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Posted on November 30th, 2019 by

Reflections on playing Beethoven Op 132 30 11 19

Writing about performance is necessarily reflective. In my case, I finish a concert, travel home, and then sink into a black of hole of ‘I am never going to play again’ which is the corollary to the momentary rush of optimism experienced between the final notes of a performance and getting to the green room

Like many musicians, I read George Antheil’s brilliant autobiography Bad Boy of Music when I was young, and was very struck by his successful attempt at a present-tense report of his own performance of a Beethoven piano sonata, with its highs, lows, panics, mind-wandering, disaster narrowly averted, and eventual completion. He concluded his roller-coaster existential narrative with the thought, “What a way to make a living!”

By way of contrast or equivalence, I came off stage after last night’s reading of Op 132 with thinking : ‘For the first two minutes of that, I just wanted it to end – for the remaining 40, I wanted it to never finish!’

So here’s a fairly lightfoot overview of what happens when you play a piece like this, the view from here if you like. Here’s one way of representing that.

Connections, from my seat, in Beethoven layout -audience to the right

This might seem a little fanciful, but it is central to chamber music. The crucial communication is between instrument to instrument. I know that lots of people use eye-contact, but with violins, violas and cellos, it’s far less useful, visually than the information that come from bodily movements (from fingers upwards) and playing-points-of contact. None of these is any where close to be as important as listening, which is matched in importance by breathing and the sense of breath. And all of these things are shared with, and incorporate the listeners/watchers. A piece like op 132 does not begin to happen until it is shared (I am not sure that ‘perform’ is the right word), and the state of grace which it not only elicits, but demands, is incumbent on it being witnessed, together. My drawing represents some of the ways that these things influence each other, seen from my point of view, at the violin. At various times performing, I am struck by one or more of these strands, and by the fact that everyone in the room has their own version of them.

Some notes about the piece, from yesterday. Movement by movement, category by category. To begin with:


1st Movement: this has two basic tempi ‘Allegro’ and ‘Adagio’, and a prelude/motto/prologue, marked ‘Assai sonsenuto’. All the way through the quartet, we have to ask questions about ‘relative speeds’ between fast and slow tempo indications, but also, between fast and slow notes. This may sound obtusely simplistic, but, it is a question that has to come up, as Beethoven sets up the intrrelationships in the first movement so that it reflects these immutable (apparently) proportional relationship – semibreve, minim, crochet, quaver. To clarify. Here’s the opening ‘Assai sonatenuto’ in mansuscript.

Bars 1-4 Op 132 1st movement MS

Look at my part, the top line, in bars 3-4. Now this from the Allegro section:

Bars 103-106 1st Movement MS

It’s a tonal version of the same figure, which appears in the violin part in exactly the same pitches, 5 bars later. From this it will be clear that Beethoven wants there to be a close relationship between the speed of the minims in the opening ‘assai sostenuto’ and the semibreves of the Allegro section. Please note that I am not saying that they are THE SAME.

Now look at this:

Bars 131 – 133 Op 132 1st mvt Ms

This is the transition from one of the ‘adagio’ interpolations and the ‘allegro’ (here ‘tempo allegro’) sections. Look tat the 5th & 6th notes of violin 1, and now the viola/cello in bar 132, and the violins in bar 133. It should be clear that the composer is implying a correlation between, dotted crochet quaver and dotted minim crochet. This is not quite the same as saying that minim in Adagio is the same as a semibreve in the Allegro, but pushing in that direction.

Now just in the abstract, imagine the difference between the two tempo relationships I have described, and feel the unease non-agreement between the resulting sense of the speeds for the Adagio and Assai sostenuto sections. This vibrating almost-but-not-quite sense of tempo is at the foundation of every movement of the quartet.

2nd Movement: The whole of the movement is marked ‘Allegro ma non tanto’, and we are taunted, as players, the whole stretch of the movement as to whether it is a ‘minuet’ or a ‘scherzo’. I rather suspect that Beethoven was too. Here’s the opening:

Bars 1-5 2nd Movement Op 132 MS

There’s a fantastic sense of determined confidence about this writing, which might make you think that this was a Rheinschrift (fair copy), were it not for the reworkings and fascinating errors that creep in later.

