This blog first appeared on the Elias String Quartet’s dedicated website www.thebeethovenproject.com
Up until recently, I’d always found op.130 (and its last movement op.133) the hardest Beethoven quartet to understand. It’s the first, 3rd, 4th and last movements (the Grosse Fugue) that were particularly enigmatic to me. I didn’t understand the connections between movements, the tonality relationships, what the characters are, and the meaning of this 15 minute relentless fugue that ends it. The fugue seemed an intellectual tour de force to me, but without the incredible depth of emotion there is in all of Beethoven’s other music. However I was convinced that this must be from my own lack of understanding rather than Beethoven’s fault! We’ve just had a week of rehearsals to really get to grips with it, so this was the perfect opportunity for me to immerse myself in the op.130 world and find my way into it….
This is a monumental piece! We spent a lot of time playing through movements today, as we usually do when we’re starting a new piece. Sometimes words get in the way when we’re just feeling our way into the music. We found it difficult to find a comfortable tempo in the third movement (Poco Scherzoso, Andante con moto ma non troppo). With such a lengthy and specific title, Beethoven must have meant something quite precise. The Scherzoso feeling needs a certain poise which can easily become heavy, but on the other hand as soon as it’s that little bit too flowing it risks loosing its character. And to top it all up there are some incredibly awkward passages for the cello which have to sound effortless…
I’m as puzzled by the Grosse Fugue as before but I did feel a sense of being a part of something larger than life playing it.
Today there was a small breakthrough for me with the 4th movement- “Alla Danza tedesca” (As a german dance) Beethoven’s incredibly specific hairpins and and rhythmic notation are very complicated and can feel restrictive. If you really try to do what he asks, it can easily sound over complicated and unnatural. We tried thinking of the hairpins more emotionally, and Marie mentioned that the first gesture could be really tender. Somehow, this made everything fall into place! And for the first time I felt that I understood what that movement is about. It’s such a very delicate mixture of tenderness, smiles, simplicity, refinement, slightly folk-like heaviness in the middle section, and a certain carefree feel that never quite takes over the mood. I also think the movement’s key of G major has a kind of ease to it, compared to the more earthy home key of B flat or the D flat major of the previous movement. And the huge distance in tonality with that previous movement makes this one all the more special and unexpected, as if some weight had suddenly been lifted off the music.
We spent a good part of the rehearsal bent over our scores trying to figure out what’s going on in the Grosse Fugue. Then, one has to figure out how to make it understandable to the audience, which is the really hard part because every theme and counter theme is a vital part of the fugue, as important as each other. To make matters worse, most of it is marked relentlessly fortissimo, which doesn’t lend itself very well to subtleties of balancing. We’ve been experimenting with having very differentiated sounds, articulations and emotions for the different themes. Not yet sure if it’s working very well. There was a debate about the character of the pianissimo middle section. Martin thought that because of the crazy first part that comes before this section, the music can’t be absolutely still and disconnected, it should carry some underlying unrest, while Don thought this would best be achieved with the reappearance of the main theme in crotchets being kind of glassy and almost without vibrato. I, on the other hand, didn’t agree with Don about the “glassy” sound, and I thought that we should resist the urge to phrase too much or open up in this section despite the incredible beauty of the music, so that it feels suspended and other worldly. We’ll probably come back to it a few times before we reach an agreement…
First movement. It’s so much about abrupt contrasts, both of tempo and of dynamic. The piano subitos, where the music becomes suddenly and unexpectedly quiet, often after a crescendo, are especially hard to do. You need both a really good bow control and a clear image in your head of what you want it to sound like- the latter being in itself a challenge because the abruptness of the subito makes it unnatural. Daniel Barenboim compares a piano subito to a sudden stop at the edge of a precipice and talks very literally about the courage needed for it. (Parallels and Paradoxes: Explorations in Music and Society, Daniel Barenboim and Edward W. Said)
Cavatina. It’s a fine balance to find between how emotional it is and at the same time how “wise”. Martin is the wisdom advocate, while us other three tend to steer more easily towards the emotional side of things! Of course, everyone agrees about the almost unbearable anguish, yet barely a tentative whisper, of the middle section, marked “beklemmt” (anguished, or oppressed). I’m not finding an unusual enough sound to portray this. I feel the need to forget how to play the violin for this passage, how does one one translate into sounds someone’s innermost unspeakable fears?
Grosse Fugue. We played it through and realised how important it is to “practise” playing it through, because it’s a huge chunk of music for the brain to encompass, and it also needs an unusual amount of stamina.
I’ve just made an exciting discovery! In this piece, all the adjacent movements are linked to one another by a note, whether it’s a tonality or a single note. So the first movement is in B flat (major) and the second also in B flat (minor). The last note of the second movement (B flat) also starts the third movement. The last note of the 3rd movement is a D (flat) and the first note of the fourth is a D (natural). The last note of the 4th, first note of the 5th, last note of the 5th, first note of the last are all G. This is such an interesting way of unifying an extremely varied work; Beethoven is taking us through different worlds and actually showing us the narrow path from one into the next! In terms of performing, it will be important to keep the time between movements as short as possible so that the audience can hear those connections.
