Thursday, November 15, 2012

Beethoven, the Late Quartets & His Audience

The Doric Quartet concludes tonight’s performance with Market Square Concerts’ second program of the season – tonight at 8pm at Temple Ohev Sholom: you can read more about it here – with Beethoven’s String Quartet in C-sharp Minor, Op.131, one of the great works in the chamber music (certainly in the string quartet) repertoire.

We – musicians or music-lovers – often talk about “Beethoven’s Late Quartets” as if they’re this huge monolithic entity, something lurking in the background of a pleasant photograph of a nice family picnic in a pretty park yet behind them loom the Alps, sometimes brilliant and exhilarating or at turns dark and foreboding.

People hold up these quartets as a group whenever they need an example of something that is both demanding of respect as well as unintelligible. They have become a metaphor for the inscrutable which, in time, has eventually (finally) become… well, scrutable – that through familiarity and perseverance, they can unlock secrets of the universe if only we let them.

Back in the 1960s, some less than friendly critic reviewed a complex and, clearly (to him) inscrutable quartet by Milton Babbitt with the phrase: “This must be what a Late Beethoven Quartet sounds like to a dog.”

During the mid-1970s, a composer friend of mine with a similarly complex style attended the new music festival at Tanglewood and sent me a post card of this photograph (see right) with that caption on the back.

The technical demands – both on the performers’ as well as the listeners’ side – are considerable, and if their length isn’t an issue today (since many of us are used to Mahler’s hour-long symphonies or sitting for a couple hours to watch a movie), it certainly was in Beethoven’s day and it made concentrating on the music all the more a challenge.

The Op.131 Quartet isn’t the longest of them but it might be the most intense. Written in a time when audiences were used to quartets (or symphonies) being about a half-hour long and divided into four movements, giving them a chance to relax in the slight pause between movements, the seven movements of Op.131 progress without a break which places additional demands on the players, both in terms of mental concentration and physical endurance, as well as on the listeners.

It may not be a good analogy but I think it gets the point across: you need to be “in shape” to run a race, whether it’s the 500 meter event or the 5000 meter one. I’ve heard some musicians describe these quartets as “running a marathon” (in one case, a triathlon) which implies certain non-musical concerns as “pacing yourself” or being able to keep yourself “in the zone” to avoid focusing on… well, things like pain or exhaustion which would slow you down.

Okay, that may be a bit much and the analogy falls apart the instant you visualize four sweaty musicians in shorts and headbands racing to the finish line and one of them is a little bit faster than the others (pity the poor cellist, carrying such a cumbersome instrument). It’s more of an eight-legged race where all four of them have to cross the line together as a unit, but let’s not go there… the image is too funny (but a good skit for the likes of Monty Python).

Okay, now I’ve completely destroyed the serious – ahem, and I do mean “serious” – reverence with which the intellectual music-lover approaches (often genuflecting) these five quartets Beethoven composed in the last years of his life. For music-lovers who prefer “America’s Got Talent” to “Masterpiece Mystery,” their approach to a Beethoven Late Quartet might be figuring out (a.) how one can sit still so long; (b.) what one is supposed to listen to during all this and (c.) do not think about needing to visit the rest-room.

Art-lovers who complain about the dumbing down of today’s culture might be surprised to discover that Beethoven had to deal with the same issues in his audience.

So, where did these works come from?

At the end of the previous post about the Schumann and Chausson quartets, I mentioned how Schubert had died at 31, Mozart at 35, Mendelssohn at 38, how Schumann had tried to commit suicide when he was 44, how Chausson died in a biking accident at 44, and how Beethoven (who appears timeless as well as ageless in our imaginations) was 56 when he died, having completed the last of these five quartets only months earlier.

So I want to quote something from Elliott Carter, an American composer who died ten days ago, a little over a month shy of his 104th birthday – and, I might add, till then busily and seemingly constantly composing. 

