October 3, 2011
Not long before I graduated from the Curtis Institute of Music in 1959, John Dalley, a fellow violin student, asked me whether I’d like to work on Beethoven’s late String Quartet in B Flat, Opus 130. The Paganini String Quartet had recently performed at the school, ending their program with another late Beethoven Quartet, Opus 132 in A Minor. I had never heard the A Minor Quartet before, but sitting with the other students in Curtis Hall awaiting the performance, I expected music of the highest order. This was our great Beethoven after all. But Opus 132 transported me far beyond its stunning craft and originality. Especially during the slow movement in which Beethoven gives thanks to God for having recovered from an illness, I had the odd sensation of having left my life of ordinary experience behind. I felt like a space traveler visiting areas of unimaginable breadth and substance.
I accepted John’s offer eagerly. Without quite knowing what I was getting into, I must have hoped for another late Beethoven experience. John asked whether we could choose the original last movement, the Grosse Fuge (Great Fugue) rather than the one Beethoven later wrote as a replacement. He explained that the Grosse Fuge was so shocking and unintelligible on first hearing that Beethoven’s publisher asked him to write a substitute movement. My pulse quickened. The Grosse Fuge might just be my next other-worldly adventure. John Dalley, first violin, I second, Jerry Rosen, viola, and Michael Grebanier, cello, four highly enthusiastic but inexperienced students, began rehearsing soon after. Opus 130 has six movements rather than the usual four. One by one we read as best we could through each of them.
Manuscript of Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge, arranged for piano four hands, 1832, Juilliard School of Music Manuscript Archive
Four slow, quiet, but suspenseful notes in octaves and unison opened the first movement’s introduction, Adagio ma non troppo. The voices blossomed gently into rich harmony and flowed forward in stately, almost processional fashion. Then the main Allegro burst forth with notes rushing headlong under a five-note figure that seemed like a military call to action. (Was Beethoven summoning us?) A second theme began as soaring melody and then veered into scurrying clusters of sound; and throughout the movement, shards of the opening introduction appeared again and again as evocative flashbacks. Imagination. Substance. Daring. This was the Beethoven of my dreams. I expected nothing less from the other movements as I turned the page.
To my surprise, I discovered that Beethoven had decided instead on fun and games for the second movement. The Presto‘s mood was sparkling, giddy, even recklessly jaunty, but then came yet another surprise. The party mood was jarringly interrupted mid-way by unabashed buffoonery in the form of odd scales, eccentrically drawn-out notes, and peculiar outbursts—a circus clown played the fool for laughs here. The movement’s high spirits were irresistible at that first hearing, but also inexplicable. How could these first two starkly different, seemingly disconnected movements exist side by side?
The third movement presented us with an altogether different mood. Clippity-clop went the good-natured and affable opening rhythm. Fragments of good-natured melody surfaced here and there, interspersed with beads of playful running notes. We had left the circus (on horseback?) and were now traveling leisurely through bucolic countryside.
With the fourth movement, I braced myself for yet another surprise, but not much of one was forthcoming. The Allegro assai, subtitled Alla danza tedesca (In the manner of a German dance), was nothing more or less than a simple rustic melody repeated in various disguises. You might say that our horses had happened on a peaceful summer outing filled with singing and dancing by the local inhabitants. The movement exuded warmth and goodwill, but that unsettled me on first reading. Where was the visionary Beethoven, the man whose late quartets by reputation traveled into unexplored depths of feeling and experience?
The Cavatina, Adagio molto espressivo, the movement that followed, began with a simple rising and falling of the second violin’s first notes, and then eased into hymn-like four-voiced music of heart-felt beauty. The word Cavatina originally described a short song of simple character, but Beethoven re-imagined the form. The extended opening section, moving as it was, then led into one of the most deeply affecting moments in music. While the lower three voices laid down a ghostly pattern of repeated triplets, the first violin wove imploring but tentative notes far above, almost none of which coincided with the ongoing rhythm. The first violin served as a proxy for someone who seemingly had lapsed into disorientation and hopelessness. The effect was one of gathering desperation. Beethoven marked the word “Beklemmt” above this passage, loosely translated as “oppressed” or “anguished”. The music, almost unbearable in its utterly gripping message, finally released its hold and returned us to a slightly altered version of the original material. Then the movement ended with several pulsating chords dying away in melancholy resignation. Beethoven, although deaf at the time, was said to have wept upon hearing the Cavatina in his inner ear. This then, was my long wished for space travel—a voyage not outward bound but rather one into the recesses of the heart, mind, and soul.
