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Another winter, another late Beethoven string quartet. But other than being challenging, this experience was completely different from last year's. I flew out to California a couple days before the new year, saw the Sound exhibit at SFMoMA, walked around my old haunts, ate at a couple excellent restaurants, visited with friends, bought a new pair of loud dress socks, and, generally, enjoyed the still-beautiful-if-increasingly-uninhabitable-by-artists city. On New Year's Eve, my friend, the cellist Charly Akert (of the band, The Family Crest) drove us both up to Hyampom, the home of the Trinity Alps Chamber Music Festival. Last winter, Trinity County was cold and wet. This year, Hyampom valley has had a dry few months. Warm, too. There was no snow on the river plain, the farmers are already worried about the upcoming summer's water supply, dependent on the winter's snowpack. But, snow or no, there is no more beautiful place to prepare chamber music. There is still no cell phone reception in Hyampom, California. Internet access is very limited. Heating is by the wood stove. The wood must be split. There isn't indoor plumbing (composting toilets, we sometimes refer to ourselves as the Poop-in-a-Bucket Chamber Music Festival). The food is all grown on the premises (except for the cream for our coffee and the coffee itself). It's quite an escape from modern life. There's little to do but take beautiful walks, make conversation, read, practice, and rehearse. While three members of our quartet have remained fairly constant over the past five years, we've rotated various friends of ours through the first violin position. This winter's first violinist was one of my favorite players, a guy named James Keene, a teacher and freelancer based in the northeast USA, he recently joined the violin section of the New Haven Symphony. James plays with a great deal of expression and invention, with style like violinists of three generations ago. It might be that I haven't played enough with him yet, but his ideas about sound, while I love the way he sounds, I have a hard time figuring out how I should sound when I play with him. It's an invigorating problem to face. Speaking of invigorating problems... Beethoven's string quartet, op. 130, is in 6 movements. The piece seems to be all angles and drama and weirdness. Consider the first movement: a slow, serious, chromatic opening leads to lush imitative counterpoint that foreshadows the movement's fast material. But, strangely, the fast material can't hold its own. It bursts forth only to be beaten back by the introductory material. Throughout the movement, at the beginning, middle, and end, the slow material and the fast material duke it out. It's a surprisingly enjoyable if but jarring experience. The second movement starts sneaky, but in the end, it's all about the first violin pyrotechnics. It's a 2-minute presto. Apparently, Beethoven liked to sit between the first and second violins of the premiering quartet to laugh maniacally every time the first violinist messed up. The third movement is an extraordinary andante, filigreed, lush, sylvan/pastoral--each voice is completely independent. I heard three different bird-calls in my part (the grace-note turns, the sextuplet trills, and the cuckoos near the end). But, like the first and second movements, Beethoven starts the movement as if it's going to be a much more serious, minor key movement. Is this the pattern that holds this massive work together? No, because the fourth movement starts simply and sweetly. The Alla danza tedesca is astonishingly lovely, but still, it simmers underneath. Take a look at the fussy, strangely pulsing dynamics: We reach the heart of the revised (more on that in a minute) string quartet at this point. The fifth movement is an adagio of unfulfilled love. Whenever Beethoven was asked about the movement, he came to tears. In fact, he couldn't even contemplate speaking about the music without choking up. It signified something intensely personal to him. And two thirds of the way through, as the accompaniment texture drops away into unified triplets, Beethoven asks the first violinist to play "Beklemmt" The Beklemmt solo is punctuated by silence (rests), as if the first violin, like Beethoven, can't quite sing out its song. After eight bars though, the sotto voce theme of the opening returns and leads us smoothly to the close. At this point, on the night of the premiere, the quiet calm of the fifth movement was broken by the clap of thunder that heralds the Große Fuge. The original ending is a massive double fugue. MASSIVE. THORNY. INSANE? Many in Beethoven's audience were fairly sure that the great man had finally lost it. He had pushed the boundaries of the genre, of functional harmony, of complicated counterpoint, too far! Of course, the fugue sounds complicated even (almost) two centuries later, but I don't think we, today, would make the same demand of Beethoven as did his friends, family, and publisher, that is, "Please compose us a new ending." The night of the premiere, Beethoven didn't attend, but waited nearby in a tavern. After the performance, his friends met him: BEETHOVEN: How'd it go? HOLZ: It went great, a triumph! BEETHOVEN: But how'd they like it? HOLZ: They asked for an encore of the second movement! BEETHOVEN: Of course they asked for an encore of the second movement, that's the fast exciting movement, and they probably wanted to see Schuppanzigh make a few more mistakes. HOLZ: Well, they asked for an encore of the fourth movement too! BEETHOVEN: Well, that's the pretty one, of course they wanted to hear that one again! What of the fugue? HOLZ: Hmm... Well... Umm... BEETHOVEN: ASSES! They're all asses! (other than the last line, reflected in the historical record, the dialogue is reconstructed) But while Beethoven never disavowed the fugue as the "proper" ending to op. 130, it only took Beethoven's publisher one day to convince the maestro to consider composing an alternative, less harrowing ending. The fugue was separated out, now listed as opus 133, and while Beethoven procrastinated until he was practically in his death bed, he did finally compose a new Finale. In fact, it was the last thing he ever composed. Emotionally and physically he was in bad condition, but this alternative ending shows none of that. It's bright and peppy and fun. Rather than beginning with an attaca thunderclap, the violist gets to sneak in, mischievously, just as the audience is exhaling from the adagio. And while the movement reflects some of the modernity of the rest of the quartet (especially on the last page), its general attitude completely recenters the work towards the first movement and the adagio. After studying the piece for months, rehearsing for weeks, and performing the work for different audiences, I still struggle to find a unifying idea in the music other than that Beethoven was attempting to see how far he could stretch the genre without using a unifying idea. Each movement is so different from the last--there are few ideas that carry through. If anything is constant though, it's Beethoven's well-developed sense of humor. All of this music (excepting the adagio) is written with a wink. Everything is a bit of an exaggeration of itself. The fussy dynamics are fussier than they need to be. The counterpoint is thicker and more intricate than it needs to be. The drama and the form are both extreme. I never tired of playing a single movement. There are endless opportunities for rehearsal and discussion. Beethoven, believe the hype.