The 2020 Beethoven Zeitgeist: The Last String Quartets

Our idea of Beethoven is, perhaps appropriately, a romantic and idealised one: the paradox of the cantankerous composer producing music of the utmost compassion; a man struggling with deafness whilst conjuring -- from the imagination -- the most incredible aural aesthetic. In this, the 250th anniversary of his birth, the concert hall is undergoing what is at least an indefinite, silent sleep, and struggling financially. We are in an era of hyper-polarisation, amidst a global pandemic that is causing ruptures in politics, economics, and the collective of society, as well as introspection on an individual level.

Having written his final, ninth symphony in 1824, Beethoven was commissioned to add to his oeuvre of eleven string quartets hitherto. In this, the second movement of his twelfth quartet (the first of the six masterpieces which are his last string quartets), the Belcea Quartet creates a radiant and otherworldly sonority. Seven minutes in, we witness a sea change in a new world of E major, and the result is a blissful twilight which sets the tone for the rest of the movement:

This is one example of the wonderment in Beethoven’s string quartets. As the website of the Belcea Quartet states, “Today’s modern technology offers us immediate access to all kinds of music and, as a result, we often find ourselves listening without knowing what it is that we are hearing. Aren’t such moments making us listen with a greater than usual sense of alertness and openness? If so, then this is a quality which Beethoven surely would have relished…”

The founding members of today’s Belcea quartet, Corina Belcea and Krzysztof Chorzelski, learnt with members of the legendary Amadeus Quartet. Having all fled Vienna in 1938, Peter Schidlof met fellow violinist Norbert Brainin in Shropshire, then Sigmund Nissel in the Isle of Man. They were asylum seekers, deemed ‘friendly enemy aliens’ when war broke. In the late 1940s in London, they formed a quartet with young cellist Martin Lovett and, over four decades, became an international triumph for their romantic tone and authentic musicality. As Martin Lovett remarked in Peter Snowden’s study, ‘When I play Beethoven, I get the impression that he knew what it would feel like actually playing the piece, so that the performer is virtually sharing with him an insight into the very process of creation’. Op 131 encapsulates a greater narrative of exploration, continually conveying a searching emotional honesty. It possesses a quality which an old school teacher called a ‘cosmic synchronicity’. (And this is a reminder that Beethoven, when writing this, was deaf, amongst other sufferings.) This is the Amadeus Quartet:

During the second world war, TS Eliot found catharsis and solace in these works, and wrote “There is a sort of heavenly, or at least more than human gaiety, about some of his later things which one imagines might come to oneself as the fruit of reconciliation and relief after immense suffering; I should like to get something of that into verse before I die.” Eliot’s ‘The Four Quartets’, almost like Beethoven’s final works, were conceived as a laboured meditation, signifying a critical reconciling of spirituality with the contemporary state of the world (an explanatory discussion, both accessible and scholarly, is one of many episodes in BBC’s ‘In Our Time’). My friend Keval Nathwani recently offered a beautiful discussion of the stoicism of Beethoven and its contemporary significance

There is a journey of progress within the minutes of a piece of music itself; then, decades (perhaps over a century) later, it seems, there is progress from the music. Scholar Theodor Adorno found profound meaning in the argument that Beethoven’s music ‘represents the social progress’: each individual moment (in a piece of music, or in society) can only be understood in its whole context, but not in isolation from the rest. The swings and switches between contrasting moods and themes creates an antitheses which ‘taken individually, seem to contradict each other’, wrote Adorno. This, he argued, was the essence of ‘Beethovenian unity’. The contrasts are preserved in their identity through ‘consummation of the form as a whole’.

Hegel (coincidentally born, like Beethoven, in 1770) contended that a weltgeist or ‘world spirit’ meant that there was a kind of destiny to history, in his book on the ‘phenomenology of the spirit’ (or ‘mind’, ‘Geistes’). By coincidence, at the same time, Beethoven was writing his fifth symphony, with its opening motif compared by the composer himself to ‘fate knocking at the door’. To quote the last of Beethoven’s quartets, there was a sense of ‘es muss sein’, or ‘it must be’. Hegel supposedly posited that people’s actions were not independent, but instead a response to the prevailing spirit of the time (this came to be known as the zeitgeist). As Professor Laura Tunbridge said on BBC Radio 4's Front Row, the start of the 19th century had caused Beethoven to have a strong sense of posterity: he was conscious that the previous generation of composers had left a legacy to build upon. Beethoven was an individual genius whose creativity was almost permitted by the events and values of the early 19th century. The Holy Roman Empire dissolved, maps were redrawn, and constitutional norms were thrown into chaos, as Napoleon and then Francis declared themselves emperors. It seemed the Enlightenment had met an impasse, as the French revolution had not lived up to its hopeful ideals.

Yet if the fate of the world was set in stone, would there not be little point in (trying to) improve it? And if the course of history is predetermined, what would have happened to musical history had Beethoven never been born? It is impossible to tell, but inspiration is heard in Viennese contemporaries such as Schubert, just as his legacy is ever present in the work of the Mendelssohns, the Schumanns, and Brahms et al. Beethoven’s conviction, innovation and expression was unprecedented, and established a new tradition of self-expression. This revolution in composition inspired and burdened Romantic composers as they found their own individual and distinctive voices.

Samuel Teale Chadwick, October 2020

Further reading: - Emily Bootle, Beethoven was a musical revolutionary – but was he a political one, too? Alex Ross, Beethoven transformed music—but has veneration of him stifled his successors? Scott Horton, 'Adorno’s linkage of Hegel to Beethoven shouldn’t be misunderstood as a suggestion that Hegel studied and was influenced by Beethoven… or vice versa. Rather it shows how common intellectual precepts can work their way into philosophy and art. On this point he appears to be on firm ground.’

Samuel has also written:

Historically Informed and Innovative: Kopatchinskaja's Beethoven Violin Concerto

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