Guarneri Quartet playing the Cavatina, Adagio molto espressivo
And then from this exalted state, Beethoven opened the trap door and dropped us four wide-eyed students into a world of near chaos for fifteen minutes. The Grosse Fuge, the sixth and final movement of Opus 130, began with a twenty-four bar Overtura that limped breathlessly with strange fits and starts to the fugue’s beginning. The fugue itself, actually a double fugue with two subjects, was violent and dissonant. Dramatically leaping tones and slashing cross-rhythms threatened to burst into anarchy. A series of extended sections in contrasting keys, rhythms, and tempos followed the fugue. Then small fragments of the fugue subjects made their quirky entrances before the movement finally gathered momentum and rushed with manic elation to its end. At first, critics called the Grosse Fuge “incomprehensible as Chinese” and an “indecipherable, uncorrected horror”. Much later, Igor Stravinsky saw it more clearly “as an absolutely contemporary piece of music that will be contemporary forever”. In years to come, I would begin to understand the Grosse Fuge in sober structural terms, but as its last notes rang out for the very first time, a feeling came over me that no other work has elicited before or since. The Grosse Fuge was more than music. It was an overwhelming act of nature.
John, Jerry, Michael, and I worked on Opus 130 for the better part of the school year. We discussed, we argued, we reveled in the miracle this music was, and we groaned over the technical and musical challenges it posed. Finally, we performed Opus 130 in Curtis Hall. In the Menno mosso e moderato section of the Grosse Fuge, a moment of peace in the eye of the storm that surrounds it, I was suddenly overcome with emotion. We had worked hard and the performance was going reasonably well. I looked up in gratitude at my friends who had shared in this great adventure. Mistake. When I looked down again at the sea of notes before me, I had lost my place. For a few seconds that seemed like an eternity, I struggled to find my way back into the music. My lapse of concentration was embarrassing at the time but I look back at it now with different eyes. In 1964, only some six years later, John Dalley, Michael Tree, David Soyer, and I formed the Guarneri String Quartet that would perform Opus 130 and a host of other quartet masterpieces for the next 45 years. Without consciously realizing it, that first late-Beethoven encounter had changed my orientation and headed me toward the all-engrossing world of string quartets. I had not lost my place. I had found it.
The concept of other worldliness or outer space seems apt in describing the uncommon elements of Opus 130 but in fact, the Cavatina is literally traveling away from earth to distant parts of the universe as I write. The Budapest String Quartet’s rendition of the Cavatina was chosen by NASA as the last piece on the “golden record”, a phonograph record containing a broad sample of Earth’s common sounds, languages, and music. The record was sent into outer space with the two Voyager probes in the hope that intelligent extraterrestrial life would eventually discover it. I can’t help wondering what the aliens will think about that “Beklemmt” moment.
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Most of us have felt at some point caught in the gap between feeling and expression, inchoate thought and language. Anyone feeling profound love or pain has likely searched in vain for words to convey the truest essence of those states. Even describing to another just why you find something amusing can be a challenge. It is by no means clear to what extent we need language to think, or whether there can be meaning in thoughts that transcends what can be translated into a formal language. When I write about music (including right now) I often feel I know just what I want to say until the moment comes when words must be found. The moment of writing sees the certainty of the thought evaporate. Was that certainty real or illusory? Does this suggest that there are thoughts that have a shape no word can fit? The relationship between form or language and meaning is one that seems an obsession in Beethoven’s Quartet in B-flat Major, Op. 130. Pushing at the boundaries of what music can or perhaps can’t do, Beethoven wrestles with these question in ways that at times have the nature of curious puzzles, and at other times profoundly grapple with the association between intimate experience and art. As Wittgenstein investigates the link of language and thought, as Gödel asks what truths may escape any given formal system, so Beethoven uses music to refer to and ask questions of itself, writing in Op. 130 a precarious piece that investigates and attempts to define the limit of what can be expressed.
