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A Realm of Truth

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 is unfair as well to La Malinconia, that trial balloon not only for later Beethoven but for the Wagner of the first act of Die Walküre; the interim quartets, however, are to my mind imperfectly sustained.) If the “Razumovskys” had been the end of the line we would be exhibiting them as the ne plus ultra of the literature, and no doubt putting a futuristic interpretation on such passages as the beginning of the Quartet in C-Major, discovering in its breathbating, left-field harmonic movement the very fever of the future.

As it is the “Razumovskys” hold their own, partly—but only partly—because they do not compete with the late batch, are in fact so different as to offer few comparisons. No music more abounds in high spirits (the operatic finale of the same quartet) and elegance (the tune with the skipping appoggiatura in the Andante). But these are hardly the first qualities to come to mind in connection with the late quartets; rather, by “Razumovsky” standards, the anomalies and unevennesses, just as, with the view the other way around, the “Razumovskys” inevitably remind the listener of the developments in depth and compression, in the conversion of the form to new expressive ends, in stylistic refinements, that lay ahead. But comparisons are odious. We cannot make love to the future, nor listen to the “Razumovsky” Adagios with the thought that the later quartets contain even “better” music.

Razumovsky himself deserves a word. (More than that, in this nauseating election season: a twenty-one gun salute, say, and in time to obliterate yet another reverberation of paralyzing platitudes from those unspeakable nominating morons, whose “hoopla” in Miami, incidentally, included a “rendition” of the Moonlight Sonata on’ fifty-gallon oil drums.) His duties representing the Russian Empire to the Austrian Empire, in that year of Austerlitz, must have been as demanding as those of Comrades Gromyko, Dobrynin, and other representing Soviet Imperialism to American Imperialism. Count Razumovsky not only commissioned these quartets, however, but he acquired and kept the nimbleness of fingers and mind to be able to play one of the violins in them. I wonder how many ambassadors, political incumbents, spokesmen for the Ministries of Truth, or other high officials of the Great Powers today would even recognize them.

Quartets are in demand everywhere; it really seems that our age is taking a step forward.”

—Beethoven, April, 1826

The string quartet was the most lucid conveyor of musical ideas ever fashioned, and the most singing—i.e., human—of instrumental means; or, rather, if it was not that, natively and necessarily, Beethoven made it so. As for inborn powers, it could register a faster rate of harmonic change than the not yet fully chromatic orchestra of Beethoven’s time, which was further impeded by a weight problem and balance problem. It is a more intimate medium, furthermore, partly by the same tokens; and a more pleasing one, long-term, as color: to me at any rate, and in my case partly because I am least conscious of the color element in it. Its sustaining powers are greater than those of wind-instrument ensembles, and its ranges of speeds, and of degrees of soft volumes, are wider. Compared to the piano, its advantages are in polyphonic delineation and in the greater variety of dynamic articulation and nuance.


He heard nothing…but his eyes followed the bows and from that he was able to judge the smallest fluctuations in tempo and rhythm.”

—J. Böhm, March, 1825

THE E-FLAT and the larger and more innovatory C-sharp Minor are the most unified, consistent, satisfying of the late quartets. But apart from success, the parallels—“Morphological” and “architectural” similarities in the variation movements, mainly—seem to me factitious. What the two quartets do share, incontrovertibly, is an influence on Wagner. “Who comes after him will not continue him, but must begin anew, for he who went before left off only where art leaves off.” Thus Grillparzer’s oration for Beethoven’s funeral, and if the poet seems to have been writing with Wagner in mind so does Beethoven himself in the Adagio molto espressivo variation in this Quartet in E-flat. It is clear that the music’s message to Wagner, at any rate, was “Bonjour, ‘Tristan.”’

