Monday, October 08, 2012

Beethoven and the "Harp" Quartet: One Thread in the Fabric of a Life

(This post is a continuation from the Market Square Concerts blog where you can hear a recording of Beethoven's String Quartet in E-flat, Op.74, the "Harp" with the Budapest Quartet, recorded in 1951, then attend a live performance as part of the opening of the new season with Market Square Concerts with the Philharmonia Quartet Berlin, this Wednesday (Oct. 10th) at 8pm at Market Square Presbyterian Church. I'll be doing a pre-concert talk at 7:15.)

Beethoven’s musical output, like his life, can be conveniently divided into three parts – Early, Middle and Late. It is fortunate for listeners as well as program note writers that this is so because it gives us something to listen to and talk about, a way of pigeon-holing the unpigeonable.

If you were outside a few weeks ago – on Saturday morning, September 22nd, around 10:47 – you probably didn’t notice the arrival of autumn. If, as I was told in my 8th grade world history class, that the Modern Age began on in 1492 when Columbus discovered America (considering most 14-year-olds then or now would think anything that happened before they were born was ancient history), to most people alive at that time, they probably didn’t notice much difference between 1493 and two years before.

When we listen to music, time in music history becomes very fluid and I don’t just mean the suspension of time where you’re unaware that a half-hour has passed when you were listened to a piece you enjoyed or thinking “there’s an hour I’ll never have again” when you didn’t.

The decades run together and the distance between Mozart and Beethoven may not seem significant: 23 years between the Mozart that opens the program and the Beethoven that closes the program may seem the wink of an eye compared to the difference in sound between the Mozart and the next work on the program, the quartet that Witold Lutoslawski wrote in 1964, 178 years after Mozart’s.

Part of this is what I’ll be talking about at my pre-concert talk on Wednesday night – the perception of the familiar compared to the perception of the unfamiliar – as an example, the idea of taking Beethoven’s Late Quartets which, in Beethoven’s day, were unintelligible to his audiences and remained so well into the 20th Century but are now recognized as among the greatest masterpieces of music history. Why the change?

One of the listeners at this past weekend’s symphony concert heard a lot of Brahms’ 2nd Symphony in the finale of Schumann’s “Rhenish” (very perceptive of him, actually) and wondered if Schumann knew Brahms’ work. The question (one of those “of course” moments to a musician) would be better if it were worded “did Brahms know Schumann’s work” since Brahms wrote his symphony 27 years after Schumann wrote his. More significantly, I think, is the amount of time they actually knew each other, considering we think of Schumann as Brahms’ mentor: Brahms was 20 when he showed up unannounced on the Schumanns’ doorstep in Düsseldorf in 1853 (three years after Schumann composed the “Rhenish”) on September 30th (officially, the Schumanns weren’t home, so he came back the next day: that’s when they met). After that, Brahms was a regular visitor there, leaving to go back to Hamburg sometime in November. The famous “Brahms as Beethoven’s Heir” article appeared at the end of October. But Schumann’s attempted suicide – jumping off a bridge into the Rhine – and then being taken away to an asylum outside Bonn occurred on February 27th, 1854. Schumann remained in there until he died on July 29th, 1856 – not the life-long friendship we might think of it, given the significant impact the Schumanns had on Brahms’ life. (While playing the popular “what if” game, consider what if Brahms had postponed his visit to Schumann till the following autumn? They would have never met.)

That’s just an example of how fine the line can be between something that happened and something that almost didn’t happen.

What if Mozart hadn’t died at the age of 35? If it’s true Mozart heard Beethoven improvise at the piano when the young man – then 21 – first visited Vienna hoping to study with Mozart only to have to return to Bonn because his mother was dying, how would things have gone when Beethoven returned to Vienna “to receive the spirit of Mozart from the hands of Haydn” a year later? Haydn proved an indifferent teacher to Beethoven: Mozart was always his model.

Of course, Haydn was still the master of the symphony and the string quartet, the two foremost forms of late-18th Century instrumental music (Mozart was regarded more as a performer and a composer of operas and concertos in Vienna, by comparison). Beethoven, being Beethoven, was more interested in finding his own voice than emulating his Master but it was Mozart’s spirit of independence (breaking away from the strict control of his father and pursuing a free-lance career in Vienna) that spoke more strongly to Beethoven.

