Late Quartet

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(A sketch Beethoven made for his String Quartet no. 14 in C# minor, op. 131.)

The last works Beethoven wrote were a series of six string quartets. Why do you think, in the last two years of his life, he turned to this form?

Richard Taruskin suggests that:

The intimacy of chamber music offered the composer the possibility of a heightened subjectivity, a medium where he could speak his inmost, private thoughts and confide his deepest private moods as if to a music diary. There are pages in the late quartets that can seem almost embarrassing to hear in public, as if hearing were overhearing –eavesdropping on the composer’s afflicted personal existence, invading his privacy. 

The String Quartet no.14 begins with a fugue, which Richard Wagner later called “surely the saddest thing ever said in notes,” and which twentieth-century musicologist Joseph Kerman called the “most moving of all fugues.” Schubert said of the quartet, in despair, “After this, what is left for us to write?” And Schumann wrote that the quartet had a “grandeur . . .which no words can express. [It seems] to me to stand . . .on the extreme boundary of all that has hitherto been attained by human art and imagination.”

Why does Beethoven start with a fugue, breaking with the longstanding convention of writing a first movement in sonata form? Does a fugue contain the same spirit of conflict as sonata form? If not, what does it symbolize/suggest?

And the quartet has seven movements — unusual movements. What is going on here? How do the movements differ from each other? How do they carry forward a single unified idea?

 

 
Movement No. Tempo indications Key Meter Length
I. Adagio ma non troppo e molto espressivo C minor cut time About 7 minutes
II. Allegro molto vivace D major 6
8
About 3 minutes
III. Allegro moderato – Adagio B minor common time About 45 seconds
IV. Andante ma non troppo e molto cantabile – Più mosso – Andante moderato e lusinghiero – Adagio – Allegretto – Adagio, ma non troppo e semplice – Allegretto A major 2
4
About 14 minutes
V. Presto E major cut time about 5​12 minutes
VI. Adagio quasi un poco andante G minor 3
4
About 2 minutes
VII. Allegro C minor cut time About 6​12 minutes

Is Beethoven perhaps playing with time and space again as he moves, in his last years and in failing health, to embrace the infinite?

In his long poem Four Quartets, completed in 1943, American-British poet T.S. Eliot consciously attempted to imitate the late quartets of Beethoven. He writes in the first of his poetic “quartets,” Burnt Norton:

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden. . . .

Time past and time future
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.

Is this what Beethoven is getting at?

Christopher Walken, as a master cellist and master teacher, quotes Eliot as he introduces the op. 131 Quartet to his students:

Beethoven as a Black Composer

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(Nadine Gordimer laying a wreath in the black township of Alexandra, South Africa, where protesters were killed by police in 1986.)

The South African novelist and anti-apartheid activist Nadine Gordimer (1923-2014) has a short story called “Beethoven Was One-Sixteenth Black,” about a multiracial university professor in Johannesburg thinking back over his life and his identity:

Beethoven was one-sixteenth black

the presenter of a classical music programme on the radio announces along with the names of musicians who will be heard playing the String Quartets no. 13, op. 130, and no. 16, op. 135.

Does the presenter make the claim as restitution for Beethoven? Presenter’s voice and cadence give him away as irremediably white. Is one-sixteenth an unspoken wish for himself.

Once there were blacks wanting to be white.

Now there are whites wanting to be black.

In 1934, the Jamaican-born journalist Joel Augustus Rogers (1880-1966) published a book called 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro with Complete Proof (a title borrowed by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. for a recent book of his own). As Gates notes about the author of his own book’s namesake:

Sometimes, [Rogers] was astonishingly accurate; at other times, he seems to have been tripping a bit, shall we say, as in his “Amazing Fact #8,” which I quote in full: “Beethoven, the world’s greatest musician, was without a doubt a dark mulatto. He was called ‘The Black Spaniard.’ His teacher, the immortal Joseph Haydn, who wrote the music for the former Austrian National Anthem, was colored, too.”

Both claims are false, I am afraid, though I love the work of both composers! But no one can get everything right all the time, correct?

