Lenox — Ludwig van Beethoven inscribed his last string quartet, “The hard-won resolution” (Der schwer gefasste Entschluss). Toward the end of its second, final movement, the published score bears a profound thought, to be expressed by the viola and cello: “Must it be? (Muss es sein?)” They play a dramatic, three-note melodic fragment, set in a minor tonality, which forms an obvious question mark: two notes down, one up. Shortly, in a faster, major harmonic setting, two powerful assertions from the two violins sound the musical theme beneath Beethoven’s written response: “It must be! It must be! (Es muss sein! Es Muss sein!). “
What was resolved? What does this signify? This has been the subject of much (unresolved) scholarly discussion. But clarity of intention can be inferred in the qualities of a composer’s music, and this is the intent of this review.
On July 21 and 23, 2015, the renowned exemplars of Beethoven’s piano music and string quartets, respectively Paul Lewis and the Emerson String Quartet, gave moving accounts of the final three piano sonatas, Opus 109, No. 30 in E, Opus 110, No. 16 in A-flat, and Opus 111, No 32 in C minor; and the string quartet, Opus 135, No. 16 in F.
Lewis’s understated elegance and virtuosity, and the Emersons’ shimmering eloquence, are ideal vehicles for navigating this transit. They addressed four of the most significant chamber works in the history of music in a manner that appeared to approximate perfection.
No doubt these are mature artists contemplating the most mature works in their repertories, in which the greatest composer of chamber music knowingly and anxiously approaches his moment of death. In their own moods and gestures it appeared that they, too, were attentive to the ineluctable passage of time and all its implications for every maestro who commits her or his life to this ephemeral art. These evenings, it appeared that the audience also sensed their respect, gravitas and joy in honoring Beethoven so thoughtfully and passionately. After each performance, the Ozawa Hall audience sat briefly in rapturous silence before exploding in appreciation.
There are striking similarities, and differences, across these compositions. These, of course, do not nearly embrace the many subtleties, much less the interpretive nuances of such gifted performers.
Frequently, it is obvious that Beethoven is improvising on the piano before writing the notes on his manuscript. Inspired jazz artists, too, take fragments of melody and expand them into longer phrases and developed passages with astonishing ease and logic.
In the second movement of the Opus 109 piano sonata, for example, many phrases contain an unexpected dissonance, in the right hand, while the left hand strokes a harmonic and rhythmic foundation. But nearly all the dissonances then resolve, by easing up or down a half step into a pretty chord. Beethoven does something very interesting here, which is actually familiar to accomplished jazz pianists in the present day. He makes a melody from the notes to which the dissonances resolve, which then become the motifs for small fugues. It’s the kind of thing pioneered (so to speak) in the jazz of the 1950’s by the classically trained pianist, Bill Evans,
in his many exciting melodic variations on the 12-bar blues, as well as by Erroll Garner
and by Garner’s successor, Bobby Timmons.
Arguably, it was Beethoven and his predecessors, Bach, Handel, Haydn, and Mozart, who established the tradition of keyboard improvisation in live performance.
Toward the end of the movement, the resolving dissonances continue, suggesting that beneath the crust of orderly elaboration boils a brew of undisciplined emotion. Suddenly, a Chopin-like, romantic melody distills over the heat of Beethoven’s imagination into the melodic essence of yet another fugue. In the end, the cascade of resolving dissonances comfort the ear, presaging a sweet, strong, definitive ultimate finale, and a breathtakingly gorgeous one at that.
Resolution is possible, even with the pull of dissonance, in the late Beethoven oeuvre. It’s this tension – between the pull away and the pull toward resolution – that is so audible in this music. In his life, and, for that matter, toward the end of all of our lives, resolution comes only when we reconcile what we must leave with what we can take away. Ars longa, vita brevis
Still more fugal variations stir the beginning of the last movement of Opus 109, with intersecting melodies that collide to weave a still denser, chromatic tapestry. Beethoven seems to say, “I hear you, Herr Bach, in my final hours, and bow deeply in gratitude for your inspiration.” After stunning left hand runs and a strong, pointillist outlining of melody in the upper register (as the wizard of imagination and technique, Art Tatum, does in this wonderful treatment of Anton Dvorak’s Humoresque), the piece concludes with a final, accessible, hymn.
Light shines through as the arc of this sonata’s shifting Sturm und Drang waxes and wanes. There’s comfort in knowing that heaven is above.
The second movement of Opus 110, marked Arietta. Adagio molto semplice e cantabile (“A small aria. Very slowly, simple and singable”), begins with a ravishing, simple, C-major melody, which again you can play in waltz (3/4) time : CG-G, DG-G, G-GEC-CB B-CEG-GF etc.
Note the exquisite beauty with which pianist Maurizio Pollini starts this movement:
Beethoven develops this sweetness into a minor variation, and elaborates it into counterpoint, introducing rich chords and occasional, emphasized dissonances. At a certain point, the core of the melody forms with underlying harmony into a recognizable pattern, and became a stronger platform for Beethoven’s right hand improvisation (just as the prolific Canadian, classically-trained, Tatum-influenced jazz pianist, Oscar Peterson, demonstrated in the Jazz at the Philharmonic recordings with Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Coleman Hawkins.) Scampering melodic fragments leap across the keyboard in this vision of what was to come in mid-20th Century America.
In telling this story, Beethoven plays with an impressive corpus of melodic techniques on the piano, e.g. pedal-point in the left hand, which allows him to improvise wild variations above the pulses, with plunging into a sea of dissonances; arpeggiate flourishes, which spell out the notes of a chord, one by one, giving emphasis to rising melodies and to particular, favored harmonies; simple, two-note contrapuntal experiments, with the right hand at the top of the keyboard and the left at the bottom, flowing to the center and back again; and trills in the upper register of the right hand over a progression of melodies on top of chromatic chords in the left.
