Beethoven’s Hymn of Thanksgiving

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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.

The Mercurial Romanticism of Schumann’s Fantasiestücke, Op. 73

MI0000979737Listening to Robert Schumann’s Fantasiestücke, Op. 73 forces us to live in and enjoy the moment. The three short “Fantasy Pieces,” written in just over two days in February, 1849, are filled with abrupt, slightly schizophrenic, changes in mood. Moments of deep introspection, followed by bursts of euphoria, remind us of Florestan and Eusebius, the split personalities which inhabit much of Schumann’s music. In the Fantasy Pieces, each delightful and unexpected harmonic shift whisks us off to a new, distant world of expression. (Listen to the chord at 1:40 in the first clip, below, for example). These stream of consciousness “songs without words” develop through obsessively repeated musical fragments which toss and turn as they search for an ultimate resolution. The recurring opening motive in the last movement grabs our attention and then pauses, leaving us hanging. Listen for the moment towards the end where we get a sudden, sly resolution (9:58).

Schumann originally wrote this music for the clarinet, but his version for cello is equally interesting. In both versions there’s a strong sense of musical conversation between the piano and the other instruments. At moments (such as the passionate dialogue between the cello and piano at 6:50) you may be reminded of the musical link between Schumann and Brahms.

Here is cellist Mischa Maisky and pianist Martha Argerich:

…and here is the version for clarinet, featuring Martin Fröst and Jonathan Biss. Consider the ways the piece changes with each instrument.

Listen to the second and third movements.

  • Find the Mischa Maisky/Martha Argerich recording at iTunes, Amazon.
  • Find the Martin Fröst/Jonathan Biss recording at Amazon.

The Lydian String Quartet, Up Close and Personal

The Lydian String Quartet (photo by by Susan Wilson)
The Lydian String Quartet (photo by by Susan Wilson)

 

Here are two clips which provide an intimate, virtual front row seat to the excellent, Boston-based Lydian String Quartet. You’ll get a sense of the subtle communication that takes place between members of a fine chamber music group. Hours of rehearsing together allow for spontaneous musical conversations to unfold as one voice reacts to the timing and phrasing of another.

Formed in 1980, the Lydian String Quartet won the 1984 Walter W. Naumburg Award for chamber music. The group’s varied repertoire includes numerous works by living composers. The members of the quartet are faculty members at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts. Many years ago, as a student, I was lucky to spend a few weeks one summer studying with “the Lyds.”

Here is the first movement of Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 13 in B-flat Major, Op. 130. Completed in November, 1825, this music takes us into the strange world of Beethoven’s late string quartets. First violinist Daniel Stepner talks about the music here.

…and here is the first movement of Ravel’s string quartet. Second violinist Judith Eissenberg offers a few thoughts about the music here.

  • the Lydian String Quartet’s website
  • Find the Lydian String Quartet’s recordings at iTunes, Amazon

Beethoven’s “Razumovsky” Quartet No. 7

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 notes in this intensely insistent moment of aspiration.

Beethoven made a cryptic reference in the score to the acacia, a symbol of Freemasonry.
Beethoven made a cryptic reference in the score to the acacia, a symbol of Freemasonry.

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:

  1. Allegro 0:00
  2. Allegretto vivace e sempre scherzando 11:00
  3. Adagio molto e mesto 20:13
  4. Thème russe: Allegro 32:37

Unfinished Schubert

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No, not the “Unfinished” Symphony No. 8, a piece which feels strangely complete at two movements. We’ll get to that masterpiece at some point, but today let’s listen to the unfinished C minor string quartet (Quartettsatz, D. 703) Franz Schubert began in December, 1820. Schubert completed the first movementAllegro assai. Interestingly, its opening bears a slight resemblance to the hushed, shivering string lines in the first movement of the “Unfinished” Symphony, which was started eight months later.

Schubert only completed 41 bars of the exposition of an Andante before permanently abandoning the work. Did he just get too busy with other projects? Or, as musicologist Javier Arrebola has speculated (citing other unfinished Schubert works from the same period), perhaps it “…did not yet represent the great leap forward he was striving for.”