When Mozart wrote his six “Haydn” Quartets (see my earlier post), he was trying to combine two stylistic elements of the day: what we call the “gallant” style which was primarily the elegant sense we normally associate with Classical Music (capital-C classical music) – with it, its images of powdered wigs and drinking tea from fine china cups, pinkies raised – with a more intellectual and, to be honest, more old-fashioned style (judging from the listeners at the time) already forgotten from the days of the already-forgotten Johann Sebastian Bach, basically bringing in the idea of Baroque Counterpoint.

(Speaking of the Autumnal Equinox and the immediate change of the season, we are told Baroque Music ended in 1750 with the death of Bach and Classical Music began when in fact the Baroque Style we know of Bach’s music was already old-fashioned according to his sons, already composing in the 1740s, and long evident in French painting and architecture from a decade earlier. Mozart, born in 1756, was 3 years old when Handel died.)

If you are a fan of the Dialectic – where, basically, an idea (or thesis) generates its opposite (or antithesis) which then combine to form a synthesis which in turn becomes a new idea generating its own opposite and so on – both Mozart and Haydn are interested in fashioning something new out of a combination of the current and the old. Beethoven, in his own way, was doing the same thing in the next generation: we have no idea how Mozart would have reacted to it (he would’ve been 44 in 1800, when Beethoven’s first quartets and 1st Symphony were premiered) but Haydn (who was 68, then) couldn’t make much sense out of it, admiring some of it but basically at a loss to endorse it.

By the time Beethoven wrote his Late Quartets – the ultimate in individualism, music so private it was deemed, for better or worse, the result of his deafness – he was well past the heroic outbursts of his Eroica and 5th Symphonies, in his 50s (we tend to forget Beethoven died at the age of 56 – his music has not only made him timeless, it’s also made him ageless).

In a sense, Mozart’s K.499 Quartet is a transition work though, unfortunately, he didn’t live long enough to complete the transition (one can only imagine, given the contrapuntal complexity of, say, the “Jupiter” Symphony’s finale from 1788, only two years later).

Performers, programmers and program-note writers never seem to know where to put Beethoven’s two “lone” quartets – the “Harp” (Op. 74) and the “Serioso” (Op. 95). They’re not quite Middle Period and not yet Late Period. What they are, basically, is an example of how Beethoven did not wake up one morning with a whole new stylistic approach, the Late Period, which seems to begin around the “Hammerklavier Sonata” (1817-1818) before we get to the last three piano sonatas (1820-1822), the 9th Symphony (1822-1824), the Missa Solemnis (1819-1823) and the Late Quartets (1823-1826).

There is also that very long, very frustrating unproductive period between 1815 and 1818 or so, when his creative output was the lowest during his career and many of his contemporaries thought he had written himself out. Today, we might think of it as a musical extension of a Mid-Life Crisis (he was in his mid-40s) and it would also be easy to blame it on the sheer amount of time and emotional energy consumed by his legal battles with his sister-in-law Johanna for the custody of her son, Karl, not to forget the sudden change in lifestyle when a man who could not imagine marrying, as much as he might seek the companionship of a wife, suddenly found himself with a teenaged boy under his roof.

What we also don’t realize is, after looking after the dates the “Harp” and the “Serioso” were composed, how much further away they are from this “Late Style” and how very much closer they are to the major works – in fact, even in between some of these major works – of the Middle Period: the 5th Symphony (1804-1806) and the 7th Symphony (1812).

The “Harp” Quartet (Op. 74) was written between late 1808 and 1809 and the “Serioso” (Op.95), despite its later opus number, was completed in 1810, not published for some reason until 1816.

Yet they still sound like “transition works.”

Given the regard the public has always had for Beethoven, even in his own day, it’s difficult to think of him as humanly fallible, at least in his music, that he could ever have doubted his own genius – this man who became the Titan, the supreme example of the confident artist.

But a creative style is a fluid thing – or at least, should be – and once a composer has realized he has said all he can say “this way,” he starts branching out for “new ways” to express himself – and these days, I should be using the clumsy “he/she construction.” But such breaks with the past, if conscious, are often scary – and as much a financial risk if your livelihood depends on the audience response to your work.

Beethoven told a friend that he was dissatisfied with what he’d composed so far and “from today on, I will take a new path.” This, apparently, was early in 1802 (whether in a letter with a specific date or a conversation, I can’t find anything more specific). He had also written the famous Heiligenstadt Testament on Oct. 6th, 1802, in which he detailed his fears about his impending deafness, a serious-enough crisis that required considerable energy to overcome.

