Beethoven inscribed the transcendent third movement of his Op. 132 String Quartet with the descriptive title, “Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit, in der lydischen Tonart” (Holy song of thanksgiving of a convalescent to the Deity, in the Lydian Mode). The words reflected Beethoven’s gratitude for a burst of renewed health, following a near-fatal stomach ailment during the winter of 1824-25. They are the words of a composer who, earlier in life, grappled with the devastating realities of hearing loss, and ultimately triumphed.
Written in the final two years of Beethoven’s life, following the completion of the Ninth Symphony, the String Quartet No. 15, Op. 132 enters the strange, mysterious world of Beethoven’s “late string quartets.” These works were so groundbreaking and radical that they left audiences baffled when they were first performed. The violinist and composer Louis Spohr called these quartets “indecipherable, uncorrected horrors.” Another musician said, “we know there is something there, but we do not know what it is.” After hearing the Op. 131 Quartet, Franz Schubert remarked, “After this, what is left for us to write?” In the twentieth century, Igor Stravinsky called the Große Fuge, Op. 133“an absolutely contemporary piece of music that will be contemporary forever.” Even Beethoven seems to have understood the power of these musical revelations. Writing in English to a friend in 1810 regarding the String Quartet No. 11 in F minor (“Serioso”), Op. 95 he said, “The quartet is written for a small circle of connoisseurs and is never to be performed in public.” It would be easy to call Beethoven’s late string quartets “ahead of their time.” In fact, they seem eternally timeless. Listening to this music, you don’t get any sense of style or historical period. They become music in its purest form.
The “Holy song of thanksgiving” is the longest movement in the Op. 132 Quartet and comes at the heart of the five-movement work. The overlapping voices in the opening can be heard as a reference to the ghostly opening of the Quartet’s first movement. Throughout the third movement, the music alternates between the opening chorale (in modal F) and a slightly faster section in D major, which Beethoven marks, “with renewed strength.” Each time the D major section returns, it becomes more embellished, joyful and frolicking (listen to the sense of breathlessness in this passage). By contrast, the opening chorale becomes increasingly introverted. Toward the end of the movement, the music fades into open fifths (a sound which emerges out of silence in the opening of the Ninth Symphony). The final moments of the third movement reach for an ultimate climax and then fall back into tender acceptance. As the chorale returns one last time, giving each voice of the quartet a final statement, we sense that the music is trying to hang on, as if afraid to let go. When we reach the end, the final chord in F feels strangely unresolved, overpowered by the preceding passage’s convincing pull to C major. Beethoven’s “Holy song of Thanksgiving” moves beyond conventional key relationships, making us focus on the moment, rather than a far-off goal, and leaving us with a sense of the circular and eternal.
Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, first heard in 1830, shares some surprising similarities with a teenager’s rock music: It’s shocking, rebellious, and at least partially drug-induced (Berlioz was under the influence of opium). It may have been written to impress a girl (Harriet Smithson, an Irish actress whom Berlioz saw in a production of Hamlet in 1827, leading to an infatuation and ultimately short-lived marriage). It deals with the pain of unrequited love, yet this is clearly an immature vision of love, idealized and illusory. It’s a work of full-blown Romanticism, more concerned with the moment than with traditional formal structure. Foreshadowing Freud, Symphonie fantastique takes us on a deeply psychological journey. What emerges after we enter this hallucinogenic dreamscape is both fascinating and frightening.
Symphonie fantastique’s form is driven by its drama, like an opera without words. Over the course of five movements, a “young musician” descends into the despair of unrequited love. In the first movement, subtitled Passions, this vague hero “sees for the first time a woman who unites all the charms of the ideal person his imagination was dreaming of, and falls desperately in love with her.” This passion is represented by the idée fixe, a musical idea (first heard at this moment in the first movement) which returns and develops throughout the Symphony. We hear the idée fixe pop up in unexpected places. Listen to the way it gradually creeps into the strings in this passage from the end of the first movement. At this moment in the third movement you might miss it, unless you’re tuned into the woodwinds. The fifth movement, Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath, depicts the Hero’s funeral. Witches and hideous monsters shriek, groan, and cackle amid quotes of the Dies Irae (the ancient chant evoking the Day of Wrath). The idée fixe now degenerates into a vulgar, grotesque parody of itself.