Here’s the transition from the A to B sections- the trio, beginning with, perhaps, one of the most beautiful thing that was every written for two : violins, a ‘duo angelico’

Op 132 2nd Mvt. 117-124

There’s an immediate question about how the ONE two three, ONE two three ‘taktus’ of the A section should be lifted over into the aerial B section. Of course, Beethoven had done something like this before, in the Minuet and trio of his A Major Quartet Op 18 no 5. Two violins by themselves making noble magic. Playing the Op 132, I have this quartet in the back of my mind the whole time.

Op 18 No 5 Minuetto 1st Score. 1829 Offenbach Paris

But the movement is not free of notated tempo relations. The end of the ‘trio’ section is interrupted by what can sound like a comic parody of 12 seconds of the the Grosse Fuge (which, indeed, Beethoven composed in the summer and autumn of 1825, hard on the heels of Op 132.

Op 132 2nd Movement Bars 218 223

Of course one might argue that this is not a tempo change – after all, we have the marking ‘l’istesso temp’ (the same speed). But ironically, playing the crochets the same speed, which is what this means, ensures that there is a radical change in the pulse, tying this triple time movement to the duple-time movements and sections all around it.

Interestingly, almost immediately upon finishing this quartet, Beethoven embarked upon an even more disruptive way of incorporating minimum pulse into a triple-time movement, without using the structural apparatus as here. Here’s part of the Vivace movement from the F Major Op 135 Quartet.

Op 135, 2nd Mvt Bars 17 + Schlesinger Edition 1829

Here, seven minims are set ticking, syncopated against the down beats of bars 1,3 and 5, before slipping back into 3/4, without the audience noticing. This is effectively a rhythmic pun, and is very ‘slippery’ to play, something which is a feature of Op 132.

But the reason, for this interruption, revealing the composer’s structural conscience, or perhaps more kindly, his structural brilliance: He’s got to find a justification for this!

Op 132 Alla Marci (4th-5th Mvt transition)

Beethoven was the first generation of Germans speakers who had the opportunity to grow up reading (and recommending reading) Shakespeare, most particularly the Tieck/Schlegel translations (which my English teacher at school insisted were as good as the original. For German speakers, they certainly are as important to them, as the English is for us). I suspect that one thing which he would have loved (I do) in Shakespeare, is the use of ‘prolepsis’, or dramatic irony. Put simply, prolepsis insists that in order to introduce a significant object, or today, we might say ‘plot point’ (ugh) it has to be foreshadowed. Bartok was tortured by it – in the first movement of his 3rd Quartet you can find a completely redundant downward glissando in the 2nd violin part which has one function – to justify the descending screeching and bomb blasts with which the quartet ends. An example in Skakespeare would be the how he sets up the famous basket of asps which are brought to Cleopatra in the last act of Antony & Cleopatra. In Act 1 scene 2 of the same, Charmian says: ‘Oh, excellent! I love long life better than figs.’

In Beethoven’s case, he is setting up the way that the Alla Marcia stumbles forward ‘piu allegro’ to set up the melodramatic cadenza and ‘dying fall’ of the first violin. The tempo and the mood, are prefigured, ‘better than figs’ by the 2/2 ‘l’istesso tempo’ in the 2nd movement. Clever, no?

Now, I need coffee. Beethoven would sympathize: he was a coffee snob, and insisted on 60 beans per cup. A ristretto for sure. While I have been writing, this has been going on outside – the view from right where I am sitting. Time to write about the Heiliger Dankgesang, for sure.

The view from my desk while I have been writing about Beethoven.

