Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827): Quartet in F major, Op. 135 Allegretto Vivace Lento assai, cantante e tranquillo Der schwer gefasste Entschluss: Grave, ma non troppo tratto; Allegro
Program Notes by Judith Eckelmeyer
There is a truism to which music lovers and musicians alike tend to subscribe: namely, that music created in a composer's later maturity often has a special cast to it, setting it apart in some fashion from works created in years of youthful essay or of new mastery of the art. Here, at the further end of the career, at the fuller knowledge of life, the composer rarely feels called upon to take up arms in an esthetic crusade or to compete to prove a career-shaping talent to the world. Virtuosity for its own sake is a delusion; witty invention intending to boggle the mind is inane. Here, typically, the composer may finally attend to issues in the art which approach or reflect an inner current of ideas or experiences, free of any expectations but his or her own.
The three compositions on the evening's program offer interesting cases in point. All are from the last year or two of the lives of composers who were in their late fifties and sixties. All three had been recognized, even lionized in their careers, and were in individual ways forced to recognize and work around impediments to achieve creative independence. Beethoven and Smetana had in common their total deafness which had invaded their careers well before these works were composed. Janáček's long-term affair with a married woman, Kamila Stösslová, colored and charged the portrayal of many of his dramatic heroines and influenced some instrumental works; the relationship was eventually to be the indirect cause of his death. Smetana and Janáček wrote consciously nationalistic program music out of their Bohemian and Moravian heritage, respectively; together with Dvorák they became the revered essence of the modern Czech school of composers.
Smetana's second quartet, like its earlier sibling, is autobiographical. To better understand the second, one should know of the first (written in 1876) that it describes an essentially happy, productive man, loving and loved, whose life's coherence is shattered by a hearing disorder heralded by a resounding high pitch. This first quartet, entitled "From My Life," concludes in sounds of dramatic tragedy. The second quartet, written in 1882, is the product and description of Smetana's life in full deafness and very bad health.
In a sense, the second quartet was Smetana's testing of his own compositional capabilities under these terrible impediments, written at a time when his work on an opera (The Devil's Wall) was going poorly. The second quartet harks back to material from the first through allusions to themes and harmonic progressions, yet forges beyond into material that suggests both disturbance and tranquility. Although it opens with great agitation in D minor, the first movement concludes in the relative major, F, and the writing is more loose-jointed and sectional than in the first quartet, but there is no lack of coherence; indeed, Smetana retains deft control of technical effects and employs advanced chromatic shifts of a much bolder stripe than in the earlier quartet.
The first movement presents a struggle among upwardly swirling unison passages, a lyrical melody (related to the first quartet), and a markedly dramatic theme derived from elements of the lyrical theme. The second is a dance movement beginning with a syncopated polka which is interrupted by an impassioned swirling figure; the "trio," although not specifically so named, is a triple-meter dance rhythm. The third movement again begins with swirling unisons that evaporate into a march, first expressed in a controlled fugal section. The finale alternates between gigue-like material and a simple duple song-like version of the gigue theme. The ending passage uses the swirling unison idea in a controlled dancing figure with brilliant major chords to conclude the work.
Janáček's life had not been without struggle, although it would appear that the greater distresses occurred in his earlier years, when from the age of eleven he was forced to earn his own living. His passion for music and for Moravia gave him the impetus to establish an organ school which became the cornerstone of the conservatory in Brno. His studies of the speech rhythms and musical idioms of the Moravian people are fundamental to his compositional style. Like Smetana's, his second quartet is autobiographical; it concerns his relationship with Mrs. Stösslová. Janáček original intended to title the work "Love Letters," but changed his mind to protect his feelings from the eyes of "stupid people." His death some six months after completion the quartet was the result of pneumonia which he contracted, ironically enough, after being chilled while searching for Mrs. Stösslová's young son, who had become lost in the forests near the Janáček home in Hukvaldy.