Regardless, the greatest composers seem to innately know when the creative powers are speaking, or not. The C minor Quartet’s second movement remains a beautiful and intriguing fragment. The music simply trails off where Schubert stopped…

Schumann’s Piano Quintet, Op. 44

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The year was 1842 and Robert Schumann was on a roll. In just over nine months the composer, who up until that point had written mostly piano music and songs, completed the three Op. 41 string quartets, a piano quintet (Op. 44), a piano quartet (Op. 47), and the Fantasiestücke piano trio (Op. 88). It’s no wonder that musicologists refer to 1842 as Schumann’s “chamber music year.”

The monumental Piano Quintet in E-flat major, Op. 44 brought together a new cast of characters. Schumann paired piano and string quartet, practically inventing a virtuosic new genre.  Prior to this, the piano quintet had typically used double bass rather than cello, as in Franz Schubert’s “Trout” Quintet. Schumann’s quintet greatly influenced Johannes Brahms’ Piano Quintet in F minorwritten twenty-two years later.

The first movement opens with a noble, collective statement…a joyful celebration of this powerful, new combination of voices. But quickly a musical conversation begins. Listen to the way each voice contributes to the conversation. The participants in this passionate musical conversation agree, argue, occasionally finish one another’s sentences, and frequently pick up on an idea, taking it in a sudden, new direction. The movement’s coda ends with a playful cadential nod to Felix Mendelssohn (8:33), capped off with an exuberant exclamation point in contrary motion (8:41).

In the second movement we enter a solemn funeral march in C minor. But, as in the first movement, we find ourselves in sudden, unexpected places. Listen for rhapsodic changes from darkness to light. For me, one of the second movement’s most incredible moments comes around the 16:03 mark when the cello joins the violin in a passionate statement of lament. A few moments later, the gloomy funeral march is interrupted by a cry of terror (17:22), which leads to the movement’s sudden conclusion.

Schumann wrote the Op. 44 Piano Quintet for his wife Clara Wieck, one of the most distinguished pianists of her day and a composer in her own right. The Scherzo’s first trio section (19:06) features a descending four note motive that originated in Schumann’s 10 Impromptus on a Theme of Clara Wieck, Op. 5. The same motive pops up in the base line at this moment in the introduction of the first movement of the “Spring” Symphony No. 1 

Near the end of the final movement, we get a hint of the first movement’s opening theme (27:51). Then, at 28:15 the movement’s momentum comes to a crashing halt and the first movement’s opening theme reappears triumphantly, boldly stated in a single piano line, as if to say, “I’m still here!” This theme and the final movement’s main theme are blended into a double fugue and the Op. 44 Piano Quintet finds a heroic conclusion.

Here is a great performance by the Emerson String Quartet and pianist Menahem Pressler:

  1. Allegro Brillante 0:00
  2. In modo d’una marcia. Un poco largamente 8:56
  3. Scherzo. Molto vivace 17:51
  4. Allegro ma non troppo 22:40

Schumann’s First Violin Sonata: Passionate, Tempestuous

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Last week the exceptionally talented, young conductor, Tito Muñoz led the Richmond Symphony in a memorable concert which included Robert Schumann’s Fourth Symphony. Returning to this symphony, I was reminded of the subtle sense of schizophrenia that often inhabits Schumann’s music. For example, in the first theme of the Fourth Symphony’s opening movement, listen to the way the music develops through obsessive rhythmic repetition. The restless eight-note motive that makes up this theme haunts the entire first movement, twisting and evolving throughout the development section. It resurfaces in the bridge to the final movement (a nod to Beethoven’s Fifth), as if to say, “You can’t escape me…I’m still here!”