When, exactly, he may have realized something similar a few years later, he was clearly looking for a new ways to express himself: there is a new lyricism in the music written after the 5th Symphony (written simultaneously with the much less dramatic Pastoral), especially in the 4th Piano Concerto and the Violin Concerto, both expansive works but whose expansiveness is not the result of the same heroic tension.

If composers wrote string quartets and symphonies “in sets” – Haydn’s two sets of “London” Symphonies (six written during his first visit to London, six more during the second), Mozart’s six “Haydn” Quartets and Beethoven’s six Op. 18 Quartets – Beethoven often wrote works in contrasting pairs, giving rise to the issue about even and odd numbered symphonies. It happened that the odd-numbered symphonies were considered the more “forward-looking” ones and the even-numbered ones were the more relaxed, less “great” ones. The reason for these pairings probably still dates from the curiosity many artists had about the varieties of ways they could express similar ideas (not necessarily the same themes) or find ways of contrasting their ideas within a given framework of time. This often led to a kind of “compartmentalization” of their art versus what was going on in their lives – Mozart’s ability to write “happy” music at a time of great anxiety in his life, for instance, or Beethoven, after writing that heart-rending Heiligenstadt Testament, could produce the jubilant finale of his 2nd Symphony. Just because a work was particularly dramatic did not mean the composer was dealing with some personal crisis he was expressing in his art – like Mozart, at 17, writing the “Little” G Minor Symphony. We associate the “Fate Knocks at the Door” program behind Beethoven’s 5th Symphony with his deafness which only limits the impact of the music: it transcends his own experience to embrace the universal conflict that any man – Everyman – can experience at times of crisis (just as Tchaikovsky, Mahler and Shostakovich did in their 5th Symphonies and which Brahms did in his 1st).

Though the late quartets were conceived originally as a set of three commissioned by a Russian count (remember, Mozart’s last quartets were also a set of three for the King of Prussia), he added two more and may have continued with another one (speaking of “what if…”). As for paired works, we know he was sketching a 10th Symphony in E-flat Major at the same time he was working out details of the 9th: there exist incomplete sketches for the 1st movement of the 10th found among his papers after his death.

To find out the context of this string quartet known as the “Harp” – and its companion – we can look at the works he was composing around the same time and also at what was going on in his life.

Looking at those works leading up to the “Harp” and “Serioso” Quartets – one, a more emotional, uncomplicated work; the other, as Beethoven subtitled it himself, a more “serious” work full of technical compositional challenges which the listener had to face intellectually – it’s interesting to realize after he’d finished the 5th and 6th Symphonies he focused almost entirely on chamber music except for the “Choral Fantasy,” written hastily for the premiere of the new symphonies; and the “Emperor” Concerto of 1809 (another unfortunate nickname not supplied by the composer – they rarely were).

At the beginning of 1809, Beethoven composed the first standard piano trios he would publish since his Op. 1 set in 1797. The first of this new pair is the more famous “Ghost” Trio (its nickname comes from the spooky-sounding music in the slow movement originally intended for the Witches’ Scene of Heinrich von Collin’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth which Beethoven had suggested as a possible opera subject – another “what if,” there – the project was abandoned in the 2nd Act because the poet found it “too gloomy”). This is a more daring, perhaps “experimental” work, structurally, the opening more of an overture to the slow movement which is the weighted center of the three movement work. The second, though – remembering the idea of contrasting pairs – is the classically oriented, easier-to-follow more traditional (and possibly more appealing) Trio in E-flat, Op.70, No. 2 in the more traditional four movements.

Like the even/odd-numbered symphonies, this 2nd trio from Op.70 is often overlooked because it’s not “as great” (or “as popular,” something else entirely) but Donald Tovey (one of England’s foremost writers about music) once pointed out that Beethoven had achieved an “integration of Mozart’s and Haydn’s resources with results that transcend all possibility of resemblance to the style of their origins.”