In some interview during this long and illustrious career (but probably during the slew of interviews he granted as he approached 100), Carter said “As a young man, I harbored the populist idea of writing for the public. I learned that the public didn’t care. So I decided to write for myself. Since then, people have gotten interested.”

When I heard the Pacifica Quartet play all five Carter quartets back to back in one evening, the large auditorium wasn’t exactly packed but it was well-attended, given the event, and the crowd was very responsive and highly favorable. I recognized many of the people I used to see at new music concerts when I lived in New York City in the late-‘70s, now thirty years older (as was the composer who, already considered on the verge of retirement, had written two more quartets since then).

When the first of Beethoven’s Late Quartets were premiered in Vienna, they were met, on the one hand, by total confusion, yet were hailed by those who adored Beethoven and anything he wrote “uncritically” – what, today, we would call a niche audience.

Perhaps, someday, Elliott Carter’s quartets will lose the general bewilderment the average audience reacts with, just as Beethoven’s Late Quartets have finally attained this rarified status as unquestioned masterpieces.

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Did Beethoven have “a Carter Moment” when he realized the public didn’t care?

I think, if you look at their music, composers have always managed to compartmentalize their creativity. The symphony, for Beethoven, was a public work written for large audiences, and so therefore had a specific and direct stylistic approach, whether we’d say it catered to the popular taste or not (and since we can hardly name another composer who wrote a symphony that’s as much a part of the repertoire as any of Beethoven’s that was written between 1800 and 1825, it’s fairly easy to decide who won that race). The string quartet had only four players and was generally designed for small audiences in smaller locations – the public concert was not a long-standing tradition for orchestral music and the idea of public concerts for chamber music was something newly championed by the violinist Ignaz Schuppanzigh in Vienna during the 1820s, around the time Beethoven began composing these Late Quartets. One of these first public concerts featured a Haydn Quartet and Beethoven’s ever-popular, youthful Septet: the place was so crowded “people had to stand in front of the doors.”

Mozart and Schubert could write delightful music for people to dance to in public or private and Beethoven could produce hundreds of arrangements of British folk songs for voice and piano trio for the amateur audience. These were not intended to be “masterpieces” at a time when composers didn’t dwell on “the future” but on the “here-and-now.” Beethoven wrote these songs for money, not out of any belief he was writing great music: a composer has bills to pay just like anybody else. You can’t spend all your time contemplating the cosmos and, along the way, hope to find enough money in the silver linings to cover this month’s rent.

And certainly, no great composer has turned out a more populist work than Beethoven’s “Wellington’s Victory,” intended to ride the public euphoria over the news that, apparently, Napoleon’s control of Europe was beginning to crack. In fact, Beethoven was anxious that the premiere not be delayed lest it become old news and the public response to his music was lessened by its being “so last month,” this in a time long before instant news but when the public already had the ability to forget important events (Hurricane Sandy, for instance) with the advent of the next big story (insert “latest sex scandal” here).

Not long after completing the 7th and 8th Symphonies, Beethoven went into something of a “dry spell.” If he wasn’t concerned about having written himself out, his fans certainly were very concerned. He thought, perhaps, a change of scenery might do him good, leaving Vienna for Paris or London, though this may have been a ploy to bring in some much needed financial support (which it did, from patrons who did not want to lose their Beethoven). Between 1815 and 1818, though, he had enough other things on his mind – continued bouts of illness but more serious, this time (he was in his mid-40s, then) but also that nasty business with his newly widowed sister-in-law over the custody of his nephew – but it also reflected itself in his thinking about “new directions” in his musical style.

We often think of Beethoven as deaf, especially given the Heiligenstadt Testament of 1802. But he was not “stone deaf” at the age of 31: it progressed more or less gradually, sometimes better but mostly getting worse until he had to resort to notebooks for people to write down their end of the conversation. He began using these around 1815 – by the time he died, twelve years later, there were 400 such “conversation” books (considering as often as he moved, it amazes me that he kept all these).

