Sunday, February 19, 2012

Masterpieces of Music: Beethoven, Part 4

Ready for some more Beethoven? I keep reading things like this, where a pianist says sometimes it seems pointless to him to keep practicing Beethoven. And I recall a musicologist saying once that she no longer had any interest in Beethoven symphonies. Is Beethoven no longer, and I really hate this word, 'relevant'? Passing right by whatever that might mean, I think that if we are talking about aesthetic quality, Beethoven is near the head of that very short list of composers you really need to know. The reason is that he wrestled with the fundamental problems of composition so long and so hard that he achieved things, not only that other composers did not, but that they scarcely even attempted. But before I am accused of just pumping up the Beethoven 'myth', let's look at another piece.

Last time we talked about the first of the op 59 quartets, the ones that created a whole new musical world in which notes took on a new kind of significance. Another outstanding quartet from this middle-period is the Serioso, op. 95 in F minor, written several years later. Where the F major from op 59 was much longer than previous quartets, coming in at nearly forty minutes, this one is half as long, less than twenty minutes. But it has a startling intensity that had never been heard before (and rarely since). This is Beethoven at his most problematic, most eccentric and most obsessed. Joseph Kerman says that:
The F-minor Quartet is not a pretty piece, but it is terribly strong--and perhaps rather terrible.
Beethoven seems determined to cut away everything redundant, everything inessential so that the most drastic contrasts stand revealed. In the first five measures we hear two contrasting themes: the first is a tight turn in F minor that then descends in staccato notes and returns with the raised notes of the melodic minor scale. This is answered by the first violin playing nothing but C in three different octaves. Then the cello takes the first theme again, but this time in the extremely remote Neapolitan, on Gb. This is the first six measures of the piece! The contradiction is that, while there seems to be almost no actual melodic material here, it also presents extreme contrasts and contained tension. Well, that's Beethoven... Compared to the opening of the op 59 F major quartet, this one is terse in the extreme. Here are the first seven measures of thematic material:

Click to enlarge

Now let's hear all that first movement:

I think you can see what Kerman means about terribly strong. Notice how violent the rhythmic gestures are and how the movement is continually alternating sharply between the loud, violent gestures and softer lyric ones. Just before the final chord of this movement, the cello plays Db - C. This Db is answered with D natural in the cello at the beginning of the next movement, an Allegretto in D major! I exclaim that because D major is about as remote from F minor as you can get without booking a plane ticket. The second movement opens with an unaccompanied scale in the cello, starting on D. Soon a rather ambiguous melody appears, with quite a lot of chromaticism. This turns into a fugue that breaks down--the descending scale in the cello returns, but above it are some haunting high harmonies. The fugue returns and works its way back to the beginning. Those harmonies are made more piercing and are interpolated into the melody. This movement goes straight into the next, which is the why the final chord is a diminished seventh.

The third movement, in the mode of Beethoven's driving scherzos, but not called such, is a kind of 3/4 march. It starts in F minor and the opposition between the F minor of the first movement and the D major of the second is continued here as the contrasting trio moves to D major.

The last movement is introduced with a brief Larghetto before settling into its main section, an Allegretto agitato:

How to end a quartet with as much contrast and tension as this one? With lots of energy and movement, of course, but controlled, smoothed out. There is a great theme, a kind of 'hook' that keeps recurring in eighth notes. But the real surprise comes right at the end. The movement comes to a halt, pauses, then launches into a quick, glittering romp in F major, as if all that had come before was but a dark dream and now all is light and air. Extraordinary... as if Shakespeare had decided to end Hamlet, the stage littered with corpses, with the remaining characters suddenly doing a jolly dance. A remarkable end to a remarkable quartet.

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