem, “Niemand wird sich selber kennen,” no one will know themselves, the piece’s main theme rhythmically evokes the funeral march from Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3, “Eroica.” Each of the original 23 instruments is given solo lines, and the piece is a single large movement, with slower outer sections surrounding a middle section marked Agitato. At the return of the Adagio, the Beethoven reference is made explicit, though it stops short of being a direct quotation, and it is precisely at this point in the score that Strauss marks it “In Memoriam.”
Strauss delivered the score to the conductor Paul Sacher, who had commissioned a string work from him and who premiered it with the Zurich Collegium Musicum in January 1946. The arrangement for Septet performed here was made by the Austrian cellist Rudolf Leopold and was published only in 1996.
Ludwig van Beethoven, Op. 130, with Grosse Fuge, Op. 133
This is the third of the quartets Beethoven wrote for Prince Galitsin, and differs from the other two (Op. 127 or 135) in that it has six movements. It was written almost immediately after Op. 132, meaning Beethoven was still suffering from the same illness that inspired Op. 132’s middle movement, and he was still preoccupied by family issues. There are two versions of the final movement: the Grosse Fuge, Beethoven’s original conclusion, and a replacement movement he wrote when the Grosse Fuge proved too difficult for most players. That movement was performed in last season’s final concerts; this season, it will be performed with the Grosse Fuge. The Grosse Fuge has its own opus number, 133, as Beethoven was persuaded to publish it separately, and is therefore considered part of the late Beethoven quartets in its own right. It is difficult not only for performers, but historically, for audiences: of its first performance, a Viennese critic wrote, more than a little rudely, “But the reviewer does not dare to interpret the sense of the fugal finale; for him it was incomprehensible, like Chinese…Perhaps so much would not have been written down if the master were also able to hear his own creations.”
As in Op. 127, this piece opens with an Adagio introduction, which then becomes part of the movement’s structure. Beethoven takes the slow introductory material as structural: after the first theme of the Allegro, the Adagio suddenly recurs, upending expectations of a slow introduction leading to a standard sonata form. There are further formal complications in the movement, and while any sonata form reconciles its two themes in the recapitulation, Joseph Kerman described this one as a “forced wedding” of wildly disparate themes. The second movement, Presto, is a scherzo and trio. Much of the movement is a dialogue between the first violin and lower strings. The scherzo is almost shockingly brief, and the trio, which switches meter and key, also involves a series of chromatic descents from the first violin as a transition back to the scherzo. The third movement is a study in subtle disruptions. Opening with an unmistakable “sighing” gesture (a long-standing musical trope involving a falling pair of notes), the tempo is unhurried, yet the activity is constant. There are sudden and brief shifts to pizzicato, which yield to the almost naïve melodies. The rhythmic steadiness of the primary themes occasionally shifts into dotted rhythms. The overall feeling is of something light, maybe hearkening back to entertainment music like divertimentos. The third movement is in D-flat Major, the next in G Major—the two keys most distant from one another in all of Western harmony. This fourth movement, (Alla danza tedesca, in the manner of a German dance) shows Beethoven’s deep affinity for folk-like music in his late works. The drones in the lower strings, the waltz-like rhythms, and the ongoing elaborations of a simple melody combine with the straightforward key of G Major to create the impression of simplicity. The title of the fifth movement, Cavatina, refers to a simple, straightforward vocal solo (as opposed to a more virtuosic aria). Here the first violin takes that role. The movement is reflective and deeply expressive. According to Beethoven’s friend Karl Holz, this was Beethoven’s favorite quartet movement; he wrote “He truly composed it in tear of melancholy…even the recollection of its emotions always cost him fresh tears.”
Last is the Grosse Fuge, which like some of Beethoven’s other very late works—the Hammerklavier sonata especially—seemed to push the limits of the form and genre altogether. Beethoven wrote, “Tantôt libre, tantôt recherchée” (at times free, at times rigorous) at the top of the score, and the movement is, among other things, a study in extremes. It opens with a 24-measure overture, which musicologist Joseph Kerman said was "not an introduction but a table of contents [that] hurls all the thematic variations at the listener's head like a handful of rocks." Thus, while this introduction seems fragmentary, even uncertain, it quite rigorously offers a preview of most of the fugue’s material. The next section is the fugue itself, which still has the capacity to shock: it is dissonant and jagged, rhythmically propulsive, and the intensity of its dotted rhythms threatens to be relentless. The movement develops by way of a series of key changes, abrupt halts, and dynamic extremes—full minutes in which the quartet plays at its top dynamic, full pages marked sempre pianissimo. The fugue’s character is altered by the addition of triplets and sixteenth notes, and it occupies multiple key areas before coming to an abrupt halt on a fermata. Just like that, the piece is somewhere else again, with a quiet dynamic, and the fugue subject thoroughly reimagined in legato terms. A scherzo-like section follows, which eventually harks back to the opening of the fugue (though with a slightly altered rhythm), and features dueling trills and, at one point, full measures of silence. The transition into the coda is done by way of a truncated statement of both versions of the subject, and the coda itself first suggests the opening of the movement—unison playing at a high dynamic—and then scatters fragments of the movement’s materials into the texture, before concluding the piece with one last twist: a straightforward cadence.