Beethoven’s brilliant flight of fancy at the end of the final movement of his last piano sonata, gives an impression of starlight shining through a cloudy sky: trills in the upper register of the right hand over a progression of melodies formed by the notes on top of rising, romantic chords in the left hand. Then, a series perfect fourths and fifths (GC and CG ) heralds a strikingly philosophical final resolution to a simple clear, C major chord.
One can discern a message here: The angel of death may inevitably descend, but there is both hope ahead and satisfaction in leaving a meaningful artistic legacy behind.
Note the restrained passion and lyricism with which Alfred Brendel, Paul Lewis’s influential teacher, performs this sonata here:
The string quartet, Opus 135, No. 16, has a pleasing and attractive conversational quality, which derives almost certainly as well, from Beethoven’s improvisational approach to composition. In the beginning allegretto, clear, bold counterpoint develops from simple melodic ideas, tossed back and forth among the instruments, supported by a strong, accessible harmonic sensibility, redolent of romanticism.
At the beginning of the second, Vivace (“Lively”) movement, syncopations (with emphases on the 2nd and 4th beats of the four-beat rhythm, rather than the 1st and 3rd) rocket from both sides of the ensemble. Then, all of a sudden, everyone plays a series of loud, low E-flats are played by all the members of the group, disrupting both the swinging rhythm and the starting, F major harmony. What is going on here?
Before answering this musical question, Beethoven returns to a new set of rhythms and melodic variations, continuing at a fast tempo before disturbing us by more low, slower, repeated, low E-flats. Then, another surprise: in zipping excursions and down the ranges of the instruments, the players bounce their bows on their strings. Simultaneously there arrive dramatic changes in volume: declining to a pianissimo repeated rhythmic pattern. But then, with no forewarning, those corrupting E-flats strike again, before a pause and a dramatic harmonic shift back to the familiar F major and an emphatic, F major cadence.
Here is the Emerson Quartet in an equally brilliant recording of this Vivace movement:
This wild ride strikes some observers as humorous, but not to this one. Your reviewer reads it as a musical conundrum and challenge for interpretation, e.g. a fast swim in a swelling sea, where sharks poke their menacing snouts through the surface, once again a metaphor for the struggles of a composer in the late 18th and early 19th century, and for psychological and physical danger in the face of the threat of death.
In the last movement of Beethoven’s last quartet, which bears his marking “Serious, but not too sudden,” the rhythm of the “Must it be?” gesture becomes the frame for a conversational variation between the 2 violins and the viola. When subsequently the harmonic sensibility modulates through a velvet carpet of chords, before finally settling on F major once again, Beethoven concludes the passage with curiously off-set rhythms. It’s a bit sudden, yes, but beautiful, and dizzying.
After the striking question, “Must it be?” and the bright response, “It must be! It must be!” there arrives a strikingly simple melody set to a lovely, repeated rhythm. The song and its setting surely influenced the “Symphony from the New World” (Symphony No. 9), by Antonin Dvorak. This sweet tune turns, twists, shifts, and repeats with suggestions of the “Must it be?” intervals. Toward the end a leaping pizzicato variation diminishes in volume to a barely audible pianissimo, then rises quickly in volume and intensity, with full power, to a shocking, exquisite fortissimo cadence, asserting “It must be! It must be” as existential truth.
Here is the Emerson Quartet in a splendid, recorded performance of this last movement:
Renowned himself as a virtuoso with an uncanny ability to execute trills and thirds, Beethoven exacted high standards, which were not always met, for the performance of his works. He was a suffering man of great courage and integrity. One can hardly imagine what it was like for someone who lived, performed, and composed in the world of music to lose his hearing, much less to valiantly attempt to conduct the premiere of his Ninth Symphony.
In these evenings of tribute at Ozawa Hall, this reviewer discerned not a single lapse in the sustained brilliance of Paul Lewis. He extracted from the piano a subtle panoply of colors and textures, and the prevailing resonances of his touch were sweet and lithe. Beethoven’s gnarly counterpoint came across with vivid clarity, and the confusing rhythmical aspects of the three sonatas were addressed straightforwardly, without over-emphasis or didacticism. Lewis’s phrasings, dynamics, pedaling, comprehension of the interior- and over-arching structures, were all exciting to behold. They kept this listener on the edge of his seat throughout the concert.
Notwithstanding the fabulous musicality and maturity of the Emerson Quartet’s Beethoven, who were to a man equally adept in expressing its subtleties and narrative, the first half of their program, Charles Ives’s String Quartet No. 1, “From the Salvation Army,” and Lowell Liebermann’s String Quartet, No. 5, Opus 126, written for and premiered by the Emersons in 2014, was disappointing.
Perhaps this was attributable to the immature, even jejune, quality of the Ives, which came across as a pastiche of studies from an undergraduate composition class, resembling only slightly the courageous, muscular, and transgressive Ives we know and love; and to the forbidding nature of Liebermann’s modernistic injections into the tissue of Romantic stylizations. In both pieces, one sensed a powerful ambivalence toward late 19th Century harmonizing by both composers, Ives embracing it without discrimination except when he threw a few dissonances at it, and Liebermann avoiding its innate beauty by cluttering its rich vegetation with dark, dense, and dirty chords. To this listener, there were too few black notes in the former, and too many in the latter.
These were Beethoven’s nights, when his last, perforce, took first place. Profound and meaningful questions were posed, addressed, and resolved with surpassing consideration and virtuosity.