Beethoven’s Quartets: A Performer’s Perspective
As performing musicians, we need something to hang onto as we attempt to deal with the sheer scope of Beethoven’s imagination. We respond to this music not only with thousands of hours of practice, hundreds of hours of rehearsals, and a continual quest to improve. We also need metaphors. Apart from technical concerns and interpretive decisions, our engagement with this literature is influenced by the stories we tell ourselves about the composer’s temperament, by what we know of his biography, and sometimes even by extra-musical allusions or narratives that have arisen with regard to specific works.
How to achieve the deepest immersion for ourselves and our listeners in Beethoven’s inner world, for example in the slow movements of the late quartets; how to project the titanic strength and the sense of struggle and triumph in the Grosse Fuge or the passion of the finale of opus 132; how to set up the jarring contrasts of emotional extremes that Beethoven often demands: these have been our challenges, whether in performance or in recording.
There is nothing quite like the exhilaration of being swept along by the powerful currents of the Grosse Fuge at the end of Beethoven’s opus 130. We may be tired when we begin this movement near the end of a long concert, but it never fails to galvanize us with a new burst of energy. Going further than one had thought possible, straining the sonic boundaries of the string quartet, content pushing form beyond recognized limits – these strivings in Beethoven’s music inspire performers to outdo themselves. Then there is the exquisite sadness of playing the Cavatina that precedes the Grosse Fuge, or the Mesto from opus 59, no. 1, which sometimes brings tears to my eyes. When we are really open to the depth and mystery of this music, we might remember the loss of loved ones, or feel a tender closeness to the stormy, troubled man – the composer – who struggled so hard to achieve perfection. The pain evoked by music of such quiet power and beauty is assuaged by the opportunity to share it with our listeners.
The best moments amidst all the rigors, challenges, and pleasures of concert life are those in which we no longer have to think about our usual concerns, such as projecting to the audience or even making our intentions rhythmically clear to each other. Such moments don’t come from a conscious effort to forget the audience; they just happen. The solitude in which Beethoven shaped his visions casts its spell over the hall. Everyone is alone, yet together at the same time. Listeners are pulled into that quiet, sometimes painful, sometimes blissful space the music has created within us.
Beethoven told his friend Carl Amenda that he was inspired by the tomb scene of Romeo and Juliet when composing the slow movement of opus 18, no. 1. A sense of foreboding prevails from the first notes, even before the violin spins its long, mournful melody over the pulsating accompaniment. A contrasting theme in the relative major key provides some solace, relief from the prevailing funereal atmosphere. Later, the first theme comes back in the middle voices, but this time it is stormy and defiant, punctuated by the first violin’s florid outbursts. Those fiery gestures recur at key moments; toward the end of the movement, they are undergirded by emphatic chords separated by long silences – a sequence that raises the unfolding of this musical drama to an almost unbearable level of intensity. No composer used silence with such searing effect as Beethoven. One can almost imagine the grief-filled declamations of the lovers being answered by the awful quiet of the tomb. In his handwritten sketches for the movement, over the hushed, sorrowful, final phrase, the composer wrote, “les derniers soupirs” (“the last sighs”).
A more enigmatic marking in Beethoven’s sketches for opus 59, no. 1 tells us that its slow movement, some of the saddest music ever written, brought to mind “a weeping willow or acacia tree upon my brother’s grave” – this at a time when both his brothers were still alive. The most likely explanation of this contradiction between mourning and the literal reality of Beethoven’s life is that he was thinking of a broader definition of the word “brother,” one that embraced all humankind in the sense of Donne’s famous line, “No man is an island.” Perhaps he was alluding to the ideals of brotherhood that he would later express in the Ode to Joy. If so, this intensely personal movement is also a lament on the universal human condition, the inescapable fact of our mortality.
Not even the most intuitive consideration of Beethoven’s personality can ignore the huge impact of ever-increasing deafness on his life and art. It is simply part of what we all learn about this tormented genius early in our lives as music students and aficionados. The question lurking behind this knowledge is whether his condition, especially once Beethoven was profoundly deaf in the last decade of his life, influenced the music he created.
With deafness accentuating his tendency toward social isolation, what mattered most to him was how the music should sound in his head. He was no longer concerned with the acoustical space through which music must travel to reach the ears, minds and hearts of the audience. We should always remember, though, that the greatest composers are distinguished from the rest of us not only by their novel ideas but also by their uncanny ability to “hear” a world of sound, full of detail, color, and texture, in their heads. It is this ability to abstract themselves from the normal, mundane media of sight and sound that has enabled great artists to give us their treasures – and thus transform our world.
The fourth movement of opus 130 is marked Alla danza tedesca, i.e. in the style of a German dance. Beethoven writes a sweet, gently lilting country dance, one of his few evocations of folk music in a large-scale work. But the dance tune is rendered unsimple by the exaggerated dynamic swells in every other measure. The middle section is more emphatic rhythmically, with independent activity in all the voices. Then the original tune returns: after the first violin weaves an elaborate ornamentation of the melody, it is heard again in its barest, simplest form, but without accompaniment, the individual measures of the eight-bar tune rearranged: the last four measures coming first, but played in reverse order, and passed from one instrument to the next with strange shifts of register. It’s as if Beethoven were questioning the naïve simplicity of his tune by no longer allowing a single instrument to play it naturally, in a single, singable register.