In some ways, you could think the slow movement sounds more Haydnesque (not just the shapes of phrases but some of the humorous turns as well) – that “gallante” style transplanted to the new century – except Beethoven shows up in the contrasting episodes. Similar unexpected events – like the forward motion of the minuet in the 3rd Movement being brought to a halt – make you realize he’s not “imitating” the past: he’s absorbing it. Perhaps to listeners in 1810, the odd harmonic juxtapositions and flights of fancy in the finale would have seemed more like Haydn’s little jokes than bold strokes by an innovative (and modern) genius. Had those same “bold strokes” been included in a more intellectualized, harmonically and structurally daring approach, they would probably have been found confusing.

If the legacy that Beethoven inherited from the past is his “thesis,” perhaps the Ghost Trio is its antithesis and, in a way, the E-flat Trio (too abstract to receive a nickname) becomes the synthesis.

Having accomplished this balance – something Mozart was trying to accomplish in his Quartets dedicated to Haydn (something new out of a combination of contrasting elements of the past) – the next work on Beethoven’s desk appears to be the E-flat String Quartet, though it appears to been interrupted by the urgency of the “Choral Fantasy” for the December concert that saw the premieres of the 5th and 6th Symphonies.

In this case, the “unprepossessing” work was written first, finished by the spring of 1810, before moving on to the Serioso that summer. In his biography of Beethoven, Maynard Solomon writes “Here, as in most of the other chamber and sonata works of this period, one senses that Beethoven was attempting to reestablish contact with styles from he had largely held himself aloof after 1802.

Joseph Kerman writes that the Op.74 quartet is “an open, unproblematic, lucid work of consolidation” (similar to the E-flat Trio, Op.70/2), the Op. 95 quartet is “an involved, impassioned, highly idiosyncratic piece, problematic in every one of its movements, advanced in a hundred ways,” written with a more contrapuntally aware approach, often referred to as a “learnèd” style.

This seems to be more logically the “transition” to that personal, more inward (and intellectualized) style of the Late Quartets, especially considering its publication in 1816 – yet it was composed in 1810 and would probably not have been possible with that “consolidation” of both the Op.70/2 Trio and the Harp Quartet.

If you want to follow the evolution of Beethoven’s aesthetic thinking at this time in his life, go back to the familiar (and public) worlds of the 5th and 6th Symphonies, then listen to (if possible in as few sittings as possible) the A Major Cello Sonata (Op. 69), the two Op. 70 Piano Trios, the Op. 74 Harp Quartet and then the Op. 95 Serioso Quartet.

*** ***** ******** ***** ***

Remember what I said about compartmentalization? The two very public works written during this same time – the Choral Fantasy and then the 5th Piano Concerto (the Emperor) – really don’t deflect from this train of thought. If anything, the Emperor Concerto returns to the Heroic Style of the 3rd and 5th Symphonies because of another reason which also involves a piano sonata (also in E-flat Major) written at the time, known as the Les Adieux Sonata.

In the fall of 1808, Beethoven spent several months staying at the country estate of a friend, the Countess Marie Edrődy. While there, he composed both the Op.70 Piano Trios and dedicated them to her. Whatever his own attitudes toward women were, Beethoven was outraged when he discovered the Countess was having an affair with Beethoven’s man-servant and paying him money to keep him there when he threatened to leave Beethoven’s employment. Comments about this affair are scribbled into the margins of the sketches for the “Emperor” Concerto!

The reality of 1809 can’t be ignored: Beethoven’s world was turned upside down (again) by the siege of Vienna and its subsequent occupation by Napoleon and the French Army. While composing the A Major Cello Sonata, he had to hide in the basement of his brother’s house, covering his head with pillows because the noise of the bombardment so aggravated his delicate hearing, he was in terrible pain (he was not, as we sometimes overlook, “completely” deaf since the Heiligenstadt Testament of 1802: that and the conversation books would come much later).

It was also the time Haydn, recognized as the greatest composer of the day, was dying – Napoleon was respectful enough to put an honor guard in front of Haydn’s house at the time during the bombardment. Whatever their often prickly relationship may have been, this must have had some impact on Beethoven, his former student.

During the occupation, the Imperial Family fled the capital – including Beethoven’s friend, student and, more significantly, patron, the Archduke Rudolph, the Emperor’s youngest brother, a talented pianist and composer in his own right. Several of Beethoven’s works are dedicated to him – not the least of them the “Archduke” Trio but also the Triple Concerto (written for him to perform) and the towering Missa Solemnis, composed (a little too late) for his being elevated to the post of Archbishop.