One of the challenges of op.130 is organising the rehearsals so that there is time for everything! We’re feeling this keenly as we’ve just been working on op.135, equally a master piece and difficult to play, but about 20 mins shorter… So we’ve been having to make a kind of plan every day for how long to spend on each movement, so that we don’t end up with a wonderful first movement but not having touched, say, the Grosse Fugue! It’s a struggle to stick to it, as there is always more to be rehearsed or talked about. And it can also be a cause of tensions amongst us, each person always feels that the point they need to make is important enough to get a little behind schedule…
More on the Grosse Fugue:
In his “Histoire du quatuor”, Bernard Fournier points out that Beethoven has taken a form that is traditionally an “intellectual” one, where emotions usually take second place in favour of the structure, and turned it around to become one of the most emotionally charged movements ever written. This is what I didn’t really see before. The sheer physicality of the music, not to speak of the heaven-reaching middle section, are such powerful emotional statements that I almost can’t believe I ever doubted it. The two quavers of the same pitch under a slur that run almost throughout the fugue and have sparked so much debate as to what Beethoven meant by them are a clue: they are a very unusual marking and we’ve come to feel (as Peter Cropper, see in his interview “what would you ask Beethoven if he were alive?”) that Beethoven wouldn’t have used it unless it was for something highly meaningful and emotional, so that each of these gestures is filled with the effort of sustaining the note until the very end.
We love playing the second movement. It is such a stroke of genius writing and is really satisfying as it’s so well written for the instruments. I always get a burst of adrenalin in the middle section, its virtuosity is so intoxicating that I have to force myself to keep a cool head if I want to make it to the end of the movement.
The 4th movement is still elusive, it always takes us a few tries until we get the right feel for it unanimously.
Second meno mosso in the Fugue. Martin feels very strongly how insistent his part is, and I feel that the way it comes across is slowing the tempo down. This kind of thing, where we don’t actually disagree with each other in how we want the music to sound, but only in how we think it’s coming out, will probably be easier to assess when we record ourselves in the concert – we usually do this when we’re playing pieces that are new to us, as a working tool.
25/10/11 First performance, Buxton
Don and Martin came out saying it was the most physically demanding experience they’ve ever had playing a concert. As for me, I’m converted! The journey that one goes through when performing this piece is quite unique. It visits such extremely different worlds in the different movements (more unrelated than in any of his other quartets in terms of motivic and harmonic connections or organic development), but the way into each is somehow always a surprisingly natural progression from the previous- as if Beethoven had read into some of human nature’s most hidden universal truths and put them into music (also see rehearsal on 22/10/10).
The Cavatina was an intensely emotional moment for me, Beethoven letting us in on something so fragile and so completely at the core of his being. It was overwhelming to then go into the Grosse Fugue, yet it made complete sense, as if all the hushed oppression in the Cavatina finally found its sublimation in the Fugue. And it felt like anything less monumental and out of the ordinary would have been a let down after the Cavatina (although I am curious to experience playing op.130 next year with the other finale, which Beethoven wrote for it a year later. I remember Peter Cropper once saying that he found playing the Cavatina before one or the other of the finales completely different experiences)
The fugue is a huge journey in itself. The way in which the “main” theme- the first one that one hears, and which underpins the whole fugue- struggles with the other main theme and the different versions of itself almost all the way through, in a kind of titanic battle, and finally rises triumphantly in the coda, and the fact that it takes 15 mins of the most intense, sometimes apocalyptic music to reach that conclusion, really took on a new dimension through performing the work. I now think that the end of the fugue, where through the reconciliation of the 2 themes Beethoven spectacularly resolves all the tensions and struggles the music has undergone and seems to rally the whole world to his side with ferocious idealism, is one of the most glorious moments in all of music, and one of the most exhilarating things I have ever played.
01/11/10, 2nd performance, Thurso
Tonight we got a bit lost in the Fugue! That can often happen when you’ve played something for the first time and it hasn’t gone too badly, so you let your guard down a bit… It wasn’t anything too dramatic, one of those instances where someone goes wrong (in this case, me!) and someone else adapts to it (here, Don) but by the time he did, I’d already realised my mistake and adapted back. In the meantime, Martin and Marie would have been frantically trying to decide who to follow, probably each making a different decision… The result was a few very wobbly lines, which to us seemed to last agonising hours, but which actually were probably (thankfully!) only a matter of a few seconds.
Although it is a huge work and there are so many difficulties- technically, musically, physically, stamina-wise…- there is something about how much Beethoven gives to me as a performer which actually creates new energy. As it’s being used up, it’s at the same time being fed back into me through the music, in a kind of self perpetuating way. I wouldn’t exactly say I’d be ready to play it all again immediately at the end (!), but I don’t feel as drained as I would expect after such an exhausting piece. He must have been an incredibly generous and embracing person.
This was the first concert of a Scottish tour on which we’re playing op.130 nine times, and some more after that. We feel very lucky to be able to do this, what a great experience. And after spending hours in the rehearsal room, the best way for us to grow with a piece is through performing it a lot. Maybe we’ll see some of you there!
Follow the Elias String Quartet as they prepare to perform the complete cycle of Beethoven quartets at www.thebeethovenproject.com