The pizzicato figure at the beginning of the Scherzando movement derives from the preceding movement (at ms. 120 and, with arco articulation, ms. 95); which may not be “hard” news, exactly, but is an interesting connection all the same because aurally obvious even with the interval inverted. A similar link, no less apparent to the ear, is the recurrence of that feature of the Scherzando, the accented second beat (and silent first and third beats), in the last measures of the Finale. I prefer this Finale, incidentally, to any other in the quartets, and all of it, the blustery, orchestral second theme no less than the Coda, with its graceful change of mood and meter. But, then, I am inclined to resist Gypsy and Hungarian finales, even by Beethoven, and the ending of the Quartet in C-sharp Minor is a Magyar uprising.


Beethoven describes himself in the epigraph to the third movement as “one recovered” (eines Genesenen), but the continuing trauma of the illness is more apparent in the music. “Hysterical,” Mr. Kerman’s word for the violin outburst with which the Allegro begins, applies as well, I think, to the oscillations of mood throughout the quartet.

Whereas the first movement is slow in starting, and patchy and spasmodic much of the way, the second fails to stop in time; or seems to, probably because the subject matter is not grippingly interesting in the first place, and for a moment (ms. 63-68) is actually dull. But the serenity of the Trio presages the movement by which—or by part of which: the hymn in white-key counterpoint if not the interspersions of minuet1 the quartet is remembered. Two slices of “minuet” and three of hymn pile up like a five-decker Dagwood sandwich, except that the hymn decks and “minuet” decks fail to integrate, and even to react on each other. In consequence, the listener forgets the “minuet” and therefore that Beethoven ever did feel any “new strength.”

The last movement is very odd: a march that might have been composed thirty years earlier and shelved; a bombastic recitative incorporating a version of the violin paroxysm from the first movement; a dance whose frenetic later adventures are unforeseen in its beginning as a Valse Noble et Sentimentale.


This is the most radical of the quartets; most modern, too, in the local sense: the written-out violin glissando in the Presto, for example, would pass undetected as a contribution by Beethoven in a collage of last week’s premieres. But nearly everything about the quartet is controversial, I discover, including my assumption that the wide assortment of the pieces indicates a desire to enlarge the form and enrich the variety of the contents: which seems obvious if for no other reason than that an expanded form is again pursued in the next quartet, but realized through continuity rather than variety.

THE SUBSTANCE of the first movement is rich, but the exposition vacillates. At moments such as the faltering between ms. 192-197, and the premature return of the D-flat episode in the recapitulation—I am not ready to welcome it back at any rate—it does not altogether cohere. But to some extent the open stretch of Allegro at the beginning of the development section saves the movement: a mitigated disaster, then.

Reviewing the Cavatina, Mr. Kerman rightly takes to task a remark from an I-had-hoped long-forgotten anthology of my own utterances. But I do not think—it is part of his argument—that the love and care which Beethoven put into the piece (never a dry eye later at the thought of it), and the evidence in it of emotional scar-tissue, are entitled to any allowance on the receiving end. Elsewhere Mr. Kerman concedes the impossibility of harnessing technical analyses to aesthetic results, and at the end of his study eloquently questions the efficacy of what in fact he has done so very well. But neither is there any ratio between the amount of labor and the value of the result; which is why the labor is strictly the artist’s affair. Genius strikes where it will, in any case, even Beethoven’s.

To my mind it did not strike very deeply in the Cavatina apart from the “beklemmt” episode. (Which does not mean that I am right and Mr. Kerman wrong. But whether or not I am “overreacting” to Mr. Kerman, I am, as a composer myself, unavoidably doing so to Beethoven.) I do not find its melodic-harmonic substance especially distinguished, and the treatment attenuates it. The piece is handicapped in the first place, however, by offering a too extreme contrast to the preceding Andante. If the Cavatina is the most tormented movement in the late quartets, then the Andante must be one of the most insouciant (in the manner of the Allegretto of the Eighth Symphony, as Mr. Kerman notes of the ending, and I would add of ms. 18-19 as well). But while the Andante seems to skim over the surface of the composer’s “personal emotions” as lightly as a hydrofoil—in comparison, that is, to the depth-plunge of the Cavatina—its musical motion, whatever the cost to him and his later feelings about it, is the less shallow of the two movements.


And why didn’t they encore the Fugue? That alone should have been repeated! Cattle! Asses!”