Preliminary notes in the 1949 Czech edition of the second quartet give the following information: "The first movement describes the impression of the first meeting with Mme. S.; the second concerns the summer events at Luhačovice Spa in Moravia; the third according to the composer is gay, but it melts into a vision 'which resembles...your image;' the fourth is so to say 'The fear for you--however it eventually sounds not [like] fear, but [like] longing and its fulfillment.'"
Technically, Janáček's music often uses a bitterly tense and shrill upper range; in the first and fourth movements this effect is created by all the instruments playing on the bridge; harmonics and extremely high-range normal bowing contribute to the sound especially in the third and fourth movements. On the other hand, there is a contrasting simple, heart-touching warmth brought out in occasional passages, especially in the second movement and toward the end of the fourth. Folk elements of an eastern European flavor are evident in melodic terseness and repetitiveness of themes, modal or pentatonic or modified diatonic scales, and dance rhythms. All of these features can be found to some degree in each movement. Janáček juxtaposed them in kaleidoscopic changes, often with vivid differentiation, sometimes with subtle colors and nuances, while still producing in each movement a distinct character analogous to the usual classic model of allegro, slower lyrical, dance with trio, and fast finale movements.
Beethoven's earlier years have been reviewed for these Museum concerts in connection with his chamber works, but the later years have not received such close attention. About the time that the last string quartets were written, Beethoven was experiencing not only health problems but the psychological pain associated with a difficult relationship with is nephew Karl. Karl had been the object of a long-term feud between the composer and his unsympathetic sister-in-law, Karl's mother, whom Beethoven called "The Queen of the Night." Karl's reaction to the pressure of this struggle, along with his efforts to establish his own life and circle of friends, caused Beethoven intense emotional anguish, which was certainly exacerbated by Karl's suicide attempt in July 1826. Beethoven began work on the F-major quartet, Op. 135, about that time and, ill and depressed, completed in in October. It would be his last completed work.
The compositional style in Beethoven's last quartets, like that in the ninth symphony, pulls at large issues that consume an entire opus. In their article on the composer in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Joseph Kerman and Alan Tyson suggest that his instrumental music "seems painfully to strive for articulate communication;" that in pursuit of the variation procedures--a favorite occupation throughout his career--Beethoven effects a "changing concept of musical unity, now seen as an evolution from within rather than a conciliation of contrasting forces: a Darwinian concept, perhaps, rather than a Hegelian one." This reaching toward radical--i.e., root--issues in musical composition appears to have taken Beethoven to the extreme of then-possible techniques, demanding extraordinary intensity and stamina of instrumentalists, singers, conductors, and audiences. The "dissociated" effect of the Op. 130 quartet with its monumental coda, the Grosse Fuge, and the infinitely unfolding, continuous seven-movement Op. 131 quartet with its stretching toward a universal embrace of all styles and keys and effects are contrasted by what Kerman and Tyson call a "sunny exercise in Classical nostalgia"--the final quartet.
But in Op. 135, Beethoven sidesteps convention in unusual ways. This work was the fulfillment of a promise, an obligation with which Beethoven may not have been fully acquiescent. The writing is "sunny" and "Classical," but there is a tone, an undercurrent of irony and sarcasm that tints the work. Is the slow third-movement opening theme just a bit too simplistic? Are the range extremes and rhythmic conplexities that overload the end of the movement a kind of joking inversion of the almost static beginning? (One can almost image Beethoven setting a bear trap of this sort to spite the obligation!) The final movement, with the captioned motive "Muss es sein?" (Must it be?) inverted to the answer "Es muss sein!" (It must be!), begins as a parody on the soul-searching, cosmic Faustian struggle against...fate? the dark night of the soul? the publisher? The glibness of a cheerful, unbloody victory permeates the allegro material. But was it, indeed, the payment of Beethoven's fee which gleefully "must be?" The second posing of the motivic question is so much more intense and protracted that we may suspect, at that moment, like the Commendatore's statue at Don Giovanni's dinner party that "other, more serious matters have brought him here!"