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Beethoven’s Late String Quartets – Sublime Madness?

I wonder if Daniel Chua wrote a book on all Beethoven’s late string quartets, or is going to.  But he was invited to speak on such at CU’s Book Club on 22 March, and the material could construe a book.  Daniel Chua is the Head of the School of Humanities, HKU, and is a music professor.  I would say a talk about music to a general audience would be likely on music appreciation and its philosophy.  But Daniel Chua’s talk was heavily dotted with technical aspects of the art, and would require some music knowledge to understand.  This may not be applicable to the regular book talk attendants.  Luckily, among the audience, there were many Daniel Chua fans, including music scholars and his music students.  Also, Daniel Chua gave a lively talk with energy and humour.  The floor was generally enlightened and satisfied.   I think the CU Book Club website will have a video recording of the talk later on.  Those who are interested may re-visit the talk in full.  However, there are a few issues on the topic which allow me to wander further.

Beethoven concentrated on writing these string quartets during the last three years of his life.  The style and emotion expressed were different from his previous work.  All music critics pretended to be a worm in his belly and drew up various theories on the change, most were subjective and speculative.  Some said he was deaf then and the music were for the eyes on the score instead of the ears; some said he was disillusioned from his heroic period and went pessimistic; some said these were his death songs.  But none was true.  Though with hearing impairment, the sound effect of music was still in his mind.  Many musicians could hear music by reading the score. It was true that the heroic period in Europe as a whole diminished by then, but the late string quartets were not sad music.  They were experimental and many passages were full of spirit.  On the last part, Daniel Chua cleverly pointed out that Beethoven did not know he would die in three years.  Instead, he just recovered from illness and was happy about it.

Beethoven was well known for his creativity and innovation.  It would be a natural process for his music style to evolve.  On appreciation of music, there are some standard approaches.  One is to follow your natural instinct and reaction to melody and rhythm.  Anyone would feel romantic or sad on slow passages, and be excited on loud and fast tunes.  The other is to distinguish music instruments in an orchestra and appreciate tone colour.  A deeper appreciation is on form, to be able to understand how the music developed following some composing methods.  These are the perspectives of the audience.  However, the mind of the composers may be different.  While they still do all these normal things, at the same time they will try to break away from tradition.

After listening to Beethoven’s glorious symphonies for a few decades, the audience suddenly found that Beethoven abandoned the orchestra and only composed string quartets, a simple form without other instruments.  Also, the familiar construction of sonata form was also changed.  Movements were arranged differently and expectation was broken.  Even the basic melodic and rhythmic progressions were changed.  There were mimics of conversation and recitative in the music which were theatrical.  Beethoven had gone mad.  This was the assessment in the 19th century.  Nowadays, we found that all composers were doing the same.  This was just not accepted as normal practice at that time.

A well-known work of the late string quartets I admire is the “Heiliger Dankgesang” or holy song of thanksgiving.  It is the third movement of string quartet in A minor, op. 132, composed after Beethoven recovered from a serious illness.  The main theme is peaceful, slow, steady, long and with perfect harmony; only white notes are used.  Critics at that time called it a thanksgiving song to god.  However, there is a middle section which is a dance, showing smooth bodily movement and is not suitable for use in worship.  Modern critics considered that this movement was a record of the state of mind of Beethoven recovering from his illness.  The slow and solemn section is a representation of him in convalescence in bed; and the dance section, marked “Neue Kraft fuhlend” with renewed strength, simply reflects his becoming energetic again.  The slow passage in this movement contains much deep thoughts, and could only be discovered more and more as being listened to time and again.

Another prominent and controversial work of the quartets is the Grande Fugue, the last movement of string quartet in B flat major, op. 130, or not.  It was originally written as the last movement of the quartet.  The audience did not like it, finding it too difficult and awkward.  Beethoven was furious, but he was persuaded by the publisher and friends to write a replacement movement, which was a dance with much simplicity.  The Grande Fugue was published separately as op. 133, a standalone piece.  Two centuries later, Stravinsky the modern composer still found the Grande Fugue fresh and revealing; and he considered Beethoven had written something well ahead of his time.  The fugue is a standard composing method in the form of a canon highlighting intertwining melodies developed from a theme.  It was popular a generation before Beethoven, but had then become archaic, to be composed as homework by music students.  Beethoven chose this simple form but did it in the most complex manner.  Instead of good harmony and well balanced counterpoint of a fugue, this piece is full of dissonance.  Each instrument seems to have a mind of its own.  The melodies seem to contradict rather than complement each other, creating great chaos.  I took it as a challenge and listened for a week.  It is a double fugue with two themes each with development of their own.  Out of the confusing counterpoint, there emerges a scenery of chaos and pain before settling down.  To put it in context with the quartet in B flat major, some critics noticed that the slow movement before it was the cavatina, a beautiful song with a very sad middle section, like someone weeping while singing with the lyrics broken.  Some critics called it the Gethsemane scene which was the night of the capture of Jesus.  Thus it followed that the next movement the Grande Fugue was about cruxification.  However, I find it too far-fetched.  To really put it in context, one has to consider the whole string quartet, where the first three movements are not religious as such.