Beethoven’s Quartets: A Performer’s Perspective

Beethoven’s Quartets: A Performer’s Perspective
Eugene Drucker

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”).[1]

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.

[1] 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.

Five Faculty Members Receive Tenure

On this Mentor Monday, we are feeling extremely proud to announce that five of our faculty members have recently received tenure and the rank of Associate Professor. Congratulations to Benjamin Tausig, Erika Supria Honisch, Maggie Adams, Matthew Barnson, and Stephen Smith!

Virtual Composers Concert

On Tuesday, September 22, Stony Brook Composers presented their first virtual concert.

Kevin Kay – thoughts on imperceptibility 7″ [pre-recorded audio/video]
John Ling – Aloft 3′ [pre-recorded audio/video]
John Ling – Argot 2′ [pre-recorded audio/video]
Sam Beebe – Pretty Saro Orbital 10′ [pre-recorded audio/video]
David Crowell – Luna 8.5′ (

Curated by Kevin Kay
Edited by Nicholas Nelson




Interview with Christina Dahl, Professor of Piano

Our new Mentor Monday series features interviews with our faculty by their own students. In our first episode, DMA candidate (and marketing TA) Kathryn Vetter interviews Tina Dahl, Director of Graduate Studies and Professor of Piano.

ICYMI: DMA candidate (and marketing TA) Kathryn Vetter interviews Tina Dahl, Director of Graduate Studies and Piano…

Posted by Stony Brook University Music Department on Tuesday, September 1, 2020

The Art of the Violin at Home

During the academic year, students from Jennifer Frautschi’s violin studio perform six times per year in the Melville Library Atrium in a concert series we call “The Art of the Violin.” When the quaratine cut the season short, Jennifer and her students created their own concert over the summer. This compilation videos features performances by Annaliese Kowert, Heejeon Ahn, Maya Lorenzen, Miki Aoki, Yeri Roh, and Jennifer Frautschi.

Reinhold Gliere: Berceuse from Eight Pieces for Violin and Cello
Annaliese Kowert, violin
Nicholas Gold, cello
recorded June 19, 2020 in Nashville, TN

J.S. Bach, Solo Sonata No.3 in C major; 3rd movement: Largo
Heejeon Ahn, violin
Recorded June 30th, 2020 in Seoul, South Korea

Ludwig van Beethoven, Sonata No. 4 for Piano and Violin in A minor, op.23
2nd movement: Andante scherzoso, più allegretto
Maya Lorenzen, violin & Miki Aoki, piano
recorded May 31, 2020 in NYC

Paganini Caprice No. 11
Yeri Roh, violin
Recorded June 2020 in Seoul, South Korea

Two Bartok Duos for Two Violins: Ruthenian Komelka (Scherzo)
Jennifer Frautschi, violin & Laura Frautschi, violin
Recorded June 25, 2020 in Manhattan, NY


The Preludes Project: In Spring 2020, in light of the recent Covid-19 pandemic, current and former Stony Brook pianists prepared an online series of short preludes over a series of episodes on Facebook and Instagram.

Anna Betka
Gershwin Prelude No.1
Daniel Anastasio
Karpralova April Prelude No.1
Scriabin Album Leaf op. 45 no.
Kapralova’s April Prelude No. 4
Jacqueline Leung
Scriabin Op. 11 No. 3 Prelude in G major
Nhi Huynh
Scriabin Preludes Op.37 No.1 & 2
Yerin Kim
Debussy Prelude Book I No.7: “Ce qu’a vu le vent d’ouest” (What the west wind saw)
Madeline Hildebrand
Debussy Prelude Book II No.3 “La puerta del Vino” (Wine Gate)
Miki Aoki
Debussy “Prelude Book II No.12: “Feux d’artifice” (Fireworks)
Arielle Levioff
Rachmaninoff Prelude in C minor, Op. 23 No. 7
Marlene McCarthy
Rachmaninoff Prelude in D Major, Op.23 No.4
Spencer Myer
Rachmaninoff Prelude in G Major, Op.32 No.5
Seba Ali
Rachmaninoff Prelude in B minor, Op.32 No.10

Online Music Ensembles for Students

Music Department Student Ensembles – Fall 2020
All Stony Brook students are eligible to participate in Music Department ensembles. These 1-credit classes are offered completely online in Fall 2020:

Stony Brook Chorale – MUS 261
Monday evenings
Camerata Singers – MUS 271
Wednesday Evenings
Conducted by Shoshana Hershkowitz

Stony Brook Choral Ensembles will be holding auditions via Zoom for new members on August 24th and August 26th from 6-8:30 pm. Sign up online here: Students should prepare a song they are comfortable singing. Students auditioning for Camerata Singers should be prepared to sight sing an 8 measure exercise. All students who are interested will be placed in a choral ensemble.