While some critics dismissed the turn his Late Period Music was taking as the work of a man who could no longer hear, it certainly turned his “musical ear” inward but it’s not the only reason for this change of approach. Never having been deaf, I can’t imagine what it would be like to live in a world of silence and not hear anything – especially the music you love – going on around you: of course you would start creating your own inner music, especially a composer. You wouldn’t be unable to write it down simply because you couldn’t hear yourself play it at the piano, though Beethoven (even when deaf) still worked out details at the piano as he composed. He was able to coach a quartet preparing the first of these late quartets despite being unable to hear them play: he followed the motion of their bows and watched their fingers! Beethoven, as you would expect, had learned how to adapt, painful as it might have been to do so: but he did survive.

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In his biography of Beethoven, Maynard Solomon points out the attitudes that were developing in the audiences of Beethoven’s day. Given the breakdown in communication with government censorship (which, if anything, increased after Napoleon’s defeat) and after all the constant warfare in the news, the times were very stressful and audiences tended to use the arts as a form of recreation until “serious art” was becoming increasingly marginalized. “Artist and audience rise to defend the sanctity of art at those moments when its social function has become endangered and its aesthetic and ethical purposes called into question” (p.415).

(If any of this sounds familiar, raise your hand.)

Aristocratic patronage was becoming a thing of the past (even in tough economic times, the nobility still had difficulties paying their own bills and several of Beethoven’s most prominent supporters were forced to renege on their pledges) and “enlightened attitudes toward the arts” were also eroding. In this sense, Beethoven’s new style – what we call his “Late Period” – seem to crystalize the avant-garde ideas of Vienna’s intellectual elite.

Beethoven was never not writing for an audience (unlike the war-cry waged against contemporary composers in the 1960s, dismissed as willful academics writing for each other, when an article by Milton Babbitt was entitled – by an unwitting copy-editor – “Who Cares If You Listen?”) . He was writing for a different audience – a more discerning audience. If, like Carter, he became aware the general public didn’t care, he knew there were some who did, whether he was writing for himself alone or not. What would catch their interest and generate their support would be, their shared interests and ideas aside, they would recognize the validity of a very sincere musical language that is not intended to pander to the common denominator. In this sense, both Beethoven and Carter are similar: by being uncompromising in their beliefs, they were creating music that, someday, like-minded people would take an interest in.

The only exception to this was Beethoven’s agreeing to replace the original finale of the Op.130 Quartet, the B-flat Quartet that was already long and demanded which ended in a long and even more demanding fugue which came to be known as the Great Fugue (the famous (or infamous) Grosse Fuge). Why did he agree to this? He adamantly refused to substitute a new finale but when the publisher was willing to publish it separately in both a quartet score and a four-hand piano arrangement (so the work would not only not be lost, it might even find some continued existence being played and studied in private homes – the usual intent of piano duets – which might ensure its being understood in the future). And, not to dismiss it too lightly, he would get more money for it.

Schuppanzigh wanted the first of the late quartets to be completed – Op.127 – to be premiered at one of his new-fangled public chamber music concerts. Now, these audiences were still not large, but more people would hear them than would normally experience chamber music in a prince’s home for his family and guests. There were eight different performances of Op.127 during the two months after its premiere and some 500 people attended these various concerts.

Schuppanzigh’s premiere in March, 1825, was a disaster which the violinist largely credited to the quartet’s inadequate rehearsal time. Beethoven, then, coached them on it before their second performance with greater (or rather, with any) success.

The next quartet to be performed was Op.132, first heard in a private gathering in September 1825, then twice in public concerts in November. Op.130 – with its Grosse Fuge finale – was first heard in March, 1826 and was “eagerly sought after” by two other quartets for their concerts.

In August of 1826, the new Op.131 Quartet was rehearsed at the home of publisher Matthias Artaria and Karl Holz, Beethoven’s friend and temporary amanuensis as well as the 2nd violinist in Schuppanzigh’s quartet, told the composer that Artaria “was enraptured, and the [opening] fugue, when he heard it for the third time, he found wholly intelligible.” Note that “for the third time”…

Holz also told Beethoven that Op.132 had already been played in Berlin but added, “they have no idea there how Beethoven should be played.”

