OCTOBER PROGRAM NOTES (October 3, 4, 6, & 8)
By Andrea Moore
Beethoven’s Late String Quartets
On this program, Camerata begins the second season of the six late quartets of Beethoven. Last season featured Op. 135, 127, and 130; this year, we begin with 132, and conclude with another performance of 130, this time with its original conclusion, the Grosse Fuge, Op. 133. A great deal has been written about Beethoven’s late quartets, ranging from the analytical to the rhapsodic to the near-religious. The quantity and variety of tone reflects nearly two centuries’ worth of writers and critics grappling with these quartets, and their scale, experimentalism, and intensity.
Beethoven’s earliest string quartets, the six that comprise Op. 18, were written from 1798 to 1800, and follow in the stylistic traditions of Haydn and Mozart. His Op. 59 quartets (“Razumovsky”), and two others--Op. 74 (“Harp”) and Op. 95 (“Serioso”)--are all staples of the chamber music repertoire; Op. 74 makes an appearance this season in November. After Op. 95, Beethoven took over a decade’s hiatus from writing string quartets, resuming at the request of Prince Nicolas Galitzin of Russia, a cellist, who commissioned Beethoven to write a few new quartets. Spurred by this commission, Beethoven’s quartet writing occupied him exclusively in the last years of his life, including three for Galitzin (although he was only paid for one).
Among the characteristics attributed to Beethoven’s late works (those written between 1820 and his death in 1827) are an increased attention to melody and lyricism—especially significant for a composer known in his earlier years for a compositional style based on small motives rather than long melodies. An increased use of folk-like melodies is also a marker of the late works, as is Beethoven’s interest in variation form, and use of fugue.
The cultural critic Theodor Adorno has described the late style of many artists, including Beethoven, in this way:
“The maturity of the late works of significant artists does not resemble the kind one finds in fruit. They are, for the most part, not round, but furrowed, even ravaged. Devoid of sweetness, bitter and spiny, they do not surrender themselves to mere delectation. They lack all the harmony that the classicist aesthetic is in the habit of demanding from works of art, and they show more traces of history than of growth.”
With this description, it is not hard to understand why the idea of the “late quartets” of Beethoven often puts people in mind of his most experimental and formally unconventional works. A trip through these pieces may sound like a passage only for the musically initiated, but at the same time, Beethoven strews these pieces with compositional conventions, albeit in fragmented forms. The concept of “unity,” so important in Beethoven’s most famous symphonies (No. 5 and No. 9 in particular), remains, but in the late style is achieved, one scholar writes, “as an evolution from within rather than as a conciliation of contrasting forces: a Darwinian concept, perhaps, rather than a Hegelian one.”
Ludwig van Beethoven, String Quartet in A Minor, Op. 132
Beethoven’s sketches for this piece begin in earnest in late 1824, and he was in the middle of writing it when he fell seriously ill in the spring of 1825. It was that illness that gave the piece its middle movement, the famous Heiligendankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit, in der lydischen Tonart (Holy Song of Thanksgiving of a convalescent to the deity, in the Lydian mode). One of the three quartets Beethoven wrote for Prince Galitsin, Op. 132, with its five-movement structure and the mystique of its middle movement, has spurred the imagination of performers and critics alike almost since its first performance.
The opening movement of this piece shares a great deal with the opening of Op. 133, also known as the Grosse Fuge, which Beethoven wrote as the last movement of Op. 130 but which later became a standalone piece. Both pieces’ openings involve a rising and falling figure consisting of four notes (the cello begins and the others join in), and are characterized by harmonic and emotional uncertainty—that is, we as listeners cannot predict what will happen. In this piece, the four voices move in close harmony and rhythmic unison for the entirety of the 8-bar introduction, which perhaps anticipates the tone of the middle movement. The Allegro makes use of the opening material, as a kind of secret underpinning to energy and force of the primary theme—the opening material enters stealthily in the middle voices a few measures in. The second movement is essentially a minuet and trio, although not marked as such. The musicologist Michael Steinberg wrote of this movement, “Beethoven can sometimes make miracles from the most ordinary things, and he has done it nowhere more touchingly than in the trio, where a country dance tune, with pedal drone and all, becomes transfigured at a great height into something distant and mysterious.”
As in most of his late quartets (Op. 130 the exception), the center of this quartet is a set of variations, or in this case double variations—that is, variations on two different themes. The first is the chorale-like opening, in which each voice enters in close succession, and all move together in a unison chord progression. The second theme, in D Major, has an entirely different emotional tone; where the opening is contemplative and melancholy, the second theme is energetic and rhythmically intricate. It is marked “Neue kraft fühlend,” feeling new strength, and thus Beethoven sets up the movement’s duality, between the contemplative state of the patient giving thanks, and the resumption of health. These themes are given alternating variations. The overall scale of the movement is immense: musicologist Joseph Kerman wrote that it presents “what is probably Beethoven’s most extraordinary vision,” adding, “this movement is utterly radical in conception, a fantastic vision.” The final variation, on the first theme, is marked “mit innigster Empfindung,” with the most heartfelt expression. The variation builds twice to a strong dynamic, landing the second time on a “wrong” chord, a dissonant chord at the top of the dynamic range before resolving and slowly fading out.