West African Drumming and Dance – MUS 235 and MUS 335
Thursday Evenings
Conducted by JB Gnonlonfoun
MUS 235 and MUS 335 classes online this fall 2020 will consist of history, live performance videos watching and discussion, interviews of professional  performers, singing and dancing of selected West African drumming pieces from Ghana, Benin and Togo.
Marching Arts Appreciation – MUS 268 (SBU Athletic Band)

Monday evenings (but can be completely asynchronous)
Directed by Justin Stolarik
For Fall 2020 only, this fun 1-credit online course will focus on the marching arts and band culture, while also offering virtual performance and limited in-person opportunities for those interested. Exposure to multiple styles of marching bands and other unique musical genres will broaden your cultural knowledge of music. Weekly seminars in special topics such as the basics of conducting, score reading, and arranging, as well as teaching and leadership fundamentals, will develop rudimentary and intermediate knowledge of the arts and musical leadership. MUS 268 can be taken both synchronously (Mondays 7:00p-9:00p EDT) or asynchronously (or a combination of both), and allows you to pick and choose topics/activities based on your interests. There is no requirement for access to musical instruments or equipment. Experience reading music is suggested but not required. Open to all students.
University Orchestra – MUS 262
Tuesday Evenings
Conducted by Susan Deaver

The University Orchestra is open to non-majors as well as Music Majors/Minors and is usually an orchestra of 75 undergraduate students.  This fall the University Orchestra will meet online on Tuesday evenings between 6:30 and 9:20 p.m with the projected goal of recording and producing a “virtual” concert. Auditioning students should send a link to their audition video to Susan Deaver, conductor of the University Orchestra at  Audition Video Requirements (limit video to five-minutes or less and submit by August 23 if possible):  include two short contrasting sections of a solo or concerto of the student’s choice OR two contrasting orchestra excerpts from Continuing members of the University Orchestra do not need to re-audition although they do have the option to do so if they wish.

Jazz Ensemble – MUS 264
Monday Evenings
Jazz Combos – MUS 267 or MUS 289
Beginning Improvisation – MUS 189
Directed by Ray Anderson
Everyone should first register for the classes. If you have already been in an ensemble you probably won’t need to audition. Professor Anderson will contact you to let you know. Intro video.

We will study Jazz through the lens of small jazz ensembles. We will concentrate on the two essential tensions in the music: between composition and improvisation, and between individual and group. There will be an emphasis on the Afro-American cultural roots of the music. We will be exploring both individual and group styles of expression, tracing influences and innovations. We meet once a week to discuss what we’re working on and listen to each other.

We will study Jazz and Improvised music through the lens of the big band. We will be studying history, analyzing scores, and listening intently to study balance, blend, articulation, dynamics, style and expression. There will be an emphasis on the Afro-American cultural roots of the music. Over the 12 weeks of the semester we will concentrate on 4 different big band arrangements. If possible, we will assemble a recording of these by combining everyone’s recorded parts. There will be guest lecturers coming to share their professional history and insights.

In this course you will learn to play jazz by practicing daily on your instrument and playing in class. Harmony, melody, phrasing, rhythm and the study of the African-American roots of jazz will be included.

Wind Ensemble – MUS 263
Wednesday Evenings
Conducted by Bruce Engel

The Stony Brook Wind Ensemble (Symphonic Band) explores, rehearses, and performs the great classics from Bach to Broadway. Due to the Covid-19 circumstances, special attention may be given to the performance of chamber wind ensemble works. This may necessitate, duo, trio, quartet, etc. preparation and production of wind ensemble and chamber wind works. The course will meet synchronously (during designated class time), Wednesday evenings from 6:00-8:45 PM) with the possibility of synchronous meetings if deemed necessary. All classes will meet via Zoom. A video will be produced as the culmination of the semester’s work. All students will be required to have a microphone and camera set up on their computer, as weekly individual submissions of the practiced and prepared music will be required. All students are welcome but new members are required to audition for seating placement only.

Undergraduate Chamber Music – MUS 391
Meeting times based on members’ schedules
Directed by Joanna Kaczorowska
Auditions for placement will take place on Wednesday, August 26 from 12:00 – 2:00 pm. Email for audition information.

