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PREVIEW: Emerson String Quartet to perform late Beethoven quartets at Tanglewood

Beethoven is the Shakespeare of music. His music is entertaining, but it is also very often a challenge, and it stays with us. We feel its depth and its power. And nowhere is this more true than in the late string quartets.

What’s the point of music? This is a silly question, of course, but it might be worth a moment’s thought. Music can supply entertainment: it can offer a distraction from other activities, and it can be pleasant both to hear and to watch. It is vital to dancing and sometimes for marching. It makes us want to move our limbs (or tap our toes). Music can supply a background to a cocktail party, a bar, a dinner, a rave. Music can make us happy or sad; it can encourage us to reminisce; it can turn us angry or amorous. All of these aspects of music are fairly easily accessible.

Now let us contemplate Shakespeare. Shakespeare is entertaining, sometimes funny, and even, in some productions, a romp. But Shakespeare is also difficult — a challenge to both our minds and our hearts. We struggle with the language; we access profound emotions that we do not often explore. Shakespeare leaves us thinking (and feeling) for a long time afterwards.

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“Music gives soul to the universe.” — Plato

“Music is a decoration of time.” — Frank Zappa

“Without music, life would be a mistake.” — Friedrich Nietzsche

“Music washes away the dust of everyday life.” — Red Auerbach

“Music is an explosive expression of humanity.” — Billy Joel

Ah, music! A magic beyond all we do here.” — Albus Dumbledore

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Eugene Drucker of the Emerson String Quartet. Photo: Lisa Mazzucco

Beethoven is the Shakespeare of music. His music is entertaining, but it is also very often a challenge, and it stays with us. We feel its depth and its power. And nowhere is this more true than in the late string quartets. There are five of them, all written in the last years of his life — he wrote nothing else in this time — and he seems to have plumbed more profound depths in these works than even in some of the late piano sonatas or the last symphony, the Ninth. These works are not easy — certainly not easy to play, and not easy to apprehend. Eugene Drucker, one of the two violinists in the Emerson String Quartet who will be playing these works on Tuesday and Wednesday, July 24 and 25, in Ozawa Hall at Tanglewood, is eloquent on the subject of playing these works: “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.” And listeners, too, can be inspired to outdo themselves: to prepare themselves ahead of time to be exposed to masterpieces of Western civilization, to strive to concentrate during the demands of long stretches of music, to open their emotional capacities to experience the struggles of a lonely and supremely gifted human being to express the most profound, most sad, most manic, most transcendent elements of life.

Beethoven had begun his public life in Vienna as a pianist, appearing in salons and concert halls as a virtuoso. His composing abilities were cannily limited to small works such as solo sonatas, songs, duos and songs. It was only when he was about 30 years old that he felt himself mature enough to confront his great idols, Mozart and Haydn, both of whom had made Vienna their home. Mozart’s reputation was sealed — he had died only one year before Beethoven moved to Vienna — and Haydn was still alive and living in the same town: he was the most revered composer of instrumental music in all of Europe. Beethoven had bided his time. Now, around the year 1800, he was ready. He published his first two symphonies, his first two piano concertos, and a set of six string quartets — precisely those genres of music in which Haydn and Mozart had excelled.

Ludwig van Beethoven. Portrait by Joseph Karl Stieler, 1820

He turned to string quartets again some years later, with his “Rasumovsky” quartets and the remarkable works of Op. 74 and 95, one public, one very much private. (“This work is never to be performed in public,” he wrote of Op. 95, though he relented a few years later.) Then Beethoven stopped composing seriously for a while, perhaps as the result of a failed love affair or more likely as the result of a crisis of confidence—the powerful, heaven-storming style of the
“Eroica’ Symphony and the Fifth Symphony and the “Appassionata” Piano Sonata was no longer sufficient for him. He regained trust in himself by breaking through to new means of expression, new powers of compositional skill, more breadth of emotional control. The “Missa Solemnis”; the three piano sonatas, Opp. 109-111; the extraordinary “Diabelli” Variations; and the Ninth Symphony all come from the years around 1820, when Beethoven was near 50 years old. (He died at 57.) But then, in his last years, inspired initially perhaps by a commission, he devoted himself to nothing but string quartets. These works — in chronological order of composition, Op. 127, Op. 132, Op. 130, Op. 131, Op. 135 — have made the string quartet the repository of the most intense and expressive works of composers ever since. Even in the 20th century, a brief list of composers turning to the string quartet for a vehicle of depth and intimacy would have to include Debussy, Schoenberg, Berg, Webern, Bartók, Britten and Shostakovich, while, in the 21st, we have vital contributions by Aleksandra Vrebalov, Tanya Tagaq, Merlijn Twaalfhoven, Wu Man and Ben Johnston. None of these works has been composed without knowledge of Beethoven’s contributions, and some of them make overt reference to them.

The Emersons will not play the works in chronological order, but they will end the second night’s program with Beethoven’s “Grosse Fuge” or “Great Fugue,” a monumental single movement originally intended as the finale of the Op. 130 quartet. (For the performance of Op. 130, which immediately precedes the “Grosse Fuge,” they will play the alternate finale that was Beethoven’s last composition: he decided that the “Grosse Fuge” was perhaps too strong, too lengthy and too demanding to end even the remarkable Op. 130 quartet.) This fugue has several themes, all related, and moves from stupendous power and conflict to lilting gentleness and finally to resolution. Eugene Drucker speaks of its “titanic strength and its sense of struggle and triumph.” In the presence of these superb masterpieces of human striving, love and hope, suffering, spirituality, and transcendence, all we can do as listeners is devote ourselves to the focusing of our minds and the openness and fearlessness of our hearts.

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Order of Composition of the Beethoven Late String Quartets

Op. 127: String Quartet in E Flat Major (February 1825)
Op. 132: String Quartet in A minor (July 1825)
Op. 130: String Quartet in B Flat Major, with “Grosse Fuge” as finale (November 1825)
Op. 131: String Quartet in C Sharp minor (May 1826)
Op. 135: String Quartet in F Major (October 1826)
Alternate finale to Op. 130 (November 1826)

Order of the Programs of the Emerson String Quartet in Ozawa Hall, Tanglewood

Tuesday, July 24
Op. 127: String Quartet in E Flat Major
Op. 135: String Quartet in F Major
Op. 131: String Quartet in C sharp minor

Wednesday, July 25
Op. 132: String Quartet in A minor
Op. 130: String Quartet in B Flat Major, with alternate finale
Op. 133: “Grosse Fuge” in B Flat Major, originally the finale of Op.  130

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