Schuppanzigh, in the months following this, told Beethoven that another performance of Op.127 was applauded “with enthusiasm.” The new finale for Op.130, replacing the Fugue, was determined to be “altogether heavenly” by the musicians.

There were other performances – mostly private – during the next year, 1827, the year Beethoven died. There was also a famous and very private performance in November 1828 for an audience of one: the dying Franz Schubert who wanted to hear Op.131 and which his friend, this same Karl Holz, brought his friends over to play it for him (unfortunately, as enthusiastic as he was about it, Schubert suffered a relapse of his illness that made his friends “frightened for him”).

Given the timing of Beethoven’s own deteriorating health – a sad story in itself – neither Op.131 nor the last of the set, Op.135, were performed in concert during the brief remainder of his lifetime. Op.131 didn’t receive its first actual public performance until 1835 – and Solomon points out (p.417) that between Beethoven’s death in 1827 and 1850, these quartets were played in Viennese concerts only four times! Op.130 and Op.135 once each, Op.131 twice.

On the other hand, during their first decade, these quartets were performed in Berlin, Leipzig and Paris.

It does not mean they were universally successful. A critic in Leipzig found the Grosse Fuge “incomprehensible, like Chinese,” describing it as “a concert that only the Moroccans might enjoy.” (This, I expect, is the 1826 equivalent of dogs listening to Late Beethoven Quartets…)

Holz himself – as well as Beethoven’s friend and former amanuensis Anton Schindler – failed to appreciate Op.130 as a whole, yet Holz reported its first audience was “inspired, astonished or questioning.” Some found no fault with it only because they held the composer in such awe. (Are these like those people today who try to impress others with their intelligence by pointing out they like Elliott Carter’s music when in fact they have no idea what they’re listening to – or who read the latest ten-pound tome of a New York Best Seller but have never gotten past page 37.)

On the whole, most of the audiences would have preferred the early Septet if only because (a.) it was popular, (b.) it was easy to listen to and (c.) it reminded them of the good old days.

Ludwig Spohr, one of the great violinists of the day (with the possible exception of a fellow named Paganini) and also one of the more frequently performed composers of his day (making him, technically, more popular than Beethoven, in general), told the story in his Autobiography that his quartet had started to play one of Beethoven’s latest works (I do not remember if he identified the specific work) when it started to break down and Spohr realized “my accompanists clearly did not understand” what they were playing. So instead they substituted one of his own quartets which was met with considerable more success and a favorable response from their audience.

Part of the problem was that Spohr did not understand the role of the quartet in these works: gone were the days when it was a first violinist accompanied by three other string players, when he had all the tunes, the cello supplied the harmonic bass-line and the 2nd violinist and violist chugged away filling in the inner harmonies. Beethoven’s Late Quartets are all about the single organism, four people playing equally as one.

Not too many years ago, I attended the world premiere of Jennifer Higdon’s Percussion Concerto by the Philadelphia Orchestra and was blown away by it. The second half of the program was Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony in one of the worst performances I’d ever heard of it – sloppy even for a less talented regional orchestra much less a world-class organization like this! Aside from the amount of rehearsal time allotted to any given concert these days – the economy of the arts is another topic – it reminded me that when Beethoven is badly played, the critic blames the performers, but when a critic condemns a new work, something he’s never heard before, how does he know it is not being badly played? In this case, it would always be the composer’s fault.

So it has taken a long time for Beethoven’s Late Quartets to be publically accepted. I’ve often joked that we, as an audience, had to get through Wagner and Mahler and Schoenberg before we could look back at something composed now almost 200 years ago and say “oh, isn’t that incredible!”

It may take a while before the public “gets interested” in some new music initially dismissed as unlistenable, unintelligible and esoteric. But for those of us who climb the mountaintop, the view can be exhilarating.

- Dick Strawser

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