Schumann’s Violin Sonata No. 1 in A minor, op. 105 develops with a similarly stormy, obsessive intensity. For the first movement, rather than a standard tempo marking like “Allegro,” Schumann provides the words, Mit leidenschaftlichem Ausdruck (with passionate expression). The opening motive begins in the depths of the violin amid tempestuous piano arpeggios. It reaches tentatively, falls back and reaches again before soaring higher. Listen to the conversation between the violin and piano as the motive is passed back and forth. This is a persistent conversation which becomes increasingly intense (listen to the piano at 1:02). There’s a strong sense of striving, and by the end of the exposition a few hints of sunlight have appeared (1:58). But then we get pulled back into the depths. One of my favorite moments in this first movement is the way we return from the development to the recapitulation (5:40).

Listen for the stormy, obsessive development of the opening motive and enjoy the incredible drama which unfolds in this first movement. Here are Japanese violinist Shoji Sayaka and pianist Itamar Golan in recital at Tokyo’s Suntory Hall in 2005:

Here are the second and third movements. In the second movement (Allegretto), the musical conversation seems to end frequently in a question. You may hear passages which anticipate Johannes Brahms’ violin sonatas.

The A minor Violin Sonata was first performed publicly by Clara Schumann and the German violinist Ferdinand David in March, 1852. David worked closely with Felix Mendelssohn, influencing Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto.

Recordings

  • Gidon Kremer and Martha Argerich: find on iTunes, find at Amazon, listen to a sample
  • Christian Tetzlaff and Lars Vogt: a new recording, released in 2013. Find on iTunes
  • Carolin Widmann and Denes Varjon: find at Amazon
  • Ilya Kaler and Boris Slutsky: find at Naxos
  • Augustin Hadelich and Akira Eguchi perform the first movement: youtube

Ravel’s String Quartet in F Major

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Great composers are never born out of the smug, comfortable bubble of academia. School has its place when it comes to perfecting the essential technical craft of composition (Beethoven studied with Haydn). But in the end, the greatest composers largely have been outcasts. Their bold, exciting and disruptive visions are usually misunderstood and rejected by the ruling establishment of the day. They hear things that others cannot.

The story of Maurice Ravel’s String Quartet in F major is a case in point. Written in 1903 when Ravel was 28 years old, the work was rejected by both the Prix de Rome and the Conservatoire de Paris. Ravel dedicated the work to his teacher, Gabriel Fauré, who called the last movement, “stunted, badly balanced, in fact a failure.” After being formally expelled, Ravel continued to audit Fauré’s class. To be fair, Fauré isn’t the only great composer to leave a “foot-in-mouth” statement for the history books. His quote gives us a sense of how shocking and revolutionary Impressionism must have been for older generations. This new music broke established rules of harmony and form, drawing on jazz and Asian Gamelan influences. Single chords evoked magical and surreal new atmospheres. In 1905 Claude Debussy wrote to Ravel saying,  “In the name of the gods of music and in my own, do not touch a single note you have written in your Quartet.”

From its opening bars, Ravel’s String Quartet unfolds like a dream. It takes sudden turns effortlessly, often ending up where we least expect. As voices are passed around, the two violins, viola and cello seem to be conversing (listen between 0:54 and 1:16 for an example). In the first movement’s haunting second theme (1:54), notice the atmospheric sound of the first violin and viola in octaves and listen for the cello pizzicato.

One of my favorite passages occurs between 2:23 and 2:55, where each harmonic door opens into a room which seems more special than the last. Then this moment evaporates as if it had never occurred and we find ourselves in the more uncertain world of the development section, surrounded by splashes of color.

You’ll hear echoes of the first movement return throughout the rest of the piece. Listen carefully to the way 3/4 and 6/8 time merge together in the twangy pizzicato opening of the second movement. As the movement progresses, it covers a wide range of musical atmospheres, but the persistent opening motive keeps popping up, as if to say, “I’m still here!” (listen around 9:03 and in the mysterious passage at 11:50 in which the motive hints at a gradual transition back to the “A” section). The third movement enters strange, ethereal territory, while the final movement erupts with a blazing, unstoppable energy.

Here is a recording by the Alban Berg Quartet:

  1. Allegro moderato. Très doux
  2. Assez vif. Très rythmé 
  3. Très lent 
  4. Vif et agité