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Speculations that Beethoven was of “Moorish” ancestry date back to the composer’s own lifetime. Nineteenth-century biographers have described his dark complexion, “flat, thick nose,” and  “thick, bristly [and] coal-black” hair. J.A. Rogers and others later suggested that Beethoven’s mother had transmitted African ancestry to her son by way of her Flemish forebears; the Low Countries had been under Spanish rule in the sixteenth century, and Spain had been ruled by Muslims (or Moors) originally from North Africa off and on from the eighth to the fifteenth centuries.


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(Spain in the 11th century.)

The notion that Beethoven was black became popular in the 1960s and 1970s during the Black Power movement. Stokely Carmichael mentioned it in his speeches to students, as did Malcolm X in his famous Playboy interview with Alex Haley in 1963.

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The claim of Beethoven’s black ancestry has been refuted by scholars, but the idea has cropped up again in recent years. A project called Beethoven Was African aims to show that the polyrhythms Beethoven uses in his piano sonatas bear a resemblance to the polyrhythms of west African drumming.

Reviewing the Beethoven Was African project, the music critic Tom Service writes:

My initial response to the question, “Are Beethoven’s African origins revealed by his music?” that has been asked at the website Africa Is a Country, is a definitive “no”. It is based on questionable premises that lack real historical evidence, at least to the story of Beethoven and his music over the past couple hundred of years.

This is far from a new idea. Here, Nicholas T Rinehart outlines the century-long history of the “Black Beethoven” trope and analyses the cultural and racial politics that have made this such a potent idea. He suggests our attraction to the notion that Beethoven was black is a symptom of classical music’s tortured position on race and music: “This desperation, this need to paint Beethoven black against all historical likelihood is, I think, a profound signal that the time has finally come to make a single … and robust effort [to reshape] the classical canon.” 

Read Rinehart’s article here.

The Beethoven-was-black trope also raises questions about what race is; about what identity is; and about how we categorize both ourselves and others by highly subjective markers.

Does the fact that Beethoven’s music expresses an ethos of struggle, and triumph over it, point to markers of the composer’s “blackness”?

Does the fact that the Nazis lionized Beethoven and his music militate against his perceived blackness?

What do you think?

The piece often used as a marker of Beethoven’s blackness is his last piano sonata, op. 111 in C minor. The second movement is in theme-and-variations form, and the variations become more abstract as the piece continues. Two of the variations are highly syncopated, which has led some to retrospectively credit Beethoven, in this sonata, with “inventing” ragtime or even jazz.

Babatunde Olatunji demonstrates west African polyrhythms.

Daniel Barenboim demonstrates Beethovenian polyrhythms.

 

Beethoven Miscellany

Ear trumpets that Beethoven used to compensate for his hearing loss:

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One of the roughly 140 “conversation books” that Beethoven used to communicate after 1818: his friends would write questions and comments in the book, and he would answer vocally.

conversation book

A list Beethoven made of his food expenditures:

beethovensgrocerylist

Beethoven’s funeral procession in 1827 (does it remind you of Eroica, movement 2?):

Beethoven_Funerals

The Hero’s Funeral

liszt eroica

You will recall that, in the BBC film about the first rehearsal of Beethoven’s Third Symphony, the second movement — the funeral march — causes general consternation among the listeners. The Princess Lobkowitz talks breathlessly about picturing the funeral cortège, with black horses; the Prince’s nay-saying cousin, the Count von Dietrichstein, who has earlier dismissed Beethoven, is truly moved, even disturbed, by the music; and the Princess’s maid weeps openly.

But . . . who has died?

On November 22, 1963, Erich Leinsdorf, the Vienna-born conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, who had come to the United States in the 1930s as a refugee from the Nazis, was preparing to lead his orchestra in a performance of Rimsky-Korsakov, when he got word of President Kennedy’s assassination. The orchestra’s music librarian, William Shisler, quickly pulled the parts for the second movement of the Eroica instead. Listen to Leinsdorf’s announcement from the podium of the assassination, the shock of the audience, and the way that the orchestra plays. Does this performance of the second movement sound different to you? How?

In 1944, when it was abundantly clear that Germany was losing World War II, the conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler led the Vienna Philharmonic in a recorded performance of the Eroica. How is this orchestra’s performance of the second movement different? Do you have the sense that it is informed by the knowledge of what is going on outside the concert hall?

