At a Glance
Comprising music by Beethoven and the contemporary composer Anna Clyne, this program is strongly connected together with all its components. We begin with Clyne’s new string quartet Breathing Statues, which was directly inspired by both the Beethoven Quartet No. 13 in B-flat Major and the Grosse Fuge in B-flat Major that conclude the program.
ANNA CLYNE (b. 1980)
Breathing Statues (2019)
An extraordinarily innovative creator, Anna Clyne draws her ideas from many sources besides the purely musical. She often launches her compositions not by experimenting at the piano but instead by creating a collage painting for her studio wall, embodying visually what she wants her new piece to say sonically. Clyne’s music is known for its emotional power as well as for its visceral energy and very colorful use of instruments. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s Music Director Riccardo Muti describes her as “an artist who writes from the heart, who defies categorization, and who reaches across all barriers and boundaries.”
Born in London, Clyne is currently living in the United States, where for several seasons she served as the Chicago Symphony’s Mead Composer-in-Residence; she has held similar posts with California’s Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music and with the Orchestre National d’Ile de France. Her music is in great demand by major orchestras in America and Europe and has been presented in such diverse concert locations as New York’s trendy Le Poisson Rouge and the establishment icon Carnegie Hall.
Anna Clyne’s inspirations for her new string quartet Breathing Statues, written expressly for the Calidore String Quartet, are both literary and purely musical, and they connect directly to the Beethoven’s works we’ll hear on the program’s second half. Clyne has focused on a powerful but often overlooked aspect of music: the use of pregnant pauses or silences between the notes that are as eloquent as sounds. Here is how she describes her work:
Breathing Statues draws inspiration and musical quotes from Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 13 in B-flat Major, op. 130; No. 16 in F Major, op. 135; and the Grosse Fuge, op. 133. It also draws inspiration from On Music, a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke.
Its concept came from a poignant moment in the Grosse Fuge where the music stops and, in between moments of silence, breathes as it shifts position between two chords. This idea of the music breathing reminds me of another poignant moment in the [Cavatina movement] of the B-flat Quartet, when the lower strings provide a pulsing accompaniment to a violin melody that is marked beklemmt (oppressed, stifled) and the voice almost stutters as if out of breath. I also found other quotes that have a similar feeling of breathing or sighing, such as a moment in the Adagio [that opens] the B-flat Quartet, as well as quotes that would strongly contrast, such as the descending rhythmic lines in the lower strings in the Grosse Fuge.
Breathing Statues begins with a quote from the opening of the last movement of the F Major Quartet, op. 135, which is originally accompanied by text. Beethoven writes: ‘Muss es sein? Es muss sein!’ (Must it be? It must be!). His notation of these statements are also marked by significant pauses between them. This musical quote builds the foundation for Breathing Statues.
The concept of breath — of the music and musicians breathing, sometimes together, sometimes apart — reminded me of Rilke’s poem, from which Breathing Statues derives its title.
Music: the breathing of statues. Perhaps:
the silence of paintings. Language where
language ends. Time
that stands head-up in the direction
of hearts that wear out.
Feeling ... for whom? Place where feeling is
Transformed ... into what? Into a countryside we can hear.
Music: you stranger. You feeling space, growing
away from us. The deepest thing in us, that
rising above us, forces its way out ...
a holy goodbye:
when the innermost point in us stands
outside, as amazing space, as the other
side of the air:
not for us to live in now.
— Rainer Maria Rilke
LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN (1770–1827)
String Quartet in B-flat Major, opus 130
Over the years, a host of myths have grown up about Beethoven’s life and especially about his last years when he had become profoundly but not totally deaf. Thus, we have the image of the composer living in isolation in his Vienna apartment and writing his five visionary late quartets strictly for his own edification, without any concern about whether they would ever reach an audience.
In reality, the composer was not living a hermit’s existence but was instead very much in touch with the artistic worlds of Vienna and beyond. Late in 1822, he received a commission from Prince Nicholas Galitzin of St. Petersburg for three quartets. An accomplished cellist, Galitzin had lived in Vienna two decades earlier and had become an ardent fan of Beethoven’s music. And his commission may also have been inspired by the violinist Ignaz Schuppanzigh, leader of the ensemble that premiered nearly all of Beethoven's quartets; Schuppanzigh was then performing in Russia and undoubtedly put in a good word for the composer.