The Cavatina, the fifth movement of opus 130, reveals the most intimate, vulnerable side of the composer in a lyrical outpouring that seems to flow from the deepest wellspring of human experience. Indeed, Beethoven confided to a friend that every time he thought of this piece, it brought tears to his eyes. In the middle section, marked beklemmt (choked), the first violin plays a series of fragmentary utterances, rhythmically at odds with the triplet ostinato played by the three lower instruments. Music’s most natural impulse – to spin itself out in melody – seems to be in serious danger, as if the singer of the beautiful melodies of the Cavatina had lost his way. This section is in C-flat major, a key that lies beyond the normal harmonic spectrum and which, in a sense, exists only in relation to other keys. Enharmonically it may seem identical to B major, but not in the hands of string players sensitive to the nuance of its color and to the context in which the key is reached: by a slow, simple stepwise descent from the home key, E-flat, to D-flat, and finally to C-flat. Sometimes I wonder whether Beethoven would have found his way to this strange tonal and rhythmic soundscape had his hearing been normal. The coda of the first movement of the Eroica Symphony, composed more than two decades earlier, descends similarly, but from E-flat to D-flat, and then to a bright, blaringly assertive C-major, something entirely different. After this middle section, the Cavatina’s tender aria returns, but the movement that follows, the Grosse Fuge, smashes all preconceptions about melody, harmony, and structure. The main theme of the fugue is a series of huge, vaulting leaps with jagged rhythmic contours. Here the fragmentation of melody, only hinted at in the two preceding movements, irrevocably changes the musical landscape in an unruly masterpiece that catapults its listeners to the frontier of Modernism.
When the Emerson String Quartet began to perform opus 130 with the Grosse Fuge as its finale, some of its most transgressive moments led me to think of Beethoven as a mad scientist who had discovered and then unleashed a dangerous new form of energy in his laboratory. Years later, the distinguished physicist Brian Greene asked my quartet to provide musical analogies to accompany his lectures on superstring theory. Some of the examples that Brian and I agreed upon were meant to reveal parallels between the histories of physics and of music. For example, Newton’s clockwork conception of the universe was illustrated by a Bach fugue, in a transcription from The Well-Tempered Clavier. For the section of his lecture in which Professor Greene described Einstein’s radical departure from classical physics with the Special Theory of Relativity in 1905, I found a parallel in the breakdown of tonality, exemplified by two works of Webern written around the same time: the Langsamersatz, with its sumptuous melodic lines, and the Fünf Sätze, op. 5, in which the earlier tendency to luxuriate in long lines yields to a compression of the Romantic impulse into brief motivic gestures, whose harmonic language is pungent with dissonance and unmoored from any sense of a keynote.
Apart from historical parallels, some of our selections for the lecture aimed to portray, through a sort of musical onomatopoeia, the physical concepts themselves. The constantly vibrating sub-microscopic loops of energy posited by string theory found a sonic counterpart in the muted, frenetic activity of the Allegro misterioso of Berg’s Lyric Suite.
Superstring theory depends on the hypothesis that all physical phenomena are manifested within multiple dimensions, far beyond the three that are perceptible to our senses and within which we are aware of moving. I had developed a pet theory about the Grosse Fuge, which Brian Greene embraced as the perfect musical mirror for the moment when he asked his listeners to envision those other dimensions.
In the five-octave range in which most string quartet music unfolds, the relentless leaps of the main subject (paired with the syncopated, strenuously emphatic countersubject) cause the four instruments continually to get in each other’s way, because their registers simply aren’t far enough apart. But in Beethoven’s auditory imagination, liberated from the constraints of acoustic reality and augmented by the decades in which he had hammered away at startlingly original ideas in his head, there may have been extra dimensions, so to speak – extra room for the fugal subject to stretch out and claim its own space without jostling the next presentation of the same subject by another instrument. To extend this line of thinking a bit further, one could imagine that the dissonant sparks set off by the confrontation and collision of repeated statements of both subject and countersubject, as well as the counterpoint of equally angular episodic material, were less shocking to Beethoven than they were to the ears of his bewildered contemporaries. Was this because his untethering from the auditory world had impaired his ability to compose? On the contrary, it enabled him to continue on his maverick path, in which (in every period of his output, but especially in the late music) he discovered new vistas and extended the realm of the possible.
Do I believe literally in my theory about the extra dimensions within Beethoven’s musical imagination? Perhaps – as an illustration of a fascinating scientific concept. What I’m sure I believe is that performers and listeners, when confronted with the astonishing pathways that Beethoven asks us to tread with him, might find it helpful to respond to his soaring, often overpowering imagination with metaphors of their own. We have to expand our emotional range and cognitive horizons to keep up with him.
Parts of this essay have been reworked from my program note for the Emerson String Quartet’s recording of the complete Beethoven quartets, DGG 447075-2, and from my liner notes for a single CD called “Key to the Quartets,” DGG 447083-2.
 For an in-depth consideration of the various French and German translations and revisions of the play that might have been known to Beethoven, see Steven Whiting, “Beethoven Translating Shakespeare: Dramatic Models for the Slow Movement of the String Quartet Op. 18, No. 1,” Journal of the American Musicological Society 71 (2018): 795-838.