In fact, Wilhelm Furtwängler is a controversial figure in the light of history. Unlike many of his peers among the German artistic and intellectual classes, he did not go into exile during the Third Reich.

The crucial question which would plague Furtwängler for the rest of his life was why he stayed behind when all the other great artists fled. The standard explanation is that he lacked moral fortitude. But, as so often emerges with ethical issues, the full story is far more complex. If anything, the opposite is true: Furtwängler stayed primarily out of a sincere, albeit naive, conviction.

Out of the depths of his cultural and intellectual roots, Furtwängler regarded Hitler and Nazism as a passing phase in German politics. . . . Furtwängler saw two Germanies: the permanent, cultural one of which he remained a proud member, and an irrelevant, political one which was a temporary nuisance. To Furtwängler, there was no such thing as Nazi Germany, but rather a Germany raped by Nazis. Furtwängler truly believed that by maintaining his artistic convictions he would succeed in resisting Hitler and upholding the everlasting purity of great German culture. All of his wartime activities were bent upon achieving this goal.

Furtwängler believed to the depth of his soul that music was a force for moral good, a route out of chaos that would assist the cause of humanity. In 1943, he wrote: “The message Beethoven gave mankind in his works . . . seems to me never to have been more urgent than it is today.” He later told the Chicago Daily Tribune: “It would have been much easier to emigrate, but there had to be a spiritual center of integrity for all the good and real Germans who had to stay behind. I felt that a really great work of music was a stronger and more essential contradiction of the spirit of Buchenwald and Auschwitz than words could be.” 

. . . Furtwängler had dedicated his entire life to perpetuating the traditions of German culture . . . . German music was the sole reason for his existence. Indeed, in 1938, after the annexation of Austria, the already overworked conductor doubled his duties by taking charge of all musical activity in Vienna, as he felt compelled to preserve that city’s proud tradition and in particular the independence and excellence of its famed Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, which was threatened with State control.

The Nazis needed Furtwängler . . . Hitler deeply admired his artistry. The [Nazi] Party itself was keenly aware that Furtwängler was the foremost symbol of the past glory of German culture and that his loss [if he left Germany] would be a final blow to national prestige which would validate all the foreign criticism.

Nevertheless, it is hard not to see Furtwängler conducting the Berlin Philharmonic in a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony for Hitler’s birthday in 1942 as, at best, a misunderstanding of “the message that Beethoven gave mankind in his works.”

What do you think that message is?

As George Grella, Jr. notes:

Beethoven cannot choose his listeners, and so both the Allies and Axis in WWII thought he was on their side. For the Allies, the four-note motif that opens Symphony No. 5 meant V for Victory. But what did the Nazi party functionaries think when they heard Wilhelm Furtwängler and the Berlin Philharmonic play the anti-tyrant Symphony No. 3 (Beethoven was a subversive, spied on by the secret police, and with public disdain for the aristocrats who had earned their privilege due to the merit of being born to the right parents), or when they heard the chorus in Symphony No. 9 sing about brotherhood? And why are the wartime broadcast recordings of those performances so full of poetry, so beautiful and emotionally intense? Those recordings are among the greatest Beethoven one will hear: does this mean fascists deserve Beethoven?

Fake News

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vienna

Who said it, Trump or Beethoven?

I hear that in the [Allgemeine] Musikalische Zeitung  someone has railed violently against the [Third] symphony . . . I have not read the article. If you fancy that you can injure me by publishing articles of that kind, you are very much mistaken. On the contrary, by doing so you merely bring your journal into disrepute.

(Emphasis in original.)

Mountain Music

2016c31db0e4087f080df6baeeaf7b5fThe sound of the French horn provides one of the most emblematically Romantic timbres in nineteenth-century music. Why is that?

The French horn derives its origin from the hunting horn (in German, waldhorn or forest horn) — a brass instrument played while hunting on horseback to call back the hounds from the hunt.

Some horns, like the alphorn, were used in mountain regions to communicate and signal across vast distances.

And horns were used in the Middle Ages to call troops to battle.