Berlioz’s music evokes dramatic scenes. In the third movement, we find ourselves in a country pasture. The sound of distant thunder echoes from hillsides. A dialogue between two shepherds can be heard in the English horn and offstage oboe. (Here Berlioz introduces a spacial dimension to the music that Mahler would later develop with his own offstage instruments). The end of the fourth movement, March to the Scaffold, paints the gruesome scene of the hero’s execution. We hear the decapitated head bounce to the ground in the pizzicatos and then the cheering crowd. But Symphonie fantastique is more than a musical representation of a story. You can throw out Berlioz’s extensive program notes (included below) and the music stands on its own. Listen to Symphonie fantastique as pure music and you’ll hear the distinct personas of the instruments come to live and enter into a drama which transcends the literal story. Throughout the piece, instrumental voices combine and interact in innovative ways which hadn’t been imagined previously.
Amazingly, this music, written three years after Beethoven’s death, often sounds shocking and far-out, even to our modern ears. It’s filled with bizarre, erratic shifts in mood which constantly keep us off balance (for example, listen to this passage from the first movement). In the first movement’s development section, Berlioz veers into new territory with these strange ascending and descending parallel chromatic lines. You’ll hear fragments of this line return throughout the Symphony (here it is in the strange, halting climax of the third movement, and here, and here again in the final movement).
Nowhere is Symphonie fantastique crazier than in the final minutes of the last movement, beginning with this terrifying crescendo. We hear string sound effects like raspy sul ponticello (playing with the bow as close to the bridge as possible) and col legno (hitting the wood of the bow on the strings for a percussive effect that, in this case, sounds like a skeleton’s rattling bones). Listen to the insanity of the woodwinds in this passage, and the way they let out a final tauntingly demonic shriek a few moments later. The Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath concludes with a hellish rumble which hangs in the listener’s ear long after the music has finished.
Berlioz’s program notes, written for the 1830 premiere:
Part One: Dreams – Passions
The author imagines that a young musician, afflicted with that moral disease that a well-known writer calls the vague des passions, sees for the first time a woman who embodies all the charms of the ideal being he has imagined in his dreams, and he falls desperately in love with her. Through an odd whim, whenever the beloved image appears before the mind’s eye of the artist, it is linked with a musical thought whose character, passionate but at the same time noble and shy, he finds similar to the one he attributes to his beloved.
This melodic image and the model it reflects pursue him incessantly like a double idée fixe. That is the reason for the constant appearance, in every movement of the symphony, of the melody that begins the first Allegro. The passage from this state of melancholy reverie, interrupted by a few fits of groundless joy, to one of frenzied passion, with its gestures of fury, of jealousy, its return of tenderness, its tears, its religious consolations – this is the subject of the first movement.
Part Two: A Ball
The artist finds himself in the most varied situations – in the midst of the tumult of a party, in the peaceful contemplation of the beauties of nature; but everywhere, in town, in the country, the beloved image appears before him and disturbs his peace of mind.
Part Three: A Scene in the Country
Finding himself one evening in the country, he hears in the distance two shepherds piping a ranz des vaches in dialogue. This pastoral duet, the scenery, the quiet rustling of the trees gently brushed by the wind, the hopes he has recently found some reason to entertain – all concur in affording his heart an unaccustomed calm and in giving a more cheerful color to his ideas. He reflects upon his isolation; he hopes that his loneliness will soon be over. – But what if she were deceiving him! – This mingling of hope and fear, these ideas of happiness disturbed by black presentiments, form the subject of the Adagio. At the end, one of the shepherds again takes up the ranz des vaches; the other no longer replies. – Distant sound of thunder – loneliness – silence.
Part Four: March to the Scaffold
Convinced that his love is unappreciated, the artist poisons himself with opium. The dose of the narcotic, too weak to kill him, plunges him into a sleep accompanied by the most horrible visions. He dreams that he has killed his beloved, that he is condemned and led to the scaffold and that he is witnessing his own execution. The procession moves forward to the sounds of a march that is now somber and fierce, now brilliant and solemn, in which the muffled noise of heavy steps gives way without transition to the noisiest clamor. At the end of the march the first four measures of the idée fixe reappear, like a last thought of love interrupted by the fatal blow.
Part Five: Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath
He sees himself at the sabbath, in the midst of a frightful troop of ghosts, sorcerers, monsters of every kind, come together for his funeral. Strange noises, groans, bursts of laughter, distant cries which other cries seem to answer. The beloved melody appears again, but it has lost its character of nobility and shyness; it is no more than a dance tune, mean, trivial, and grotesque: it is she, coming to join the sabbath. – A roar of joy at her arrival. – She takes part in the devilish orgy. – Funeral knell, burlesque parody of the Dies irae [a hymn sung in the funeral rites of the Catholic Church], sabbath round-dance. The sabbath round and the Dies irae are combined.
