I’ve been playing in string quartets for almost all of my adult life. I did the desultory dabbling that one often does as a high school student, and I wish that I’d been more serious about chamber music back then. When college came, so came the chamber music in earnest. First of all, it was required as part of my degree credits. But college is all about doing stuff with people – your fellow students – and pairing, trioing, and quartetting off to explore the vast and wonderful world of chamber music. Late night reading sessions fueled with lots of corn chips and beer were de rigueur. But I soon found that the string quartet was where it was at. There may be exceptions, but for the most part, when a composer writes for the string quartet, it is some of their highest quality output, and it reaches deeper into their soul than any of their other media.
There is a Big Three of the string quartet, classically speaking: Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. They wrote 69, 23, and 16 quartets respectively. I’ve played a fair number of Haydn quartets, quite a few of the Mozart, and a significant number of the Beethoven. What is interesting is that of these three composers’ works, those which are most likely to spark a metaphysical conversation in rehearsal are those of Mr. Beethoven.
Take this morning’s rehearsal with the Arnica String Quartet. We were working on Beethoven’s last complete string quartet (only the replacement finale for the Grosse Fugue finale of the Op. 130 quartet was to follow), his Op. 135 in F major. The first part of the rehearsal dealt with the slow movement (the last Beethoven would compose), marked Lento assai, cantante e tranquillo (very slow, singing and tranquil). The inimitable Michael Steinberg, in his essay in the excellent The Beethoven Quartet Companion, says of this movement “This is a piece almost too simple to be misunderstood and too deep ever to be exhausted.”
Like many of Beethoven’s great slow movements, this one is in the form of a theme and variations (like the great Adagio movement of his Ninth Symphony). We Arnicans were discussing how to shape the colors and dynamics of the Piu lento (even slower) second variation, which shifts from D-flat major to an ethereal C-sharp minor. Quickly we were away from the “louder, softer, longer, shorter” mechanical discussion and into the discussion of what a shorter eighth-note at the end of each two bar segment meant. Was the first one, that felt like a ‘down’ chord, a sag of defeat, or of tiredness, or was it like the catch in the throat of the memory of one who was presently deep in the throes of grief remembering something happy in the past? You don’t talk about Mozart or Haydn about that very often. But Beethoven, you find this sort of conversation happening all over the place. Why is that?
Normally, I find linking a composers’ works to their personal lives a bit distasteful. When there is a convenient conflation of life and art, it all works out great. But then there are those other times, when art is not the apotheosis of one’s life circumstances, but their antithesis. But so often Beethoven does this – he writes music that expresses horror when he himself feels horrible. Unlike Mozart, who over and over again wrote the most miraculously upbeat music when his life was in total disarray, Beethoven is like a Method actor. He uses his pain and anger as motivations to fuel his compositional output. And so often, he uses his two favorite vehicles: the piano sonata and the string quartet, to purge these depths of despair. Unlike Shostakovich, who wrote 15 great string quartets of his own, Beethoven is an absolutist in his compositional process. There are no codes, no autobiographical references (except when he makes them explicit, as in the great slow movement of his Op. 132, subtitled as “A Convalescent’s Holy Song of Thanksgiving to the Deity, in the Lydian Mode”) to rely upon. So almost anything can mean anything, and that makes for lively debates in many a string quartet’s rehearsal of his music.
My chamber music coach at the Peabody Conservatory was Earl Carlyss, who was the second violinist of the Juilliard Quartet for 20 years. He once told me that he’d performed the complete cycle of the Beethoven quartets “hundreds” of times. What was more amazing? That he said he still didn’t feel that they’d entirely scratched that far below their surface in all of that exploration. That’s why we in string quartets are crazy about Beethoven – he gives us a lifetime of work to do, with so much in return.