So the sound of the horn is associated with the pastoral, with nature, and with the simple folk, peasants and hunters, people steeped in forestcraft and woodlore, men and women who are close to the land, and also with centuries past. The idea that the simple folk are the inheritors of a unique knowledge and wisdom is an important Romantic trope, part of the culture of resistance to the advancing technological specialization and industrialization of the age.

The nineteenth-century Männerchor (men’s chorus) was meant to imitate the sonic ambience of the woodland horn, and to evoke a feeling of the pastoral and the out-of-doors.

Brahms wrote his Four Songs for women’s choir, harp, and two horns — including the “Song from Fingal” — to evoke both folk music and a sense of nostalgia for the past: the first song is self-referential, about the effect of hearing a harp played in the landscape; the second song is a setting of “Come away, death” from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night; the third song is about a gardener who loves a lady in vain, and anticipates his death from grief; and the fourth is a setting of a German translation of the Ossian verses. 

Years later, Brahms would return to the pastoral sound of the horn to open his second piano concert on B-flat Major, op. 83. As Bill McGlaughlin has observed, this is more than music: it is a landscape in sound; the horn almost seems to call out of the mists, as if from one mountaintop to another.

And of course you remember Beethoven’s horns in his Symphony no. 3. What does Beethoven intend his horns to mean?

Heaven and Earth Will Tremble

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(The title page of Beethoven’s manuscript of his third symphony, with the dedication scratched out.)

In October 1803, Beethoven’s friend, student, and acolyte Ferdinand Ries wrote to the music publisher Simrock:

[Beethoven] wants to sell you [his new] Symphony for 100 gulden. In his own opinion it is the greatest work he has yet written. Beethoven played it for me recently, and I believe that heaven and earth will tremble when it is performed. He is very much inclined to dedicate it to [Napoleon] Bonaparte, but because [Beethoven’s patron Prince] Lobkowitz [will have sole rights to it] for half a year and will give 400 gulden [for that privilege, after that time period Beethoven] will entitle it “Bonaparte.”

The scholar of mythology Joseph Campbell proposed the existence of a universal “mono-myth” that transcends time, place, and culture: the hero’s journey. According to his theory, every culture in human history has a core story: that of a hero — usually, at first, someone who appears unlikely and ill-equipped for the task — who is called to a quest, goes on a journey, undergoes a crisis, wins a decisive victory, and returns transformed.

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Do you think that this template can be applied to the symphony Ries refers to above, Beethoven’s Symphony no. 3 in E-flat Major, the “Eroica” (Heroic)?

Who is the hero of the Eroica?

The score:

IMSLP52766-PMLP02581-Beethoven_Werke_Breitkopf_Serie_1_No_3_Op_55

He Who Knows Longing

Johann_Heinrich_Wilhelm_Tischbein_-_Goethe_in_the_Roman_Campagna_-_Google_Art_ProjectJohann Wolfgang von Goethe in a traveling robe on a trip to Italy.

In 1795, Goethe published his novel Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship), a Bildungsroman (novel concerned with the growth of the individual human spirit) about a young merchant who, dissatisfied with his life in business, goes off to join a group of traveling street performers. He meets Mignon in their midst, a vulnerable and melancholy young singer and actress with a shadowy past. Goethe gives Mignon several memorable songs, written in verse, to sing in the course of the novel’s narrative. These few verses in a now largely-forgotten novel would become generate some of the greatest Lieder of the nineteenth century.

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Mignon by Dutch artist Ary Scheffer, 1836.

Mignon, it is eventually revealed, is the product of an incestuous union between a brother and sister who had not been raised together and met later in life. She has been kidnapped from Italy and taken to wander the German-speaking lands with the other performers. She is in early adolescence, androgynous (other characters in the novel don’t know at first whether she’s a boy or girl), a creature seemingly on the threshold of this world, who longs for another one.

Mignon’s song “Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt” (Only he who knows longing) was set to music hundreds of times, both in German and in various translations, throughout the nineteenth century. Here are several settings.

Schubert:

Schubert again:

Schubert again, in a setting for Männerchor:

Beethoven:

Schumann:

Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel:

Which of these do you think best expresses Sehnsucht?