The sonata Beethoven composed at this time reflects the farewell to the Imperial family, the desolation of their subjects during their absence, and then looking forward to their hopefully quick, eventual return.

Another of Beethoven’s “public” projects was Incidental Music for Goethe’s play Egmont with its famous Overture but also numerous songs and marches. Considering the play is about the Dutch patriot’s stand against the tyranny of the occupying Spanish Army and its Inquisition, would there be any more reason for Beethoven – who had torn off his 3rd Symphony’s dedication to Napoleon after he’d crowned himself Emperor and proved himself to be just another power-hungry human – to compose this during the French occupation of Vienna? He began the work in October of 1809, though it wasn’t completed and performed until June of 1810, at which time he then began work on the Serioso Quartet. The French, meanwhile, had left Vienna on November 19th, 1809, and the Emperor returned on the 27th.

Another important event happened before the French arrived: the economy was tanking and Beethoven was looking for a way to get out of Vienna, hopefully finding a more stable location with an actual “gig.” As it turned out, Jerome, King of Westphalia – Napoleon’s brother who’d been placed on the throne of a newly created German kingdom to ensure its political loyalty and act as a “model” for other Germanic states – invited Beethoven to consider becoming his court composer, an attempt to turn his capital, Kassel, into an overnight cultural center.

Though it’s hard to imagine Beethoven, the composer of the Eroica Symphony, who broke his friendship with his patron, Prince Lichnowski because he refused to play for French officers who were guests in his castle, becoming an employee of Napoleon’s brother, but he let it be known he was considering it.

His friend, Baron Ignaz von Gleichenstein, helped to negotiate a pension supported by three of Beethoven’s wealthiest friends and patrons: Prince Lobokwitz, Prince Kinsky and the Archduke Rudolph. This annuity allowed Beethoven the financial support to stay in Vienna. While funding was sometimes difficult, especially with the fluctuations of the Austrian economy during these years of Napoleonic Wars, the Archduke was the only one who never reneged on his obligation.

Now, Baron Gleichenstein was also an amateur cellist. After these finances were finalized, Beethoven composed the A Major Cello Sonata and dedicated it to Gleichenstein.

As it turned out, Gleichenstein was courting a niece of Beethoven’s new physician, Dr. Johann Baptiste Malfatti, and she had a sister, Therese, whom Beethoven liked very much (she was 21; he, 40). Beethoven again engaged Gleichenstein’s help in his pursuit of Therese Malfatti which continued for some time without any encouragement from the would-be bride. Eventually, Beethoven gave up and apologized to her for his “mad behavior.”

Afterward, Beethoven wrote to Gleichenstein, “I can therefore seek support only in my own heart; there is none for me outside of it. No, nothing but wounds have come to me from friendship and such kindred feelings – so be it then: for you, poor B[eethoven], there is no happiness in the outer world, you must create it in yourself. Only in the ideal world can you find friends.”

(Gleichenstein was more successful: he and Anna Malfatti were married in 1811.)

However, in 1810, he apparently was again making plans to marry someone else and there have been rumors (the Beethoven Myth Machine is still potent, even today) that he was secretly married to another Therese, this one one of his piano students, one of the von Brunsvick sisters – both of them have long been candidates for the mysterious and so far unidentified “Immortal Beloved.” They, by the way, had a cousin named Giulietta Guicciardi with whom Beethoven had earlier been in love with. To Giulietta, he dedicated the “Moonlight” Sonata of 1801; to Therese von Brunsvick, he dedicated the Op. 78 Sonata in F-sharp Major, a seemingly slight work in two short movements but one he frequently called one of his favorite pieces. It was also composed in 1809, around the time he was writing the “Harp” Quartet!

Because an artist is often like one long fabric flowing through time, we discover numerous strands weaving together that can create a complex life as well as an equally complex context for the creative works.

There is another aspect I’ve only barely touched, and that is Beethoven’s health – seriously, much more than just his deafness – which also had serious impact on his life though perhaps less so on this particular piece.

There have been many posts here about Beethoven, the man and his music, which you can read for further background: “Beethoven Before He Became a God” and “Beethoven, the Man Before the Myth” (early Beethoven) plus “Beethoven and His Women” and also about particular works like his 8th Symphony and the old odd/even conundrum about the numbering of the symphonies I’d mentioned.

But, seriously, there comes a time I must simply stop writing or you’ll end up with a book.

- Dick Strawser

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