Find the San Francisco Symphony’s recording with Michael Tilson Thomas(featured above) at iTunes, Amazon.
John Eliot Gardiner’s period instrument recording with the Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique gives us a sense of how the music would have sounded in 1830. Listen here. Find this recording at iTunes, Amazon.
Venezuelan pianist Gabriela Montero is reinvigorating an old tradition: She performs all of the standard repertoire, yet she’s equally dedicated to improvising and performing her own compositions. She infuses her concerts with a refreshing sense of excitement and spontaneity, frequently improvising on melodies volunteered by the audience. The subjects of her improvisations have run the gamut from the theme from Harry Potter and “Happy Birthday” to J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variationsand Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto.
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, improvisation and a blurring of the line between composer and performer were common. Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, and Liszt were all masters of improvisation. It was only in the twentieth century (with isolated exceptions like Sergei Rachmaninov) that a gulf grew between those who created and interpreted music.
In June, Gabriela Montero released a recording of Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto, as well as her own composition, Ex Patria, and three improvisations. On the CD, she’s joined by conductor Carlos Miguel Prieto and the YOA Orchestra of the Americas, an orchestra made up of 18-30-year-old musicians from countries throughout the Western Hemisphere. Recently, Montero talked about the recording with Richmond Public Radio’s Mike Goldberg. You can hear her thoughtful and dramatic interpretation here:
Ex Patria grew out of the human rights struggle in Montero’s native Venezuela. In a recent interview, she described the piece this way:
Ex Patria I wrote in 2011 to honor the 19,336 victims of homicide that year in Venezuela. Now, to put it in perspective, that number — 19,336 — that was in 2011. Last year, there were 25,000 murders in Venezuela. So, Ex Patria was meant to be a vehicle to express all of this. I wanted people to feel what we feel as a society, a collapsed society. There is no law, there is no justice. Ninety-five percent of crimes go unresolved or unpunished. And I not only wanted to speak of numbers with my audiences but also to write a piece that would emotionally convey the message that they would be attached to. So when they left the concert hall or listened to the recording, it would be in them, it would be an experience that they could identify with. It’s very violent but also very beautiful. And it’s really a photograph of Venezuela in the last 16 years.
The three improvisations which round out this CD draw together elements from the preceding music. Montero describes the first improvisation as Baroque in nature, the second evokes Rachmaninov, and the third is an aural snapshot of Venezuela.
It began with a stunningly lucrative commission. In 1785, Franz Joseph Haydn, who had spent 25 years employed by the court of Prince Nikolaus Esterházy in an isolated backwater of the Austrian Empire, was asked to write six symphonies for the orchestra of Le Concert de la Loge Olympique in Paris. The patron was the Olympic Lodge, one of the wealthiest Masonic lodges in Paris. Haydn was promised an orchestra of 67 musicians (three times the size of his Esterházy court orchestra) and a salary that exceeded what he earned in a year.
Marie Antoinette, the Queen of France, was in attendance when Haydn’s “Paris” Symphonies (No. 82-87) were performed. She became especially fond of Symphony No. 85 in B-flat major, resulting in its nickname, “La Reine” (The Queen). During her imprisonment, less than ten years later, the score of Haydn’s 85th lay near the harpsichord in her cell. “Times have changed,” she is said to have noted with sadness.
When Haydn was writing the “Paris” Symphonies, Beethoven, his student, was sixteen years away from publishing his own First Symphony. But amazingly, there are fleeting, momentary glimpses of Beethoven-to-come throughout Symphony No. 85. This passage in the finale movement may remind you of the jarring, off-balance rhythmic energy of Beethoven’s Eroica. It’s a moment where the forward motion is shockingly halted by emphasis on the “wrong” beats. (We get a hint of these accents in the first movement of Haydn’s 85th around 2:23). Throughout the first movement of Beethoven’s Third Symphony, this kind of conflict plays out on a larger, more ferocious scale. A minute or so earlier in the last movement we hear this string passage, which might remind you vaguely of a similar passage in Beethoven’s First (and most Haydnesque) Symphony. In Haydn’s second movement, listen to the drumbeat-like repetition of the bass line in this passage and compare it with similar moments in Beethoven. Listen to the way the answering “drumbeats” are out of sync with the bass, causing us to lose sense of where the downbeat lies.
