The Beethoven Quartets
by Joseph Kerman
Knopf, 379 pp., $10.00
Mr. Kerman is a high-minded guide. I recommended him to high-minded readers, as well as to credit-minded students in need of a crib—if in these days of student power anyone still is. I also urge musicians to try the book, especially those who despise ancillas and tend to shirk harmonic algebra and the other relationships Mr. Kerman details. But general readers should try it, too. They will complain of key-naming and harmonic path-mapping. Yet Mr. Kerman never loses sight of the grand design of each quartet, and he can still be followed at that elevation by sidestepping the thickets of technical exposition. Music is the subject of the book, in any case, not Beethoven’s illustrations of the author’s critical principles, and not “functional” analysis nor the other brands that prowl about nowadays like solutions in search of problems.
The discussion of the late quartets, to which I must confine my own remarks, is piecemealed under the headings “Voice,” “Contrast,” “Fugue,” “Dissociation and Integration.” The diversity of stances is useful in dealing with Beethoven’s own multifariousness, but unhelpful to those who would prefer to have the whole dossier on each quartet in one place, and who imagine that they are less concerned with group characteristics than individuating ones. The book is rich in insights, nevertheless, no matter how they are subsumed. Mr. Kerman has an acute grasp of the powers of Beethoven’s tonality instrument; of, for example, the focal means with which he creates both anticipation—making distant destinations loom—and surprise. Nor is Mr. Kerman’s study of the other aspects of the quartets, and of Beethoven in general, less perspicacious, valuable observations on such matters as the proprieties of the genres, and the rarity of relationships based on the augmented triad, being found on nearly every page.
Earlier criticism is dealt with, but little of it seems to have been intelligent enough to cause irremediable mischief. (I would have made shorter shrift of it myself, and I do not see why Daniel Gregory Mason should matter so much, or at all.) I admire Mr. Kerman’s…well, bravery—was stopped in my tracks in fact by his demonstration of how the “prolix” first theme in the Finale of the Quartet in E-flat might have been trimmed. I admire his writing, too, if not such favored locutions as “contrasty,” and “doublet” (my mind insists on going to “garment” first); but slips are so rare that when he does fall (“One almost thinks of the Heiliger Dankgesang“: one cannot almost think of that) the reason can only be that he is so highly polished. His arguments are the crucial ones, and they are clearly and cogently propounded. They are arguments, after all, about the highest values in the art.
RESTRICTION TO THE LATE QUARTETS—and to some points in which I find myself most out of step with the consensus—is unfair to the three masterpieces composed for the Russian Ambassador in Vienna, Count Razumovsky. (It …