3rd Movement: This movement has the most unwieldly, and one of the most justifiably famous titles of any movement of classical music- “Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit, in der lydischen Tonart” (“Holy song of thanksgiving of a convalescent to the Deity, in the Lydian mode”). The movement consists of three manifestations the ‘holy song’ in the Lydian F (which as Beethoven notes on the MS, replaces B flat with B natural) interleaved with two ‘Andantes’ with the title “Neue Kraft fühlend” (feeling new strength) in D Major. The question for any quartet, is, how to manage the change between the sections, and if there is a perceivable relationship between the tempi. Beethoven gives little away, except this:

Op 132 Third Movement Bars 80 – 88

This is the transition from the first ‘Andante’ back to the ‘Molto Adagio’. Both in this quartet, and Op 135, Beethoven toyed with inventive ways of dovetailing ends and beginnings. Put bluntly, the first chord of the ‘Molto Adagio’ (F Major Ia) is the last note of the previous section. Beethoven has gone a stage further and placed the key signature in each part after this note, which is fun, because, if you look carefully (and like this kind of thing, the second violin key signature comes one quaver before everyone else’s.

Rather bizarrely, modern Urtext editions of this movement deny Beethoven his mid bar key signature, but allow it when he approached a similar problem in the transition of Op 135 ‘Assai Lento’. Odd.

close up -the Vln1, Va and Vc have a dotted crochet chord, the V2 a crochet

When you play from the pair of tied staccato quaver chord from the last beat of 181, get 1 2 &, 12 &, 1[barline] &&, (123) a lilting minuet figure on the upbeats, which settles on the second beat of 84, but needs, primarily visually to be a full dotted crochet, to make the link back the ‘Andante’ clear, even as the 2nd violin peels away to restart the decorated version of the Andante. This ‘hemiola’ has something of effect of a rallentando (it’s an illusion), but, we find, helps to increase a sense of an intimate relationship between the two tempi, which must be honoured in the speeds chosen. Naturally, I will come back to this movement.

Fourth Movement plus: This is closest that Beethoven comes to including a ‘bagatelle’ in his late quartets. Were it not for the ‘attaca subito’ at the end, this could stand by itself, or very well has part of his Op 119 or 126 sets. At first sight, it looks very simple. But then you play it, and you realise that the rhythmic games have begun from the very first notes

Op 132 4th Mvt. Bars 1-3

For the listener (ideally not looking at the score), it will be impossible to tell whether the first entry is an upbeat or downbeat. This effect is exaggerated by the first notes just being played by the first violin, and by the droop of each phrase. This gaming with the bar line, of course, began in the second movement, and I have already written about this on a previous post. LINK

Look at this.

Beethoven Op 95 3rd Mvt Bar 1

When I was 15 years old, my very serious string quartet was play the Op 95- the F minor Quartet. We went for a coaching session with the lovely Rosemary Rapaport (1918-2011) at her cottage in the Olney (Buckinghamshire). We were playing this scherzo movement. Halfway through afternoon, Sir Thomas Armstrong came in, and decided to take part in the coaching. Interestingly, he opted to not look at the music, and to coach from memory. His memory had not served him well, as he had forgotten that Beethoven has played the same ‘upbeat trick’ here as in Op 132. So he proceeded to very gently admonish us for making the downbeat sound in the wrong (right) place. No one, including Rosemary Rapaport, enlightened him. When he left she smiled: ‘ I think I’ll tell him later’.

But back to the Op 132: the crucial question, as Beethoven is so clearly playing with movement interweaving, is where does this movement, this tempo come from. I would argue that he is using what I would call a ‘Usual Suspects’ devic (if you know the film, there’s a dropped mug of coffee). As well as setting up the recitative/cadenza which follows, the march quality reveals, after the fact, the military undertow to the first movement, forcing the memory to relive passages with the even tread of a marching column beneath them. Such as this:

Op 132 Mvt 1 67-69

In Between: Piu Allegro: The actress Sarah Bernhardt, it was rumoured, when handed a new play, would ask ‘ and when do I die in it?’. As something of a drama queen myself, I can identify with this, and it helps discuss this movement of the quartet.