The opening bars of the first movement seem to be a musical “announcement” or proclamation, preparing us for the symphony which follows. It’s as if Haydn felt it necessary to grab the attention of his audience before moving forward around the 0:10 mark. In the second movement, we hear a series of variations on the romantic French folk song, La gentille et jeune Lisette. For the third movement, we might expect a fun-loving peasant minuet. Instead, Haydn gives us something more courtly and refined…an elegant galant minute. At the end of the movement’s middle section, there’s an interesting moment (beginning around 16:25), where the musical idea is suddenly extended in a way we could never have predicted. Suspended on the harmonic dominant, a series of woodwind voices enters in succession.
This recording features the Orchestra of the 18th Century, conducted by Frans Brüggen:
Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 7 in F major, Op. 59, No. 1 begins with an extraordinary musical conversation. From the first note of the cello’s warm opening statement, we’re immediately drawn into a miraculous, unfolding drama. The cello reaches higher, attempting to express something enormous and cosmic. The violin picks up where the cello left off, reaching even higher with increasing urgency and abandon. Both voices seem to be struggling to find just the right notesin this intensely insistent moment of aspiration.
In these opening phrases we get a sense that something important is being expressed, but what is the music trying to say? We can’t ascribe literal meaning to these pitches and vibrations. But on some deeper level we understand what is being communicated, and that is the essence of the unique, mysterious, and indispensable power of music.
At the end of the exposition, Beethoven gives us a false repeat. For a moment (at 2:52) it sounds as if we’ve returned to the beginning, but then, suddenly the music veers off into a development section that takes us to new, unexpected keys and adventures. The conversation becomes simultaneously intense, snarling and comic, with surprises at every turn. A brief fugue begins at 5:04.
The second movement explodes with a blend of ferocity and humor. The musical lines playfully chase and collide with one other, imitate one another and finish each other’s sentences with unpredictable frivolity. Listen to the wild complexity of the rhythm at 12:53 and 17:17. At 18:40 we hear one of the craziest passages as each voice joins in dense counterpoint.
Beethoven was a composer who wrestled with ideas in a complex series of musical sketches. The final page of the sketches for the Adagio bears the following cryptic inscription:
A weeping willow or acacia tree on my brother’s grave. (Einen Trauerwiden oder Akazien-Baum aufs Grab meines Bruders).
The acacia is a symbol of Freemasonry. Although no one knows for sure, it’s believed that Beethoven, whose brothers were both alive at the time, was a Freemason.
The three Op. 59 were commissioned by Count Andrey Razumovsky (1752-1836), who served as the Russian ambassador to Vienna at the time. In honor of his patron, Beethoven built the final movement around a popular Russian folk song. For musicologists, this quartet marks the beginning of Beethoven’s “middle period.” During this time, his music became longer, more complex, and increasingly virtuosic.
Here is the Tokyo String Quartet’s 2006 recording:
Austrian conductor and violinist Walter Weller passed away last Sunday at the age of 75. Weller was one of the last links to a Viennese musical tradition rooted in the nineteenth century.
Following in his father’s footsteps, Walter Weller joined the Vienna Philharmonic at the age of 17, eventually becoming one of its concertmasters. In addition, he performed as first violinist of the Weller Quartet. In 1966 he was asked to fill in on short notice for the conductor Karl Böhm. This launched a conducting career that included regular appearances at Vienna State Opera and Volksoper and principal conductor posts with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic and the Scottish National Orchestra. In an article in Glasgow’s Herald Scotland, music critic Michael Tumelty said that Weller
had a seminal influence on the sound of [the RSNO] that extends to this day. He brought a depth and richness of sound that nobody else ever has.
Conductor Kenneth Woods offered this description in 2007.
Walter Weller leaves behind an extensive discography, ranging from music of Martinu and Suk to the complete symphonies of Beethoven, Mendelssohn, and Prokofiev. Here is his 2004 recording of Mendelssohn’s overture, The Hebrides, Op. 26, “Fingal’s Cave” with the Philharmonia Orchestra. Throughout the overture, we hear the windswept mystery of the remote Scottish islands Mendelssohn visited around 1829…the play of light and shadow on the water and the rugged cliffs surround Fingal’s Cave. This sense of mystery remains unresolved in the final chords. Weller’s performance comes to life with fiery excitement and also with incredibly soft moments of introspection:
Here is Walter Weller’s 2006 recording with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra of Beethoven’s overture, The Creatures of Prometheus, Op. 43. The overture opened Beethoven’s 1801 ballet score.
