Living and Music: Late Beethoven String Quartets and Familiarity

I’ve been struggling lately with the idea of narrative and how it affects people and musical form. I am auditing a theory review class at Rice which recently covered the basic compositional forms; this in conjunction with being a part of the premiere at Rice of Bolcom’s 9th symphony has made me think about what is moving to me, why it might be moving to me, and how it may be affecting or unaffecting other people.
I found myself really moved by the Bolcom. It kind of rumbles up behind you and ominously grows into this massive presence. Being in the violins, I had in juxtaposition to the massiveness a gorgeous melody, lush and austere at first, desperate and severe nearing the end. The contrast was beautiful… I just wanted to clasp my hands and think about how brave it is to exist in beauty and to play the melody with all the impending madness closing in…but I couldn’t because I had to keep playing. The end of the piece gave me chills even in our first run-through…I was thinking Eliot’s
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but with a whimper.
even before Larry read Bolcom’s words on the apocalyptic references in the piece.

Working on this new piece was, I thought, a great way to practice searching for the underlying values Anthony Brandt (the theory prof) thinks are key to every great piece. One thing he mentioned in a class was that composers have to think about whether or not material needs to be brought back…why or why it doesn’t need to be brought back, and how it will or won’t have changed. We listened to musical examples and these decisions seemed pretty crucial to the narratives of all works discussed. The big Underlying Value I took from that class was that when there has been a change to returning material “Time has had an effect.” During our first performance of Bolcom, I remember playing our beautiful melody the second time when it comes back at the peak of the piece and I got so emotional thinking about how Time Has Had An Effect. (In my head, it was exactly like Gandalf’s You Shall Not Pass…) Basically this whole post so far has been to say I was moved by the Bolcom. Yeah…that DID take a really long time…

The struggle begins here. I really loved this underlying values thing. It distilled the narrative of a piece of music for me and made it easier for me to think about pieces cohesively and how I would then perform them. I decided to think about it in relation to some other things I’m currently working on or worked on recently. I started with Beethoven op. 130 and the Grosse Fugue, the piece which OccupiedMySummer…and my mind, my heart, and pretty much any conversation I had with anyone (despite my confusion and their admissions of boredom…I just couldn’t stop…and I must still be having trouble since I’m really just starting this blog to write about it.) In general, I’m obsessed with Beethoven. Expressly, Beethoven Quartets. Particularly the Lates, and especially, at this moment, 130 & 133. The movements in some of the late quartets seem very autonomous, and they are all held together (some would argue that literally, all the late quartets are held together as one large quartet) by…by what? The movements themselves have pretty straightforward forms (excepting the Grosse Fugue which I would argue was meant by Beethoven to be Grosse or great in the sublime sense…something he showed in it’s triple threat form of sonata form/theme&variations/fugue) and all the late quartets refer to his later motto or mode-to? (If indeed, Beethoven decided to somewhat pick up where the 17th century left off.) But what kinds of relationships are the movements supposed to have with one another? I thought after the Eroica, Beethoven started making things less autonomous?
But I’m getting way off-subject. I just want to know why I’m so moved by 130 and 133 as an entire work…(not just movement by movement which is incredibly moving too) when it seems to me to be lacking so many of the things the underlying values are supposed to be applied to. Of course, this is a good time to ask the question, is it even necessary that music be moving? Is there any real point to thinking about feeling in composition and performance? I would love to hear any thoughts about this. It is really important to me to think about feeling because I think music is inherently moving and I get obsessed with things like this because I want to understand the compositional and cultural processes because performers are (perhaps?) tasked with being a medium (one of many) that transfers history…whole societies and their thoughts, lives, passions in ways that are relevant to our present because of their similarities and possibly jarring differences. So that is where I’m coming from- where are you coming from?
So the point of this post is to go back to the Late Quartets being the start of stream of consciousness. Whenever I am moved by something, I experience what the poet Denise Levertov calls a “shock of recognition.” I recognize myself…something I was, am, want, want to be. I think this is a big part of being moved…this is why material often gets brought back…we get this shock of recognition of something that has been transformed or it is shocking because it hasn’t transformed, etc. But if there is nothing in terms of themes and melodies to recognize from one movement to the next, how do these books and pieces still hold together and hold us? How do I recognize myself in them rather than just recognizing what the composer has written for me to recognize? Because that is what I recognize in Woolf and Beethoven that I don’t necessarily recognize in others…myself.
My hypothesis (today, at least) is that stream of consciousness gets part of its’ shock of recognition from the familiarity of its’ unfamiliarity. At least in 130, every movement is so new and so itself- they certainly have things in common, but half-suggested murmured things. And this is just like real life…you walk outside and there’s really only so much you can control about your day. We construct a narrative, a schedule for the day…but a million things happen outside of our narrative. We collide with other narratives, great things happen, and not great things happen. Things happen the way they’re supposed to, the way we planned, but the actual effect is not what we thought it would be, etc. Beethoven 130 (and 131) is a journey in a similar fashion; you aren’t really prepared for any of the movements or any of the moments in these movements. You know how many movements you can expect, maybe even how long it’s going to be…but that’s about it. And maybe subconsciously, we are grateful to not know more because Beethoven is being honest about what our lives are really like. These pieces can be lived in.

It took me a long time to get to my point, but there it is. Thanks for reading! Any discussion, answers, opinions would be so welcome and helpful. I don’t mean to write authoritatively about anything and would love to be wrong anytime about anything. I have other reasons I think Beethoven is moving, some of which I will eventually expound on this blog. I think next time it will be 3rd movement of 130 and why Beethoven understands teenage girl awkwardness better than anyone I’ve encountered.

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