Beethoven Op 132, 5th (yes) 5th movement, Bars 1-6

This is one of the moments in the quartet repertoire, when, let’s face it, all the notions of the ‘democratic’ medium, go out of the window. It’s only 20 seconds long, but brings together elements of tragic melodrama, concerto writing, and operatic recitative, before leaving the first violin and a moment of extreme pathos, alone (this last is something that happens comparatively rarely in Viennese chamber music).

Of course, the instrumental recitative is a recurring trope in Beethoven’s output. In his 9th Symphony which occupied him from 1822-1824, he was inspired by the playing of the great Venetian double-bassist to include extraordinary outbursts for the bassi and celli. Dragonetti insisted, at the London premiere, it seems, on playing these passages tout seul.

Cello/bass recitative from the 9th Symphony

And the accompanied recit., of the most operatic nature, appears in his chamber music, at various stages. The most stage-ey is without doubt, the rhythmically notated example which begins the last movement of his beautiful String Quintet Op 29.

String Quintet Op 29 4th Movement

Ironically, I suspect that it is this passage which has been partially responsible for the long-term neglect of this masterpiece – maybe a sense that it really wasn’t ‘quite the thing’. But the texture, and the precipitate drama pre-empts Op 132. I have (see above) talked about the structural ‘justification’ for this ‘piu allegro’. But the thing I find most moving/disturbing, is the very last gesture:

Op 132 5th Movement Bars 19-22

The first thing little observation to make about this relates to the prolepsis which I talked about earlier. Throughout the piece, the rising and fall of a semitone, has been not only the heart of the thematic material, but has been overtly discussed, toyed with, joked about, handed about, bandied about even! It’s the very first thing we hear. There is nothing subtle about it, in fact, one might say the constant hectoring, harping on about it, lacks a certain bon ton: as if Beethoven would have cared about that. This last bar of the recitative is the reason for all that. Beethoven isolates the interval, rising and falling, marked smorzando. Dying. I have always believed that Beethoven’s expressive marks should not be seen as neither simile, or metaphor. He means them: a ‘death’ is absolutely that. Death.

Which brings us to the function of the movement and the meaning of what follows, which I insist is the sixth movement. We have, minutes earlier spent a long time with a Heiliger Dankgesang, a song of thanks ‘an die Gottheit’ of a convalescent. Now I get myself into potentially deep water here: such a lot of energy, much of it coming from Beethoven himself, has gone into the presentation of the composer as the ultimate humanist, but much of the drama of a work such as this quartet can be seen as biblical. The ‘Feeling New Strength’ section of the ‘song of holy thanks’ always has me thinking of Christ by the Bethseda pool, and the response of the man criticised for ‘taking up his bed’ on the sabbath:

‘ He answered them, He that made me whole, the same said unto me, Take up thy bed, and walk’

King James Bible, John 5:11

The great slow movement, with it’s great effortful raisings into birdsong-filled, elysian andantes, mirroring the to-and-fro from allegros to exhausted adagios in the opening movement; these set the model, the justification for, if you like, the greater miracle, the answer to the greatest question. That is, what can follow the collapse, the death, at the end of the recitative. For, unlike Keats, Beethoven was never ‘half in love with easeful Death’. The question, for him, for his quartet, was and is, ‘what comes next’? And I will come to that tomorrow.

A helpful interjection from a composer. My dear friend in Nashville, Michael Alec Rose, has helped me with articulating better (much better what we might say about the move from Recitativo to Finale. This is marvellous. ‘ In the Pilgrim’s Progress from fifth-movement recitative to sixth-movement aria, there is (for me) an absolute communion between the two spiritual conditions.  My favorite Recitativo of all is at the heart of Opus 110, where Beethoven makes the idiomatic capacity of the piano to juxtapose “p” and “f” (in the shattering set of repeated notes) into a moment that is at once immanent (humane) and transcendent (divine).  Your un-democratic solo in Opus 132 proposes something even more radical, for you are forced to carry the burden of the entire quartet on your singular shoulders, to speak as one for all, not only as a Man, and certainly not blasphemously as God, but perhaps like Blake, to the Angel in the Tree.  For there is nothing in Heaven that is not also here on Earth.  Swedenborg was wrong about everything except for this, his greatest breakthrough, the correspondence of this life and Eternal Life, which undoes any distinction between the humane and the divine. ‘

