Friday, April 3, 2015

The Beethoven Quartet CompanionThe Beethoven Quartet Companion by Robert Winter
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Let's begin with a quiz: "Slowly, slowly, the melody unfolded itself. The archaic Lydian harmonies hung on the air. It was an unimpassioned music, transparent, pure, and crystalline, like a tropical sea, an Alpine lake. Water on water, calm sliding over calm; the according of level horizons and waveless expanses, a counterpoint of serenities." Which famous English author wrote these sentences about Ludwig van Beethoven's String Quartet No. 15 op. 132? (The answer can be found below.)

My fascination with Beethoven's string quartets, particularly the so-called Late Quartets, dates back to the late 1960s or early 1970s, about the same time that I read the novel, which contains the passage quoted above. "The Beethoven Quartet Companion" is a collection of musicological essays edited by Robert Winter and Robert Martin that offer a wealth of information about the quartets, their audiences, and performances. Alas, being totally illiterate in music theory, I can understand only fragments of the text, mostly the ones with sociological bent.

We learn about the audiences of the quartets and about the history of performances in their first 100 years. The third essay deals with an oft-discussed yet still controversial issue of Beethoven's turn from classicism to romanticism. The next chapter, my favorite, is a study of the city of Vienna in Beethoven's times and the sociology of concert goers in those times. The fifth essay presents a player's perspective on performing the quartets. Robert Martin, a member of the Sequoia String Quartet and one of the editors of the collection, writes about the rehearsal process and about various decisions that the performers need to make. The last part of the collection, by far the longest, contains extremely detailed musical analyses of every one out of 17 quartets (the String Quartet in F major is included here, in addition to the canonical sixteen).

Although I love listening to all Beethoven's string quartets, the late ones - the ones that that were termed "incomprehensible and impenetrable", "abstract", and "unsettling" by 1820s listeners - are my favorites. I think it is precisely their "abstractness" (for the lack of a better word) that attracts me. The "Große Fuge" op. 133, which was originally written to serve as the last movement of quartet op. 130, is one of the most awe-inspiring pieces of music I have heard in my life. It has always sounded to me as if it were composed in the Twentieth century rather than in 1826. Igor Stravinsky once said that "Große Fuge" is an "absolutely contemporary piece of music that will be contemporary forever."

Wishing that I could understand at least a little of musical theory, I definitely recommend this collection, as a must read for Beethoven aficionados. (Answer to the quiz: Aldous Huxley, in "Point Counter Point".)

Three and a quarter stars.

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