Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Beethoven and the String Quartet

Occasionally I go over the moon, swooning, about certain pieces of music: they sort of take over the mind, esthetically speaking. In the case of Beethoven’s string quartets, I can say that my initial love affair has continued, rather loyally and unexpectedly, for years. This morning I listen to one of the later ones again.

Unlike a true music aficionado, I am rather cavalier (for the most part) about which quartets to play. I tried to pay attention, and know them somewhat, if not really by name. So the scholarship lags behind the enthusiasm for the goods. And they are all excellent, and rather straightforward in their musical organization. I mean that they tend to follow a familiar formal arrangement: the sonata form. There is the statement of a primary theme, a variation from that theme, and then a return, modified enough to surprise the ear while also ensuring its consist, internally rigorous identity.

Beethoven’s music for many (like my father) represents a fascinating historical shift from the Classical to the Romantic period. Beethoven’s Romantic era pieces still retain the rigorous formal structure and logic of the Classical era but also veer into programmatic or passionate departure—something you simply don’t hear in Haydn, for instance. Suddenly the complexities of the human spirit; the struggles and triumphs; the exposition of nature--in all its ferocity and tenderness--come to the surface. It’s thrilling, and very difficult to find elsewhere, a fact that makes Beethoven endure in the manner Shakespeare, Picasso and the Beatles do. There is always a new generation ready to discover, as if no one had before, just how relevant and magnificent this stuff is.

And at the same time, I love the string quartet form, and Beethoven’s string quartets in particular for other reasons.

First of all, the timing, harmonic and melodic elements in the string quartet are all pushed forward, nakedly exposed. There’s such a marked directness; a purity in how the ear receives such clear-cut information. You can distinguish changes in a flow that isn’t obscured by the complications of richer arrangements. In a symphony with many instruments vying for prominence, there is more room for the work to hide in its layering; more ways the frequencies of instruments (and even the changes themselves) can mask one another. I don’t mean to imply that symphonic arrangements are somehow compromised utterly by this; just that there is a noticeable difference in how we can see the architecture, if you like. Adding instruments to an arrangement complicates the experience sonically. Certain pieces (like say Mahler’s 5th) beg for that complication, to be sure.

In the string quartet form, there’s something else present that is almost too delicious for words: the singing quality of notes so ardently and clearly asserted in the “thin” mix of the arrangement. The melody and the harmony deliver such that you may hear any error, and conversely, the sweet breadth that mastery of instruments unfolds without errors. The Quartetto Italiano box-set that I have (a loving gift from my father for my birthday years ago—not getting paid to write this) lets you swim around in whole oceans of masterful playing. It’s the kind of playing, in fact, that allows you to relax utterly, knowing the performance will not compromise the work.

So beyond even all of this goodness, there is the heart of the matter for me. When I hear some of these string quartets, a broadening calm moves in. I can imagine, for a while, that life—even in its inherent dramas and awkwardness—can move gracefully forward (across its long body). I can claim the dignity, the strength, the faith in humanity and in nature, that inheres in Beethoven’s works. They suggest to my heart that we can all forgive each another and start over; that life is oddly perfect despite its flaws; that time unfolds before us with the enveloping quality of a river or a mountain range. To paraphrase Stravinsky on this, I feel like the music really is "clarifying man's relationship to time."

So thank you, Beethoven. You were perfect in your flaws and unafraid to weave them into the music. I know the muses spoke to you profoundly—why else would you have continued writing when you couldn’t “hear” it anymore.


  1. OMG I have this very album. I love string quartet!

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  3. Not having been exposed to any of Beethoven's quartets before, I found a couple and listened through your words a bit and through my ears a lot. What I find most interesting about this blog is actually your paraphrasing of Stravinsky whose quartets I also tried out right after the Beethoven quartets. Thinking of both of the works of these composers in terms of man's relationship to time, and then considering your statements about Beethoven being a cusp composer whose works span the gulf between classical and romantic, I'm left wondering what that makes Stravinsky. I'm having a hard time conceiving of him as romantic. As opposed to Beethoven's precise notes and sharp melodies in which each individual instrument can easily be picked out as you stated above, Stravinsky's quartet's tend to blend together much more creating a sound which if compared to Beethoven can only be lovingly described as more muddled. I do think the two composers described their times as well as man's relationship to time. Thanks for the suggestion Doug. Cheers