beethoven's late string quartets -- 4/12/19

Today's selection -- from Stradivari's Genius by Toby Faber. Ludwig von Beethoven's later quartets:

"Joseph Böhm was a Hungarian violinist, inspired and briefly taught by Pierre Rode, one of [Giovanni] Viotti's most distinguished pupils. ...

"Böhm began his career in Vienna at a time when that of its presiding musical genius was coming to an end. Ludwig van Beethoven was by now almost totally deaf, yet he was turning his sublime talent toward the compositions that are to many his life's masterpieces: the late string quartets. Böhm and the Khevenhüller [Stradivarius violin] turned out to be in the right place at the right time. The first of Beethoven's late quartets, the E-Flat Opus 127, was premiered on March 6, 1825, by the quartet led by Ignaz Schuppanzigh. It was far from satisfactory. Beethoven had subverted the classical form with surprises, introducing unprecedented textures and sonori­ties. The audience scarcely knew what to make of it, and the play­ers themselves were probably underprepared for such difficult music, having received the score only two weeks before.

"Beethoven blamed Schuppanzigh's excessive stoutness for the failure, and insisted that the next performance should be given by the same quartet but led by Böhm. The violinist later remembered the commission:

" 'Beethoven could have no peace until the disgrace was wiped off. He sent for me the first thing in the morning -- ­in his usual curt way, he said to me, "You must play my quar­tet"  -- and the thing was settled. Neither objections nor doubts could prevail, what Beethoven wanted had to take place, so, I undertook the difficult task.'

"Böhm found rehearsals a disquieting experience:

" 'It was studied industriously and rehearsed frequently under Beethoven's own eyes. I said "eyes" intentionally for the un­happy man was so deaf that he could no longer hear the heavenly sound of his compositions. And, yet, rehearsing in his presence was not easy. With close attention, his eyes fol­lowed the bows and therefore he was able to judge the smallest fluctuations in tempo or rhythm and correct them immediately.'

"Even so, Böhm was able to exert some influence:

" 'At the close of the last movement of this quartet there oc­curred a meno vivace which seemed to me to weaken the general effect. At the rehearsal, therefore, I advised that the original tempo be maintained, to the betterment of the ef­fect. Beethoven, crouched in a corner, heard nothing, but watched with strained attention. After the last stroke of the bows he said laconically. "Let it remain so," went to the desks and crossed out the meno vivace in the four parts.'

"Another story tells how at an early run -- through of one quar­tet (almost certainly this one) Böhm was brave enough to declare a passage to be unplayable. 'Böhm! He's an ass!' was Beethoven's immediate rejoinder. Nevertheless the composer re­sponded with alterations, coming back at the next rehearsal with a 'Na, Böhmerl, are you satisfied now?'

"It may have been the extra rehearsal time, or Böhms natural affinity with the music -- and the 'powerful, mellow and sweet' Khevenhüller no doubt played a part -- but the second and subse­quent performances of the quartet were all huge successes. Böhm led four of them: once in front of a small audience, twice in one evening at a public concert, and once at a well-deserved benefit for Böhm himself. Encouraged, Beethoven was to devote the remainder of his life to producing the four further quartets that make up the group. Posterity could scarcely owe any violin­ist or violin a greater debt."



Toby Faber


Stradivari's Genius


2006 Random House


Copyright 2004 by Toby Faber


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