Michael Alec Rose – E mail to PSS 1 12 19

Intermezzo & a Sonic Boom 1 12 19

I was distracted from writing, early this morning, or late last night, by a thump that filled the sky. No alarms went off, and I could see or hear nothing when I lent out of the window over the park. It was around 4 am, so the birds in the blackthorn under the window were bravely singing for dawn. They didn’t seem too disturbed: found out this morning that was the sonic boom from RAF Typhoons, scrambled to intercept an unregistered aircraft. A tiny moment of drama, and then quiet and the robin singing under the window.

I have been writing about tempo, and how tempos relate to each other, and perhaps more to the point, how to we find that tempo, the heart of the piece, if you like, which allows all tempos to emerge as the beats of the whole. Before I go on with this, I have to note that this searching reflects the communication between the players, in every particular, in the space in which they work, both on the page and on the stage, which are, in so many ways the same. Here, a quick example:

Op 132 Sixth Movement Bars 67-71

Look at this extract from the last movement Allegro Appassionato , and just think of it spatially, from my selfish point of view. My melody, beginning with our omnipresent semitone, hovers, swoops down octave then the same semitone to the minor ninth, then back up again, like a lazy Apus Apus, a common swift. The space there is pitch: down-and-up. The cello, viola and 2nd violin, who are trying to dissuade from my continuing insistence that the up-beat is the down-beat (echoing the Trio or Mvt 2), interject with a series of rising, semi-arched, quaver gestures (each ending on our semitone), and are arranged so that their successive entries, a tenth, then a ninth apart, gently contradict my line as it falls. There’s a counterbalance between the solo line, and the relay-team effect below, visible on the score.

But there’s more: seen from where I sit, the cello line begins low down to my left-the G string on the cello almost out of my eyeline, then Neil’s bow arches across the instrument to hand it to Clifton, at my half-past-ten, and the line does the same, now clearly left to right – to Mihailo at my twelve before arching off to the right. Here are the notes and movement, from my p.o.v.:

Bars 67-71 in space, from my seat

I find this useful, because this is the way musicians experience music in the performance space, and from their particular perches. My memory and feeling for a score (even of music which I play alone), is partially like this, with this addition, the view from my end of the violin, of the shapes of right and left hand, making my shape.

A and E strings running from bottom to top-the right left right sweep of each hand over the strings ad fingerboard above. The same passage

Of course, the distances on the violin are centimetres and not metres-but they are next to my face, so dramatically large.

So in this first interjection about communication between the players, I have just illustrated the music moving in space, being handed around, and across the instruments. Next I will talk about how the actual human interaction and interference takes part in this.

The conversation (still putting off the last movement) 1 12 19 (Pm)

In order to get a glimpse of what the conversation that goes on in chamber music might be about. I know that this might be a little hopeful, like trying to get a sense of the significance of the 1938 world record run of the LNER Pacific Mallard by thinking about the relationship between the engine’s fireman and the driver, but it is a way in, and there’s a chance that examining the process might reveal something of the essence of the material.

Clifton Harrison and Mihailo Trandafilovski in rehearsal. The last mvt of Op 132 on my stand. November 2019

This picture sums it up: the way that a quartet talks in rehearsal mirrors the way that they ‘talk’ with the instruments: All at once, not so much seeking agreement, as possibilities, provisional decisions, vibrating dissonances, significant silences. I think that it’s best if I illustrate how these discussions result in musical and technical intercommunications in the ‘real-time’ situation of performance.