Here is the final movement from Prokofiev’s “Classical” Symphony No. 1 from a 1975 recording with the London Symphony Orchestra. It’s hard to imagine a more exciting performance. Listen carefully to the little interjections throughout this joyful whirlwind of a movement:
The element of surprise is an important ingredient in every great melody. Each note of a melody sets up expectations which are either fulfilled or delightfully challenged. Often subconsciously, we enjoy the unexpected “wrong” notes that take a melody in a bold new direction. We listen closely to hear how the disruption will work itself out.
For an example, listen to the jarring appoggiaturas in the second movement of Mozart’s otherwise serene Piano Concerto No. 21, K. 467.Or listen to the Richard Rodgers song, In My Own Little Cornerfrom the 1957 television musical, Cinderella. On the words, “own little chair” Rodgers veers unexpectedly to the “wrong” note and then quickly corrects it with the note we expected. The bridge section of the song moves even further afield before quickly and skillfully sliding back into the chorus. “Oh yes, that’s where we’re supposed to be.” The familiar chorus suddenly feels fresh and new because of where we’ve been in the bridge.
The examples above are relatively subtle. But once in a while the “wrong” notes begin to really step out of line and take over the piece. Here are eight pieces where “wrong” notes move beyond subtle into the realm of shocking:
Haydn: The Creation
Franz Joseph Haydn’s oratorio The Creation, completed in 1798, is based on the Book of Genesis and John Milton’s Paradise Lost. The opening Overture is a musical depiction of chaos. It’s filled with harsh dissonances and cadences which avoid a clear resolution, elements which audiences at the time would have found particularly shocking. There’s a hint of the revolutionary fire of Beethoven, who was about to begin his first string quartets in 1797 as Haydn began working on The Creation. At moments the music is so chromatic that it feels as if we’ve stepped into some unwritten Wagner prelude:
The final movement of Charles Ives’ Symphony No. 2 is an exuberant collage of American folk songs, hymns, and Civil War military songs. You might also hear hints of Dvorak’s “New World” Symphony. The end of the movement is like the grand finale of a brilliant fireworks display. Listen carefully. Something surprising happens on the final chord…
Russian composer Alfred Schnittke (1934-1998) wrote this haunting version of Silent Night as a musical Christmas Card for violinist Gidon Kremer in 1978. Schnittke spent much of his life trapped behind the Soviet Iron Curtain. His music often evokes an atmosphere of gloom as well as biting protest. Pastiche and historical references frequently make up the ironic fabric of Schnittke’s music.
We’ll finish with music which perfectly sums up the joy of “wrong” notes. Here is an excerpt from the original Broadway cast recording of Leonard Bernstein’s 1953 musical Wonderful Town. The lyrics were written by Betty Comden and Adolph Green:
The finest professional string quartets exhibit an almost scary sense of chemistry. This cohesiveness, almost like a sixth sense, develops when the right combination of people spend hours a day performing together. The Ying Quartet, formed at the Eastman School of Music in 1988, enjoys an additional advantage: the founding members are siblings. Only the first violin position has changed in recent years with the departure of Timothy Ying in 2009. Beginning next season, Robin Scott will join the group, replacing current first violinist, Ayano Ninomiya.
Here are the Yings performing two Beethoven quartets in 2012. String Quartet No. 4 in C minor, Op. 18 is one of Beethoven’s earliest string quartets, composed around 1801. We hear some of the “C minor fire” that I wrote about in my previous post, Beethoven and the Turbulence of C Minor. With the string quartet, Beethoven expanded on a form already developed by Haydn and Mozart. But the stormy drama and continuous surprises in this music must have been a shock to audiences at the time:
Allegro ma non tanto 0:00
Scherzo. Andante scherzoso quasi Allegretto 8:53
Menuetto. Allegretto 15:27
With String Quartet No. 15 in A minor, Op. 132, we enter the strange world of late Beethoven. Beethoven’s music often plunges us into Romanticism. At moments, this quartet sounds as if it could have been written in the twentieth century. But the most unusual aspect of this music is the way it seems to take us beyond time and style. Occasionally, the music seems suspended in time. This is especially evident in the third movement, which Beethoven subtitled, Holy song of thanksgiving of a convalescent to the Deity, in the Lydian Mode.
This quartet was written after the Ninth Symphony in 1825, two years before Beethoven’s death. Just before the final movement begins, we hear a strange, passionate opera recitative without words. Similar allusions to opera occur in the final movement of the Ninth Symphony.