You're going to say that surely the performers' introductions can really add to the listener's experience, especially if they are not familiar with the repertoire. Yes, they can and for one of the pieces in the string quartet concert I heard last night, they did. The viola-player for the quartet gave an excellent introduction to some selections from Antonín Dvořák's set of songs arranged for string quartet, Cypresses. But then they followed this with a long-winded and misleading introduction to the A minor late quartet by Beethoven that was annoying for a couple of reasons. First of all, it was much too long. The first violinist recounted Beethoven's tribulations in trying to find a stable relationship and how he fixated on his nephew Carl and won custody of him when his mother died. He then tied all this into the string quartet along with Beethoven's illness at the time and confidently asserted that the string quartet is Beethoven's autobiography. No, it's not a @∞¢¬÷“# autobiography!!
We live in declining times when it comes to intellectual and aesthetic ideas and values and a symptom of this is the fact that a performer can make this kind of statement as if it were simple common sense, uncontroversial. This applies to an astounding amount of the things we are presented with every day in the mass media as well. Not only are they wrong, but they are not even wrong. They are not the wrong answers to the right questions, they are a perversion of the whole reality and context.
Why is intense, expressive music like the Beethoven late quartets not an autobiography? Let's start with some simple facts: an autobiography is an account, in prose, of someone's life. The benefit and the drawback of such is that it is told solely from the perspective of the writer who is hardly ever objective about his own life. A piece of instrumental music cannot be an autobiography because it is incapable of communicating a single factual detail about someone's life. All it can do is present mood, atmosphere and aesthetic expression. They are simply utterly different kinds of things. But even more than this, a composer like Beethoven would not be even attempting to communicate his personal life in a piece of music. Or, rather, his interior life is his music. And no, I am not contradicting myself. A musician like Beethoven does not have an ordinary kind of inner life. Sure, he may be worried about his financial situation, about where he can find his next housekeeper (having driven the last one away with his bad temper), about running out of manuscript paper or that broken string on the piano--but these things are mere incidentals, things he worries about when he is not composing.
His real inner life has to do with his music. How is he going to organize that new quartet? How many movements? How will this motif relate to that one and what kind of modulation will that require? Will he write a moderately paced minuet or go with a quick scherzo? And so on. All these are technical questions that he will be struggling with for months while he writes the piece. This is his real inner life. And it is not an "autobiography" as we understand it. I'm quite sure that the thought that "in my new quartet I am going to distill down all my feelings about my nephew Carl so that the listener can experience what I was going through" never entered Beethoven's mind. But that is the implication of the violinist's introduction to their performance and it is thoroughly false. You might say, "but you were not there in Beethoven's mind, so you can't know it is false." Yes, true, but of course, neither was the violinist so his claim has no evidence and while his claim requires special evidence, mine does not.
The great mystery of classical instrumental music is that it can have such a profound effect on the listener and we really don't know why. A great piece of music feels like it takes us to another world, another universe, richer and more glorious than our own. And it does this with nothing more than compression waves in the air. Now there is a miracle for you. A far greater truth than any that can be derived from the dysfunctional private life of Beethoven.
Let's all, the next time someone tries to sell us this bill of goods, stand up and shout:
It's Not a @∞¢¬÷“# Autobiography!!
And in the meantime, let's have a listen. This is the Alban Berg String Quartet: