It is no secret that the lineup of artists performing at Hymie’s on Record Store Day this year includes many of our favorites. You might hear of stores that are graced with surprise visits from rock stars, but we wouldn’t trade a Beatle or Stone for the dozen local greats appearing at our humble shop in a few short weeks – That said, there is one thing I have always wished to host in the record shop that hasn’t come along yet, and that’s a string quartet. In fact, I have several pieces in mind that I would love to hear performed at Hymie’s. There is also a sextet by Brahms that…Well, I’m getting ahead of myself.
The composition I would most like to hear performed at Hymie’s is Beethoven’s 15th string quartet, completed in 1825.
Beethoven’s late quartets are widely considered to be as close to divine as human music has ever been. Of them, the fourteenth is regarded as the very best – Apocryphal or not, the story that Franz Schubert heard the work performed and said “After this, what is there for us to perform?” is a testament to Beethoven’s genius.
That said, my favorite of Beethoven’s quartets is the next, Beethoven’s fifteenth and next to last string quartet (Op. 132, if you’re counting). Its an interesting companion piece to his 9th symphony, which was completed several months earlier. I believe there are melodies in the 15th quartet which were originally composed as part of Beethoven’s epic symphony. Both works certainly feel similar, moving through slow, even somber passages towards a joyous ending. The adagio of the 15th quartet, its third movement titled by Beethoven “A sacred song of thanks from one made well, to the divine, in the Lydian mode” bears some thematic similarities to the 9th symphony but moreover it is remarkable as an example of Beethoven’s capacity to create heartbreakingly beautiful music.
(First movement: Allegro)
(Second movement: Allegro ma non tanto)
You may be a reader who is not interested in classical music – If you’re response to this post is that there is no way you’re going to spend three quarters of an hour listening to a string quartet, give the third movement an open-minded consideration. My experience here in the shop is that people first exploring classical music buy symphonic works and famous ballets. String quartets are difficult to approach, but for many composers they became the perfect framework for their artistry.
In case you’re wondering, string quartets traditionally consist of two violins, a viola and a cello. The great string quartets of the 18th and 19th century find their roots in the baroque period, but as with many genres the standard form was cemented by Joseph Haydn. The generation of composers following Beethoven’s late quartets (1825-6) began exploring the boundaries of the form, maybe bristling under his shadow.
The third movement is presented here in two parts, owing to is prodigious length (Nearly 16 minutes). It should also be noted that this amazing piece of artwork is presented as a low-quality mp3 file. Its something akin to experiencing Moby Dick by seeing the Gregory Peck movie. Something’s getting lost. Everyone knows I’m far from an audiophile (Given the often noisy records I post here) but there’s something to be said for a good recording when you’re listening to Beethoven.
The point of the music included in this forum is to encourage people to try and listen to a variety of things, and maybe to whet some appetites. A lot of people are afraid to explore classical music, for instance, because it make them feel uneducated. Hopefully Hymie’s is a place where nobody feels this way – After all, this blog regularly features Sesame Street records and last fall dedicated one of its longest posts to the lyrics in Superchunk records. Here, then, is one of the most beautiful pieces I have ever heard, which I have probably described stupidly, the third movement from Beethoven’s 15th quartet:
(Third movement: Molto adagio; adante) – In two parts
The fourth and fifth moment of this piece are conjoined by an unusually casual passage. Scholars have long considered the fourth movement one of Beethoven’s rare blunders, coming as it does at the end of a movement of such warmth and depth. It comprises the silly march that lasts only a couple of minutes.
I suppose when you’re clicking at the end of each movement to hear the next track on a computer the effect is not the same regardless. One has to imagine having just heard the adagio in a concert hall in 1825. There must have been an energy in the air as everyone anticipated a triumphant finale along the lines of the composer’s recent symphony, and the fourth movement would then have been a great disappointment.
I also like to imagine why Beethoven included the brief march – Here he is, finishing this piece, one of three quartets commissioned by a prince who was an admirer of Beethoven. He’s charged handsomely for the work. Its overdue. They come knocking on his door and he’s got it all together excepting a transition from the adagio to the finale. He pulls something out of a wastebasket and there it is.
(Fourth and fifth movements: Alla marcia, assal vivace / allegro appasionato; presto.)
Towards the end of his life the great composer lived in a constant state of ill health, yet this piece is distinguished by its adagio giving thanks to God for his recovery. He is an artist whose work is difficult to separate from his life – You can help but to imagine that were he alive today Beethoven would be a fascinating celebrity.
The composer’s own instructions at the end of the third movement are unfathomably impossible – Players are implored to perform “with innermost feeling”. This recording you’ve heard today is by the Loewenguth String Quartet and came out on the Vox label. You could fairly say these fine artists have interpretated Beethoven’s work very well, even if it came long after David Prowse and James Earle Jones had abandoned the character.