Monday, June 20, 2011

A Beethoven Moment

Without a doubt there has been something of a Beethoven cult since his death in 1827. For the next hundred years a host of composers, starting with Brahms, were terrified to be composing in his shadow. Brahms wrote and destroyed twenty string quartets before he came up with one that he could live with. What is it about Beethoven? Or was it just a passing fad? Nowadays the academic world seems to want to avoid Beethoven as much as possible. One musicologist saddled a passage in the 9th symphony with a rape metaphor, but many seem to regard him as something of a crazy uncle--just a bit embarrassing.

When I was just starting out in classical music I bought a lot of records. I wanted to hear everything. Somewhere I had read about the late quartets of Beethoven so I purchased a box of LPs with performances by the Guarneri Quartet. I remember stunning a room full of people once by playing them the Great Fugue without comment. I had a friend who was a fine pianist and from her I heard references to mysterious things like "op 111". It took me a lot longer to discover the piano sonatas. But I've been listening to Beethoven for a long time.

The late quartets are a remarkable group of compositions: each unique. The first to be written was the one in E flat, op 127. Here is a recording of the first movement:

This first movement is often described as being extremely lyrical and it is. But the thing in it that has always struck me is a moment of violent dislocation. The movement starts with big chords in E flat, maestoso (majestic, meaning played with a certain gravity or splendor). Then the theme itself starts, a charming tune in triple time (the maestoso was in duple time). The second theme is rather more energetic, accompanied by repeated notes chunking along in the lower instruments. Normally in a piece in E flat in sonata  form you would modulate to the dominant, the key of B flat. Not so here: Beethoven heads for G minor. There is quite a lot of stressing of G minor with trills and little pauses and then that opening maestoso is repeated, but now in G major. This announces the second part of the movement. The development wanders back to the flat keys, but this time more C minor than E flat major (they have the same key signature). Then the maestoso comes back again, but this time in C major! Just after this--around 3'28 in the recording--comes the dislocation that has always struck me. The instruments expand outward to a widely spaced C major chord and then, syncopated, on the second beat and subito forte there is a horribly clashing chord: E [G] Bb Db! (The G comes later). This is the VII diminished 7 of F. Sorry to get technical! What that means is that Beethoven, not only with no preparation, but as clashingly as possible, goes to a chord that sets up the key of F, which not only have we not heard yet, we aren't even going to hear it, except briefly. And he keeps hammering on this wild harmony for four measures. Where we are going is just back to E flat by way of A flat, so all this chord does is destroy the C major. This is the most jarring harmony I have ever heard, with the possible exception of the time the rhythm guitar player in the band I played in when I was sixteen thought we were doing a different song and played the wrong chords. Afterward the movement continues to a very beautiful and relaxed finish.

But what about that dislocation? I don't have an answer really,  but it adds a dimension to the movement that makes it more complex, more profound. What puzzles me is why I've never seen any of the numerous writers on the string quartets even mention it. So there you have it: a Beethoven moment. Something he would do that probably no other composer would.

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