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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.  

Hyampom River Valley

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:

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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"

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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.

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8 hours ago, Stephen Fine said:

Hyampom River Valley

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.  

  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.

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,

......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.  

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. 

1.  Nothing wrong with that from where I sit.  I notice the 1st violin part is not too terribly demanding.  Why not bring in others for 1st part?  I followed along with the sheet music - a  fun thing to do.

2.  Maybe wanting to know if the 1st part player needs a break every once in awhile.  The playing does stay high quite a bit.

3.  Other than paying homage to Pugnani and maybe Bach? why else would that piece been written like that?  I guess interesting.  No other comment from me about it.

4.  If I heard what is the Finale -  what an excellent piece of work sound wise - I  couldn't find any sheet music to follow along there though

5.  Appears to me he had the time period all to himself.  No, that can't be it.  Maybe he had a feeling the future after him would be better.   Nope, can't be that either.  Well, the other other thing is that he found a new girl.  Yes, that explains it all.

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Stephen, the alternative finale was not written on LvB's deathbed. Artaria persuaded the composer there was more money to be made by publishing the quartet as two quartets, i.e. 130 and 133, and off LvB went. He never got paid for two quartets, though.

Seperating the Grosse Fuge however has hurt the unity of 130, since there is quite a bit of motiv recapitulating in the Fuge.

About the Cavatina. I balk at saying it's about "lost love". LvB is not Justin Bieber. He was an old man at this point. Beethoven, at this point wasn't necessarily trying to express his transient feelings in music. He was experimenting with forms and genres, and the Cavatina is, among other things, his attempt to write a belcanto aria. That aria could, of course, still be about "lost love," but not necessarily Beethoven's lost love, rather than lost love in general.

However, I have never felt it that way. I would rather say, as Beethoven did himself, that it is about feeling 'beklemmt" as a vulnerable individual in the entire universe, and then, a couple bars later, being taken up again in the pulse of life (like "rocks and stones and trees" as his coeval Wordsworth wrote). The Cavatine has terrific drive, right from the get go; no one ever mentions this. It's a very effective piece of music.

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On 1/24/2018 at 6:04 AM, Herman West said:

Stephen, the alternative finale was not written on LvB's deathbed. Artaria persuaded the composer there was more money to be made by publishing the quartet as two quartets, i.e. 130 and 133, and off LvB went. He never got paid for two quartets, though.

Seperating the Grosse Fuge however has hurt the unity of 130, since there is quite a bit of motiv recapitulating in the Fuge.

About the Cavatina. I balk at saying it's about "lost love". LvB is not Justin Bieber. He was an old man at this point. Beethoven, at this point wasn't necessarily trying to express his transient feelings in music. He was experimenting with forms and genres, and the Cavatina is, among other things, his attempt to write a belcanto aria. That aria could, of course, still be about "lost love," but not necessarily Beethoven's lost love, rather than lost love in general.

However, I have never felt it that way. I would rather say, as Beethoven did himself, that it is about feeling 'beklemmt" as a vulnerable individual in the entire universe, and then, a couple bars later, being taken up again in the pulse of life (like "rocks and stones and trees" as his coeval Wordsworth wrote). The Cavatine has terrific drive, right from the get go; no one ever mentions this. It's a very effective piece of music.

Herman,

You're not quite right about him not getting paid.  True, the final edition wasn't published until after his death, but he was paid for the first edition AND he was paid for arranging the Grosse Fuge into a piano 4-hands arrangement.

He wrote the alternative ending 5 months before he died, in October.  I guess his deathbed officially began in December, so, you're right, he didn't compose it from his deathbed (although I did say, "practically his deathbed").  But I'm pretty sure he was already suffering from a few of the ailments that were about to do him in (e.g. his abdomen was already swelling with fluid, he was already drinking too much).

I suppose the cavatina could be about lost love, generally, or any idea, really, but the fact that he couldn't/wouldn't talk about it makes me think it was a more personal story than usual.  I usually don't go in for the overly-biographical analysis, but this one is a pretty straight line.  Not only is Beklemmt an extraordinary indication in Beethoven, it's combined with darts/carrots over the middle of the sustains, something I think he only does 1 other time ever in his lifetime.  This music was special somehow, in some existential way.  (PS- consider how programmatic the slow movement of opus 132 is)

I agree with you about the movement's drive from the start, and I like your analysis.  We talked a lot in rehearsal about the internal motion.

 

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  • 1 month later...

Hi Stephen, 

do you object if I once more return to the topic of the 130 Cavatina, and what it 'means'?

Obviously it is a very special place in Beethoven, but on the other hand I have been listening to the the three last piano sonatas lately, and in particular the rather lyrical A flat major sonata op. 110, from 1841. It's a beautiful piece.

In the third and final movement of the sonata there is an 'Ariosa dolente', a mournful song as it were, that begins in the exact same way as the 'Beklemmt' in the String Quartet, with bunched quavers entirely changing the mood, after which a lyrical (and perhaps mournful, depending on how you listen  -  my feeling is more like 'helpless') melody floats in over the quavers. In both cases the dynamics are pretty fierce, per bar.

In both pieces of music, the Sonata and the Quartet, this, shall we say, rather simple and highly appealing music is in close vicinity to a fugue. Though, obviously, no fugue can ever be as big and bad as the Grosse Fugue. And no Beethoven is as Belcanto as the Beklemmt section of the Cavatina. I think however that this juxtapositioning of different kinds of musical texture is what late Beethoven is about, fugues, belcanto, peasant dances. It's a about contrast. And so what I'm perhaps saying is that Beethoven was not necessarily 'opening up' in the Cavatina or the 110 Ariosa. He was thinking of the big picture these entire works form.

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On 3/11/2018 at 5:50 AM, Herman West said:

Hi Stephen, 

do you object if I once more return to the topic of the 130 Cavatina, and what it 'means'?

Obviously it is a very special place in Beethoven, but on the other hand I have been listening to the the three last piano sonatas lately, and in particular the rather lyrical A flat major sonata op. 110, from 1841. It's a beautiful piece.

In the third and final movement of the sonata there is an 'Ariosa dolente', a mournful song as it were, that begins in the exact same way as the 'Beklemmt' in the String Quartet, with bunched quavers entirely changing the mood, after which a lyrical (and perhaps mournful, depending on how you listen  -  my feeling is more like 'helpless') melody floats in over the quavers. In both cases the dynamics are pretty fierce, per bar.

In both pieces of music, the Sonata and the Quartet, this, shall we say, rather simple and highly appealing music is in close vicinity to a fugue. Though, obviously, no fugue can ever be as big and bad as the Grosse Fugue. And no Beethoven is as Belcanto as the Beklemmt section of the Cavatina. I think however that this juxtapositioning of different kinds of musical texture is what late Beethoven is about, fugues, belcanto, peasant dances. It's a about contrast. And so what I'm perhaps saying is that Beethoven was not necessarily 'opening up' in the Cavatina or the 110 Ariosa. He was thinking of the big picture these entire works form.

Again, I love your interpretation,  and I have no musical argument against your point of view.  And, indeed, this quartet's reputation is that it's about juxtaposition.  Definitely right. 

But is there a reason why you care to ignore the biographical notes?  We know that this movement was emotional for Beethoven because we know it.  It takes no analysis.  Beethoven not only wrote Beklemmt in the score, he got Beklemmt when discussing this moment.  Beethoven was not a particularly sappy guy when chatting with his friends, so I take it seriously that he choked and teared up when asked about this movement.

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