The commission, however, matched perfectly Beethoven’s own artistic imperatives at this time. For him, the symphony and the string quartet were the highest forms of musical expression. He was already enmeshed in his Ninth Symphony, but as soon as it was completed in Spring 1824, he eagerly turned to Galitzin's commission. In rapid succession he fulfilled it with opus 127 in E-flat Major, opus 132 in A minor, and opus 130 in B-flat Major, which incorporated the extraordinary Grosse Fuge as its finale. All of them immediately were performed in Vienna and in other European capitals.
The last of these, the Quartet in B-flat is the most radical, the most experimental, even by the standards of a composer who specialized in challenging the status quo. In fact, Beethoven scholar Joseph Kerman calls it “the most problematic of Beethoven’s great compositions.” One only needs to look at its layout: six movements instead of the usual four, bookended by his most complex first movement and — in its original form, as we will hear it — a fugue of mindboggling size and scope. Kerman: “Except for the [third-movement] Andante con moto, all the movements are in one way or another extreme …. Among sonata-allegro movements, the first movement … is the most contrasting and enigmatic. The second movement stands out as his most precipitous and ill-behaved, the fourth movement as his most innocently dance-like. The Cavatina is his most emotional slow movement … Then taking these members, he threw them together in an arrangement calculated to stress their individual extremities and mutual incongruities.”
The addition of the Grosse Fuge then carried these extremities to the zenith.
Extreme contrast indeed rules the sonata-form first movement. It opens in the style of a pensive slow introduction in an Adagio tempo with the quartet intoning a melodic idea that twists tightly around itself in chromatic half steps and both opens and closes with a sighing motive. Such slithering chromatic motion will be at the core of this whole work. The cello then offers a rhythmic idea like a gentle dance, partnered by a simple fanfare idea above in the first violin.
As this Adagio music pauses, a whirl of 16th notes flies in and we are in the Allegro section itself. But it doesn’t coalesce into a real theme and is quickly halted by the reappearance of the Adagio music. Undaunted, the Allegro tries again and succeeds in taking hold. The cello eventually bridges to a second theme in the violin, smooth and lyrical as we might expect, but in a very distant key — G-flat— which we don’t. This exposition section is repeated.
The development returns us to the continuing battle between the Adagio and the Allegro. Kerman: “The entire development section exists in a trance, as though somehow another movement has got going without our quite noticing how.” And it eventually merges into the recapitulation without our quite noticing how that happened either. The closing coda brings the last confrontation of the Adagio and the Allegro and ends modestly with “a sense of fascination, whimsy, enigma,” in Michael Steinberg’s words.
The second movement, a mini-scherzo in B-flat minor, lasts only two minutes, and its Presto tempo makes it seem even shorter. Always in an impatient whisper — except for the stuttering dance of its trio section — it deliberately confuses us about which is the upbeat and which the down, creating a sense of rhythmic vertigo.
The Andante con moto third movement is not extreme in any way; instead it is, in Kerman’s words, “a beautifully ordered cascade of melody, dance, and sheer sonority.” In a reference back to the first movement’s opening motive, it begins with a half-step sigh in the first violin — again B-flat to A. However, the other instruments contradict its attempt to establish the key of B-flat, and the viola asserts itself in a merry little dance melody in the distant key of D-flat Major. High in the first violin and marked cantabile, a second theme eventually appears. It too begins with the drooping sigh, and little trilling figures accentuate its grace. This movement is a feast of marvelous, ever-changing instrumental textures — including some playful pizzicatos — and all the instruments are equals in spinning its contrapuntal web.
“Alla danza Tedesca” — “Like a German dance” — may seem the model of innocent simplicity, but its arrival in G Major, after the previous movement’s far-away D-flat Major, makes it one of this Quartet’s most shocking moments. Steinberg describes it as creating a “humorous emulation of a wheezing hurdy-gurdy.” Rhythmically, it has a lurching gait produced by syncopations and hesitations. And Beethoven adds to its seasick effect with constant little crescendos and decrescendos.
Marked “Cavatina” — referring to a slow-ish operatic aria usually expressing deep feelings — the fifth is one of Beethoven’s most profoundly moving slow movements. That it meant a great deal to him personally was revealed by the Shuppanzigh Quartet’s second violinist Karl Holz, a close friend of the composer’s. “He said that the Cavatina was composed in the very tears of misery, and that never had one of his own pieces moved him so deeply, and that merely to relive it in his feelings always cost him a tear.” The first violin is the principal singer of this achingly tender aria in E-flat Major, but every time he pauses for breath, the other players in a sublime accompaniment ensure that the melodic flow continues unbroken. Midway through, we hear an extraordinary interlude in which, moving to a distant key, the violin begins sobbing in gasping, recitative-like phrases. Beethoven labeled this section “beklemmt,” which means oppressed, anguished.
LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN (1770–1827)
Grosse Fuge in B-flat Major, op. 133
It would take a long time for audiences and even musicians to appreciate the Grosse Fuge. In Beethoven scholar Lewis Lockwood’s words, it was “the largest and most radical of Beethoven’s fugal finales.” Enormous in scope, bristling with angular themes and conflicting rhythms, and assaulting the ears with a level of dissonance unprecedented for that era, even today it can sound like a work conceived in the 20th century. And its technical challenges for the players are so severe that their struggles to master them can sometimes add to the listener’s plight.
At its first performance on March 21, 1826, Beethoven was not present in the audience; instead, he was holed up in a nearby tavern hoping for the best. Violinist Karl Holz eventually appeared to report that the performance had gone well and the audience had demanded encores of both the lightest movements, the Presto and the Alla Tedesca. “Yes, these delicacies!” Beethoven responded. “Why not the Fugue? Cattle! Asses!”
It’s not surprising, then, that Beethoven’s publisher Artaria should have decided the B-flat needed a less complex finale than this behemoth. Surprisingly, Beethoven eventually agreed and composed a shorter and lighter rondo as a substitute finale: the last piece he finished before his death in March 1827.
Throughout his life, Beethoven was a great student of Bach’s counterpoint, and the fugue — the summit of contrapuntal form —became an increasing obsession. But though he knew all the techniques of a classical fugue, Beethoven did not really seek to apply them to this highly unorthodox work. Significantly, he titled the work: “Grand fugue, sometimes free, sometimes learned.” In fact, only two large sections of it are true fugues, while much of the rest of the work consists of freer workings out of the highly individual theme that is the subject of the Grosse Fuge’s 15-minute span. The transformation of this theme into a myriad of musical shapes and moods was of primary importance to him.
In the opening section Beethoven called “Overtura,” we meet this theme immediately as it is thrust forward in unison by all four instruments. It is shockingly strange and unsettling, incorporating grinding half steps and an agonizing leap; thus, disturbing harmonic implications are built into its very shape. It concludes with a trill that Beethoven will make dramatic use of later. This statement is abruptly broken off. Other transformations of the theme appear in different keys, meters, and moods, each cut off quickly. Kerman: “This section hurls all the thematic versions at the listener’s head like a handful of rocks. … It behaves less like a book’s introduction than like a table of contents.” Adds Steinberg: “From here on, it is the [piece’s] task to demonstrate the coherence of what is presented in so aggressively and violently dissociated a manner.”
Then the first fugue — in fact, a double fugue with two subjects — is launched with intimidating ferocity by the first violin. A jagged, upward-leaping theme, it is actually the countersubject, yet it utterly dominates this fugue, obscuring the true subject heard in fragments in the viola. To emphasize the savage intensity, Beethoven marks the notes fortissimo and sforzando. Even more abrasive is the conflict between the rhythms of the subject and the countersubject.
But Beethoven knew when to give the listeners’ ears some relief. With an abrupt shift of tempo and meter, the music moves to the distant key of G-flat Major for music that is soft and soothing: a peaceful interlude. Its flowing figures are set in motion by a sped-up version of the beginning of the subject theme, and later in the viola we hear a smoothed-out version of the subject.
The fugue’s next section returns to B-flat for a jaunty dance on a new transformation of the subject. This paves the way for the second double fugue, now in the key of A-flat Major and as uncompromising and intense as the earlier one. Opening with the principal theme in augmentation in the cello, it uses the dancing transformation as its countersubject. Beethoven also seizes on the trill first heard in the work’s opening phrase and makes it into a dramatic contrapuntal element, reaching a climax as the first violin emits hysterical trills in its highest register.
After returns of the peaceful interlude, now more strident — and after this we hear the calming slow chords separated by long breaths that inspired Anna Clyne — and the dance, the conflicts of the two fugal sections are finally smoothed away in a spacious concluding coda. Various versions of the fugue subject are presented and dismissed. The music grows serene; even the jagged countersubject theme has been tamed. In Michael Steinberg’s eloquent words: “The resolution of these extraordinary, unprecedented conflicts that the Grosse Fuge has posed is surprising and touching — a mixture of the exalted and the humorous that only Beethoven could have invented.”
— Janet E. Bedell