But first of all, a fact: No one ‘leads’ a quartet. At any given time, one or more people will be communicating more or less information about when and who them might play, and at the same time, one or more people will be deciding how they are going to use that information. A completely vertical attack is almost never what we will be looking for: the way that I like to think of the alignment of a chord, from bass to treble, is to think about the prows of shops, which might range from the straight up-and-down of a 1930’s cargo ship, to the ram of a Greek Trireme, or the backward slope of a HMS Warspite, or Cutty Sark, or the curve of a native American Canoe … I won’t go on. This thinking can be applied to the decisions that go on the whole time about where notes are placed, and how we relate all these decisions to the many ways that we might be using rhythm, pulse, time, relative to the score and to each other.

The bow of HMS Warspite, from a 1930’s cutaway illustration

Sometimes, the most interesting parts of these ‘when to play?’ questions, pertain to the nature of the attack. There’s almost never a time, or a call, for us to play ‘BANG!!!!!’, like the sound of a balloon exploding. Much of the time, the sensation is more akin to gently putting the foot of a heavy glass onto a an oak table covered with a thick linen table cloth, or plucking a dandelion clock without the seeds coming off. I am only talking about issues of ictus and timing here, as an illustration of one aspect of the complexity of how the onstage conversation between four people works – or does not.

So let me raise a few of the questions which come up in rehearsal. I have to remind myself that 90% of the conversations/arguments/resolutions that happen in chamber music are had with the instruments, not spoken. I am always shocked in orchestral rehearsal at how much conversation is going on, and how little of it is of actual importance to the music.

Perhaps I am more shocked, if I am honest, by the lack of interest and understanding shown by members of the fourth estate in the techne of such conversations and the how decisions are rooted in deep enquiry into the music, the instruments and ourselves. I spent 30 minutes last night watching a brain-numbingly ill-informed video by a respected critic on the subject of ‘great’ string playing which kept talking about ‘good sound’. That is simply something that we don’t talk about (imagine Van Dyke saying – ‘What I am aiming at here, is good painting’?), and it’s clear that the hunt for the ‘truth is beauty’ paradox sails over the head of many critics, as they choose their ‘building a library’ recordings. Rant over

Op 132. 6th Mvt Bars 90-93

So we will begin with the second appearance of the rondo theme in the last movement of Op 132 – this theme was originally intended for the last movement of the 9th Symphony. The Viola, Cello and Second Violin impulse on each bar could serve as a notated model for the vertical-alignment questions that I am talking about above. Each bar is ‘1& 2 [3]&’ but nobody enters or moves together. In addition, in the first two bars each player enters at the bottom of a mini-crescendo from piano, which effectively means that there’s no audible, or visible ‘beginning’ to each note. In fact the only thing that will happened audibly together, is the ‘cut-off’ at the beginning of each bar. Its vital that this Ländler ‘swing’ is set up right, so in rehearsals, there will be verbal and musical discussions of bowing (should the upper lines play ‘up-bow’ in each bar?), dynamics, articulation, while I sit there and make approving (or not) noises, and find out how and if my ‘espressivo’ melody will work with theermerging modus operandi.

The reason that I harped on about these few bars so much, is that every time such interaction happens in or out of rehearsal, it heightens the shared sensibility, suggestibility, to ‘stuff happening’ in performance. There’s a surprising consequence to this. The hardest lesson to learn, as a chamber musician, is how to decide when and if to respond to things that happen. To take this to its extreme; obduracy does not preclude sensitivity – indeed, sometimes, the most sensitive thing that we can do, is to decide to not respond to an impulse, a gesture, but to show that we know, we understand it, and not incorporate it.

So lets talk about one aspect of the back-and-forth which goes on: here a place where Beethoven has explicitly asked for it.

Op 132 Mvt 6 Bars 165-175

I have marked the score here with red brackets showing the leading line, the Hauptstimme. You will see that it begins with the 2nd violin, and jumps back and forth to the 1st, until, at bar 173, the 2nd succeeds in holding on to it for four bars and the 1st sings a counter melody (marked in orange). In between times, each play has to leap down to the bottom of the violin to keep providing support and material to the Ländler ‘Schwung’ I talked about earlier. This ‘hopping’ from solo to accompaniment is very physical, almost muscular.