Musicology Professor Erika Honisch Featured on the Premiere of “Sound Expertise”

Episode 101 of Sound Expertise

honischWhat if harmony isn’t just about sounding good, but also about living together in a fractious time? How did sacred music in early modern Prague shape how people of different faiths existed alongside each other? A conversation with Erika Supria Honisch, Assistant Professor of History/Theory (and Affiliate Faculty in History Department) at Stony Brook University.

If you’re interested in learning more about Prof Honisch’s work, follow her on Twitter as @DrCanonic and check out:

Sound Expertise is hosted by Will Robin (@seatedovation), and produced by D. Edward Davis (@warmsilence). Please subscribe via Apple PodcastsStitcher, and/or Spotify. Questions or comments? Email williamlrobin@ gmail

Using Violin Synchronization to Learn About Better Networking

Sixteen violinists participating in the networking experiment in which they are connected to a computer system hearing only the sound received from the computer. Photo by Chen Damari

Sixteen violinists participating in the networking experiment in which they are connected to a computer system hearing only the sound received from the computer. Photo by Chen Damari

Titled “The Synchronization of Complex Human Networks,” the study was conceived by Elad Shniderman, a graduate student in the Department of Music in the College of Arts and Sciences at Stony Brook University, and scientist Moti Fridman, PhD, at the Institute of Nanotechnology and Advanced Materials at Bar-llan University. He co-authored the paper with Daniel Weymouth, PhD, associate professor of Composition and Theory in the Department of Music and scientists at Bar-llan and the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel. The collaboration was initiated at the Fetter Museum of Nanoscience and Art.

The research team devised an experiment involving 16 violinists with electric violins connected to a computer system. Each violinist had sound-canceling headphones, hearing only the sound received from the computer. All violinists played a simple repeating musical phrase and tried to synchronize with other violinists according to what they heard in their headphones.


Full article:

Link to study:

Professor Margarethe Adams Publishes New Book About Postsocialist Music in Kazakhstan

adamsSteppe Dreams: Time, Mediation, and Postsocialist Celebrations in Kazakhstan, Central Eurasia in Context, University of Pittsburgh Press, June 16, 2020.  Amazon link.

Steppe Dreams concerns the political significance of temporality in Kazakhstan, as manifested in public events and performances, and its reverberating effects in the personal lives of Kazakhstanis. Like many holidays in the post-Soviet sphere, public celebrations in Kazakhstan often reflect multiple temporal framings—utopian visions of the future, or romanticized views of the past—which throw light on present-day politics of identity. Adams examines the political, public aspects of temporality and the personal and emotional aspects of these events, providing a view into how time, mighty and unstoppable, is experienced in Kazakhstan.

“This book engagingly describes how time and space, sound and belief, celebration and memory are negotiated by contemporary Kazakhstani citizens. It is a beautifully written work of cultural studies that provides both an overview for the novice and new insights for the expert.”—Laura Adams, Harvard University

“In vigorous and accessible language, Steppe Dreams deftly illuminates post-Soviet Kazakhstan’s ubiquitous culture of public festivity, celebration, and pilgrimage as a window into the construction of Kazakhstani nationhood. Margarethe Adams is an insightful ethnographer and graceful writer whose broad knowledge of life in Kazakhstan comes alive on every page.”—Theodore Levin, Arthur R. Virgin Professor of Music, Dartmouth College

“Margarethe Adams shows us that the Soviet past is never past, that time lingers in pools of memory, structures, habits, celebrations, the arts and politics. The legacies of a transformative empire endure even in the visions of an alternative future in what seems a precarious and unending pursuit of an elusive happiness. Based on extensive fieldwork in Kazakhstan, Adams explores the nationalizing processes in the independent post-Soviet republic — the revival of Kazakh folk music, the calendar of holidays new and old – as well as the stubborn ideological reminders of the Soviet era. This is a masterwork of thick description of complex cultures in flux that speaks to larger theoretical issues of temporality, memory, and the affective affiliations to nation.”—Ronald Grigor Suny, The University of Michigan

About the Author
Margarethe Adams, assistant professor at Stony Brook University, is an ethnomusicologist specializing in music and popular culture in Central Asia. She has conducted ethnographic research in Kazakhstan, northwest China, and Mongolia, and has published in Collaborative Anthropologies and The SAGE International Encyclopedia of Music and Culture. Her work investigates temporality and politics in postsocialist culture, and her current research examines popular forms of religion and spirituality, including Muslim pilgrimage, religious healing, and Korean evangelical practices in Kazakhstan.

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