The piece begins and certainties based on usually reliable assumptions quickly dissolve. A slow introduction leads, as expected, into a quicker main section, yet this is in turn interrupted by the introduction’s return, and by the time the main section reasserts itself the doubling of the normal juxtaposition has thrown the claim to primacy of both types of music into doubt. In fact, their playing off each other remains a central issue in the movement, and the development section manages to create an undulating continuity out of the two note figure in the introduction which connotes only punctuation and closing. The repeated note motive that first appears in the second violin at the start of the Allegro completely subverts normal musical grammar: the two pitches are in the relationship of dominant to tonic, the strongest cadential formula in Western music, and yet instead of having the dominant fall to its tonic with a sense of finality (in accordance with gravity, as it should) Beethoven chooses to lift it upwards, deprive it of its expected harmony and introduce a sudden hush. Somehow this is music about the language of music, the composer playing with form and material, performing a balancing trick in coaxing the movement toward coherence, inventing as he goes principles of some non- Euclidean geometry governing a world that might or might not be able to exist.
Beethoven plays at testing the limits of musical language by refusing traditional rules and relationships. In many of the late works we come across music where we feel the logical working out of the proceedings in real time, a sense of living within the composerly mindset. This piece seems to be special in using that process to challenge or question the potency of music itself as an explanatory art form.
From the second movement through the fifth Beethoven writes a set of character pieces, in some sense in two pairs. This subverts the expected four movement set up of the string quartet, and sets forth the challenge of creating a convincing large structure out of miniatures, balancing unlike parts in preference to creating interlocking pieces. The music leans away from the sophisticated reasoning of most of his quartet writing toward the world of caricature and masks, each movement affording a differing exaggeration of character and mode of expression. And in the sense that tribal masks sometimes protect the wearer who intones sacred words and names from divine retribution, Beethoven’s masks allow him to play at games of rhetoric otherwise far from the composer’s usual relationship with larger forms. In writing music that is in many ways tongue-in-cheek he enters a sort of metamusical world, being at once composer and commentator. The quicksilver Presto investigates the extremes of contrast between its scurrying, furtive outer sections and the wild bombast of the intervening trio. In between is an odd passage in which the first violin line hovers three times above a moat of snapping crocodiles, the crocodiles taking the form of a minor second, motivically important throughout the work. The music teases with the idea of escape from motivic, rational writing, farther and farther away until it is pulled irrevocably downward back into the obsession of the opening section, decorated to become almost comically hyperbolized. The small movement teeters on the edge of rupture due to the highly stylized, almost farcical contrast of its sections. Its companion movement, provocatively marked “poco scherzoso” (“slightly joking”) explores the possibility of mating two character piece to produce a hybrid. Instead of separating out the elements as he does in the Presto, Beethoven blends together a tender, somewhat amorous Andante with a witty mechanical evocation of a clock (a popular musical trope of the period). For good measure he throws in, as well, a somewhat portentous figure, heard at the very opening, which shares the figuration of the amoroso theme, a sort of musical pun. Throughout it becomes difficult to know whether the music is heartfelt or silly; it is as if the movement is a precarious emulsion of oil and vinegar, able to stay together only for as long as it takes to hear it, a sleight-of-hand.
The succeeding pair of movements balance caricature against deep introspection. The “Alla dansa tedesca” (“in the style of a German dance”) is a kind of manic waltz, a parody of rustic, unsophisticated style. Performance directions push the simple tune to the brink of the grotesque, and there are games played with awkward, almost absurd figuration, fitting the wrong rhythmic accompaniment to the first violin filigree, and bars in which the tune starts to go backwards before correcting itself. Just before the ending of the movement there is the briefest flirtation with something more loving and inward which is cast aside almost immediately as the movement ends rather abruptly, naive and pompous. The parody tests how much it is possible for music to make fun of itself, to contain both the underlying form and the commentary on this form at once. It is as if we meet an older person for the first time and detect at once his earlier self and the magnification of his personality traits that time has wrought, at once the prototype and the distortion. The Alla dansa tedesca also serves as a powerful foil for the ensuing movement. Its key is a rude shock after the preceding moment, challenging the gods of cohesion with such a harmonic rift, but somehow its keynote then becomes harmonically a link into the inner sanctum of the work, the fifth movement. (And then into the finales, as if the piece needs to step outside of itself to find a way forward.)