Just to remind you, that Beethoven clearly always expected the violins to sit opposite each other, which means that this interchange has something of the element of a face-off, and Irving Berlin certainly had his finger on the pulse of chamber music:

Anything you can do, I can do better./I can do anything better than you.

This confrontation, clearly audible and visible to the audience, is one aspect of the collaborative aspect of quartet playing. The question for the players is how to ‘support the line’; how to put enough energy, insitia, into their ‘turn’ with the melody to send it back ‘over the net’ so that can be returned with interest. Beethoven understood this and used it, better than anyone. Next I will turn to how this works with less confrontational, more confirmatory material. I will leave you with Irving Berlin for now:

Any note you can reach, I can go higher./I can sing anything higher than you.

So lets talk about another simple aspect of communication; technical adjustments.We take a dim view of changing a composer’s bowings, particularly when it is clear that so much of how the music works might be tied up with the way that it is shaped. Obvious examples, where it is not only ‘bad form’ but positively sacrilegious to alter a composer’s indications in this regard, would be the slow material of Olivier Messiaen’s Quatuor Pour le Fin Du Temps or John Cage’s Two4. And there’s no question, that for quartet players, the decision to cut across some of the challenging right hand indications in the late quartets is not just an aesthetic, but an ethical quandary, Sometimes, the challenge is not the bowing itself, but the surrounding material, which might require a change of bow in order to set up the consequent phrase or passage in the correct manner technically.

Clifton Harrison and I had a series of entertaining exchanges in rehearsal on this subject, which had a charming outcome in concert. And this is where performance is necessarily different from rehearsal (and where a chamber rehearsal is necessarily different from an orchestral one). One of the important functions of proper rehearsal is that it gives everyone the chance to ‘stand their ground’: I sometimes think about Martin Luther’s famous “Hier stehe ich. Ich kann nicht anders. Amen” ( I am standing here – there’s nothing else that I can do. Amen). He could be a quartet player, making a point, about ‘what happens’: in rehearsal we want to see consequences, not make easy fixes.

However, in concert, the complete opposite is always true, as all of our energy goes into generous collaboration, and communicating the truth of the score without impediment. The most passionately advocated fingering, bowing, colour, or articulation is up for grabs, as we all play with the question of whether or not to respond to a gesture from another player. So in the concert, there was a whiplash exchange from violin to viola, when one of us split a bowing on a tiny bar, in a place we would never even consider doing in rehearsal, and of course, the other player, who had to play the same figure two seconds later, responded with the same split bowing, slightly exaggerated (Cue a shared ‘twinkle’ across the ensemble, and riotous laughter in the green room afterwards). This is one of the delights of chamber playing – the flashes of communication, the musical raised eyebrow, which speak of many hours discussing the fine detail of technique. Such freedom leavens the demands works which can demand all our emotional and technical resources: it is vital to remember that we are, need to be, human.

A reminder that this ‘human-ness’ is our greatest achievement was offered today, in the couple of hours that I spent talking and looking at pictures with photographer Richard Bram in Inigo Jones ‘Queen’s House’ in Greenwich. Behind a door, one of George Romney’s (1734 – 1802) many portrait of Emma. Lady Hamilton (nee Hart) (1765-1815). Here she is a Cassandra, but the power of the picture is that she is so wonderfully human. This is what quartet playing is all about – this truth.

Emma Hamilton as Cassandra (at the Queens House Greenwich) Detail
by George Romney (1734 – 1802)

Duetting 2 12 19

I am going to bring this little exploration of ‘how stuff works’ in Op 132 to a close with a tiny exploration of ‘duetting’, as I will call it.

Op 132 6th Mvt Bars 306-317

This is one of the most extraordinary passages in all the quartet literature, and I mean just from the point of view, of what it feels like to play. Even if we don’t look at the First violin and Cello parts, the brilliance of how Beethoven has constructed the inner dialogue between the Second violin and Viola, takes my breath away. A lesser composer would just have had them burble away in low thirds, but Beethoven plays with cross phrasing, disagreements about syncopation, octave leaps – working with the ebb and flow of their so-watery material, so that it really feels tidal, but like the tide of the Thames 50 metres from here, full of eddies, and dangerous undertows, even when the river is, apparently, placid.

But the collaboration between the two outer parts on the score is unprecedented. Don’t be fooled by the pitch of the cello part – that treble clef works like the tenor line in a choir; one octave lower than written, so that the violin and cello are in octaves.

All the way through the quartet, it seems, Beethoven has been looking towards the idea of presenting the four players as a ‘super instrument’, and here he does it, with what might be seen as heavenly ‘chorale’ for two players, effectively in unison, with one of them (the cello) in the danger area, up the ‘A string’. The effect of this octave/quasi unison, and the technical threat level (high), is that whilst singing for all we are worth, Neil and I have to nurture each other. Effectively, this is duet-playing which might be seen as the equivalent of two climbers roped together on a rock face. As much as we need to sing out, there’s the constant necessity to play ‘into’ each others’ sounds, and to not dislodge each other, or a rock. Catastrophe is a bow stroke away.

And it’s the bow strokes which make this even more interesting. Let’s not forget that Beethoven began his life as a professional string player: my experience of composer/string players (especially those who don’t play any more – Haflid Hallgrimsson, Sadie Harrison, Edward Cowie come to mind) is that they are VERY demanding technically. They know where the danger is, where the work needs to be done, and they demand that we don’t shirk it.

Here’s the same passage, with one of the bowing solutions, without splitting the bowing (see above for this question!).

The same, bowed

The only other solution, if you don’t ‘cheat’ is to bow it the ‘other way around’ (or maybe, and this sometimes happens, to bow it contrary-wise). Beethoven grabs our attention, by demanding that after initial down-bow, we play a LONG up- bow, a slightly shorter down-bow, then the quietest note (High F sharp) with a bow to itself (knowing that we will need to get a lot of hair past the note-use a lot of bow, without ‘lunging’/’bulging’) to set up the following long down bow…and so on. All of this whilst asking for the most precise control of expressive dynamics -we call these shapes, rather prosaically, ‘hair-pins’.

This is a composer who knows that the expression they want does not come from players having an operatic self-regarding moment, but singing for all they are worth at the same time as having to pay extreme attention to each other, to the intonation, the nightmarish bow distribution, and extremely precise control of volume and intensity. Freedom comes from total control, and that total control means sacrificing all apparent personal freedom to each other (mutually), to the composer/puppet -master and the music.

The first page of Op 132. The journey begins. 29 11 19 Holywell Music Room. Photo by Jasper Linton-Taylor

Reaching out 2 12 19

To finish with, I want to say thankyou: to the composers. A lot of ink is spilt, and keys tapped on the subject of the meaning, the long shadow, the influence, the successors of Beethoven’s later quartets. But as players, I think that we see it another way. Sitting down to play, or to attempt to play this work, I am so grateful to all the composers who have helped me, and helped us along the way. I would illustrate this with a fragment of Beethoven…

Op 132 MS. 6th Mvt

… and a sliver of Béla Bartók…

Béla Bartók – 3rd Quartet. Coda

There’s no question: both passages are revolutionary, both passages are terrifying, and both are related. To be blunt about it, I need the Bartók to play the Beethoven, and vice versa. When we start the Op 132, I think about the opening of Priaulx Rainier’s 1938 Quartet, when we play the 4th movement, I think about all the David Matthews has taught us about the place of the miniature, the bagatelle, in the huge structure, when we play the Heiliger Dankgesang I, and I suspect we, reach out for help in every way, to early experiences singing the William Byrd Ave verum corpus, to Gloria Coates’ stelae-like quartets, to the slow movement of Tippett’s 1st Quartet and on and on. The ‘help’ is not just expressive, and emotional, which curiously are the simpler questions in this music, but architectural, architectonic, technical … questions pertaining to engineering, to trajectories, to inertia and insitia, to light and dark, and, and the heart of everthing, how do people, humans, make, play, and listen to this extraordinary music. And the answer is the most simple one, and the most complicated: together.