Beethoven follows this movement with a very short march, one that is puzzling in its brevity and in the abruptness of its conclusion. Kerman describes it as a “dandified march out of a Salzburg serenade or a stylish opera buffa.” It detours briefly through a dramatic E Minor passage, followed by what could be described as a 7-measure coda, a quick Presto which doesn’t resolve but simply slows down and segues into the finale. This is a rondo, straightforward in form, whose trajectory takes it from the subdued opening A Minor into a hard-won A Major Presto. Concerned, perhaps above all, with the exploration of contrast in the late quartets, Beethoven offers a microcosm of this exploration into the final 20 measures or so, which first have a rhythmic shift into triplets; next a rapid diminuendo, almost to nothing, leading the listener to believe the piece may end softly; a quick crescendo and a sudden, jarring dissonance; and a triumphant quick build to the final cadence.
Franz Schubert, Sonata in B-flat Major, D. 960
Program notes are generally expected to be dispassionate: the reader doesn’t, and probably shouldn’t, know the writer’s personal relationship with a composer or a piece or a genre. These standards are easy enough to adhere to, even when some great favorites are on the program, or (maybe more difficult) when writing about pieces and composers who are the opposite of favorites. Still, if I were involved in a high-stakes game where I had to name the piece closest to my heart, it would be this one. As a result, I may have to rely on others to talk about it for me, because it turns out I primarily want to talk about experiences of the piece. It turns out that my voice tends to tremble when I say, “the last Schubert sonata,” and that my eyes tend to well up right away. This sounds dramatic, and maybe it is, but that’s what can happen when one becomes so entwined with a piece.
This is Schubert’s last piano sonata, written in September 1828, two months before his death at age 31. It is one of three late sonatas, of which the pianist Paul Lewis said “The turbulence of the C Minor sonata, through the nostalgia of the A Major sonata, to the final sense of acceptance in the B flat sonata, take us on one of the most moving and rewarding musical journeys of the 19th century.”
I recently heard a performance of this piece at Carnegie Hall in New York. Although as a listener, I know every note and every event, hearing it live always does something extraordinary to the temporality of the first movement, which I described to a friend afterwards as “almost experimental” in scale. If there is one thing to know about this movement, which is truly monumental, it is the fact of the trill, or maybe The Trill. The opening measures outline a beautiful, lyrical theme, which seems to be leading to a half cadence—we might expect Schubert to repeat and resolve it. Instead, we get a trill, a deep rumble emanating from the low register, quiet, dissonant, and a world away from the lyricism it answers. It has been referred to as a “death rattle,” and the pianist Andras Schiff has called it “the most extraordinary trill in the history of music.” The movement’s vast narrative terrain is shaped in part by uncanny recurrences of the trill. It is also characterized by silences, moments where the music stops, and you don’t know—not with certainty—whether it will start again. The “experimental” quality I experienced on hearing it live has something to do with the way Schubert uses time here, taking sonata form and pushing it to its limits: adhering to its expectations while also disrupting its flow, breaking off, starting again, failing and recovering.
The second movement is also “poised at the edge of the abyss,” in Alex Ross’s words. It is in C-sharp Minor, an unusual key, one used by Beethoven for his late quartet, Op. 131. Its opening is sparse and uncertain, with a repetition of an octave leap between two C sharps. The movement’s B section is a chorale-like melody, dark in timbre at the outset, and Schubert does not modulate into this, but simply shifts into A Major. This theme is propelled by the pulsing accompaniment, and it demonstrates Schubert’s capacity for getting impossible beauty and variety out of the simplest of his melodies. When the opening material returns, it is slightly altered by the addition of sixteenth notes in the bass. There is a passage through the remote key of C Major before the movement concludes by altering its home key to C-sharp Major, effecting a kind of reconciliation.
Scholars and music lovers have sometimes wrestled with the meaning of the third and fourth movements, which seem so far removed, in emotional terms, from the first two. The Scherzo is marked Allegro vivace con delicatezza, and its lightness, subtlety, and effervescence effect a near-total change in tone. The Trio veers into minor and creates a subtle sense of conflict by throwing off the steadiness of the pulse with an off-kilter accent pattern. The final movement is a sonata-rondo and begins with a dramatic octave G, which recurs several times: like the trill, it has the effect of suspending the music’s forward motion through time, but it is lighter in effect. The second theme is gorgeous and lyrical and extended, and one could almost sink into it entirely, but for the fact that Schubert underpins it with a series of offbeats, making it feel just a little precarious. Following an abrupt shift into new material—heavy chords, dotted rhythms—that same material is developed into something lighter, softer, a relative of the Scherzo, but punctuated with material from the refrain, in keeping with their rondo form. Like the movements that precede it, this one deals in some extremes, particularly in its abrupt, even violent, shifts from one theme, one mood, to another.
Schiff, in conversation with the critic Alex Ross, said “These last two movements are like a hallucination of a new life. They are what the dying person might experience on the threshold. The coda has a wonderful, chaotic joy in it: this rushing out, this looking for the final exit, this last flourish. Schubert is saying yes to life. There is still hope.” In 1989, Alfred Brendel wrote, “Among Schubert’s last sonatas, the one in B flat has, in our century, cast the strongest spell.” And as a young man, the critical theorist Theodor Adorno wrote an essay on Schubert, which concludes with this passage:
“Schubert’s music brings tears to our eyes, without any questioning of the soul: this is how stark and real is the way that the music strikes us. We cry without knowing why, because we are not yet what this music promises for us. We cry, knowing in untold happiness, that this music is as it is in the promise of what one day we ourselves will be. This is music we cannot decipher, but it holds up to our blurred, over-brimming eyes the secret of reconciliation at long last.”