In the Cavatina (originally a term for a type of operatic aria) the crisis of the piece is reached, the desolation of the inexpressible fully revealed. Our quartet had the privilege of playing this movement at the memorial service for the great astronomer Carl Sagan at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City. All the music for the service was taken from the selections Carl Sagan chose for the “golden record,” included on the Voyager spacecrafts, which was meant to represent life on earth and some of the greatest achievements of mankind, sent as a communication and an offering to any intelligent civilization that might intercept it. The prelude to the Cavatina on the occasion of the service was a recording of Sagan reading from his book Pale Blue Dot, speaking of Voyager taking a photograph of the Earth from the edge of the solar system, of the great importance the contemplation of this vantage point holds for all of us. In Pale Blue Dot, Sagan writes: “It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world.” Beethoven’s Cavatina indeed deals with the folly of human conceits, the frailty and vulnerability of our love and our tenuous ability to communicate it, indeed our deep lack of any true model of our inner states. And it touches on the richness of the human capacity for love as well as the loneliness of isolation in the chasm between feeling and expression. The singing line is shared mostly between the two violins, and although the very first part of the first theme ends with a too-quick, almost stammered half-cadence, as if the right word has escaped the singer’s lips even as the song has just started, the line manages to continue and blossoms into an infinitely tender, empathetic exchange. A particularly touching moment comes in the exchange between the violins of the second theme of the movement. Typically a melodic idea first appears in a piece in its most simple version; if it is to be ornamented this happens in later repetitions. Here an idea traded between the violins twice comes in a slightly ornamented version and is only later sung in a more elemental form, as if the second violin reaches backward in time, searching for something more true, more pure, turning eyes inward and refusing any artifice. Painfully, the first violin fails to respond in kind, offering instead the most ornamented version of all, somehow lacking the trust or courage to grasp after the essence of what must be said. The gap in expression is palpable. The incongruity of the utterances opens a space for one of the most unsettling passages in all of music, with the first violin left in desperate isolation. Beethoven marks the passage beklemmt: oppressed, anguished, stifled. Along with a viscerally disorienting shift to a distant tonality the lower voices pulsate in a sort of primal vibration. The first violin is somehow overcome, no longer singing, no longer even able to connect one note to another, voiceless yet desperate to give voice. The line cannot find tears with which to cry, it gropes for language where there is none. Within the world of Op. 130 and its investigation of the limits of musical language and form this is the moment of revelation. The movement which is to sing loses its capacity to do so, or cannot find the inspiration to support it. Exquisite paradox: Music is inadequate to express what pleads to be expressed; this failure is flawlessly expressed by music. The Cavatina has an ending, one in which the idea of a fundamental vibration-pulsation meets the initial stammer of the movement and offers uneasy consolation, but there is little stable comfort to be had here. The fissure between depth of feeling and language too feeble to hold it in its entirety is too great for that.
Where to go from here? Perhaps the most obvious symbol of this work’s engagement with problems of expression and narrative is the fact that the piece has two possible endings. At the premiere of the work it was performed with the Grosse Fuge (“Great Fugue”) as its final movement, music of at times terrifying force, teetering at the boundary between chaos and order. In this most rigorous of musical forms Beethoven creates music that threatens at any moment to collapse, even flirting with the edges of madness or incomprehensibility. Having confronted the terror of music’s failure in the beklemmt section of the Cavatina, Beethoven responds by locking himself in mortal combat with musical form and, although it only happens in the final moments, somehow achieving a sense of having been victorious.
Or is he? Bewildered by the Fugue, Beethoven’s publisher convinced him to remove it from the piece, publish it separately, and write an alternate finale (the last thing he ever wrote). From what we know of Beethoven’s personality consenting to such a change seems highly uncharacteristic. Could it be that he welcomed the chance to respond differently to the crisis of the beklemmt? The alternate finale is much closer in feeling to Op. 135 (the last of the quartets) than to any of the other late quartets (including Op. 130), representing, perhaps, Beethoven wearing a Buddha’s smile. The crisis is acknowledged, accepted, held as it is. Struggle is abandoned, equanimity allowed to blossom without denial of having stared into the abyss. Perhaps at the last moment Beethoven envisaged a different way forward.
Note by Mark Steinberg