—Beethoven, March, 1826

The Great Fugue enlarges the meaning of Beethoven more than any other work (which does not mean that I regard it as a separate piece rather than a quartet movement). It breaks all of our measurements, too, human no less than musical, especially the sudden, sustained, scarcely believable energy, as if from a musical Platformate. The other quartets we can know, even to faulting them, wanting what we love to be what we want it to be. But the Fugue is not knowable in the same way. Prejudices as to dimensions and elements must be overcome. When they have been, if they can be, we discover that no chain of expectations is built up in us, that the music defies familiarity by being new and different every time.

Whether the substantive difficulties are attributable more to isolation—the Fugue lacks both ancestors and inheritors—or the other way around, is an imponderable; and so is the question of whether the possibility of the masterpiece is a consequence of historical intersections, or whether the intersections are retroactively brought about by the event of the masterpiece. So far as “stylistic environments” are concerned, in any case, and works of art as “personifications of their time,” parts of the Fugue might have been incubated in a space satellite. As for the absence of an influence of its own, this may be simply a case of no one being able to “join it,” let alone “beat it.” But if the music had entered the consciousness of its time, Modern Music would have lost some of its sting at a much earlier date, and where would we be now? (Where are we?)

THE FUGUE still has a bad press, is still reputed to be abstruse, intractable, dissonant, relentlessly loud; which proves how little known it is. Nor has criticism, deprived of comparisons, its main tool apart from the knife, won it new love; or while picking it apart noticed the range in it, the annexation of territory reserved for Debussy (from ms. 581), for instance, and the playful delaying of the cadence at the end of the G-flat section.2 But the critic must feel the ineluctability of new measurements, and is at best only guessing at something the artist knows.

The Overtura, Mr. Kerman says, “hurls all the thematic versions at the listener’s head like a handful of rocks.” The Davidic image seems to betray persecution feelings about the music, however, the more so since the versions marked piano and pianissimo are outstandingly non-lithic. (Hawkish similes are best suited to the first fugue subject, I think; in fact I was about to compare it to an ICBM, myself, as an example of musical escalation from the “Mannheim Rocket” in the Sonata, Opus 2.) If this is actually the case, the more remarkable Mr. Kerman’s understanding of it, and of the main issue, which is the switch in focus from contrapuntal devices to thematic transformation.

The importance of design in this new perspective is apparent in the Overtura, a thematic index identifying the different versions of the subject as well as prognosticating and priming the larger components of the form. Each thematic version is endowed with distinctive secondary attributes (counting pitch and rhythm as primary): a trill and appoggiatura, for instance, in the version destined for the most complex treatment, and a slow tempo and soft dynamic in the version predicting an episode in the same speed and volume. These secondary characteristics constitute an auxiliary set of referents with which to identify thematic material in remote transformations, as well as to construct alternative views: silhouettes, for example, on the analogy that the full-face is revealed only in the pitches; and fragmentary contrapuntal refractions, as in the double mirror, rhythmically speaking, with which the A-flat Fugue begins.

The rhythmic aspect of the Fugue is the most radical, but the least isolable: the rhythmic units and patterns are so consistently identified with the thematic versions, in fact, that the barely numerate composer (he could not multiply) might have been using what is now called (by mathematical composers who cannot write Great Fugues) a parameter of rhythmic entities. The vocabulary itself is new formed in part by an unprecedented use of syncopation, by a new degree of subdivision,3 and by irregular durations. But here, above all in the A-flat fugue which is the climax of this giant creation, Beethoven is exploring a region beyond the other late quartets. Who, being taken there today, can imagine that he would have reacted less dumbly himself, in 1826, than the “cattle” and the “asses”?


Thank God there is less lack of fancy than ever before.”

—Beethoven, Summer, 1826

Everything in this masterpiece is perfect, inevitable, inalterable. It is beyond the impudence of praise, too (partly because of difficulties with the vocabulary in that service), if not quite beyond criticism, which can only be overstated however, and is destined to disappear in context. Thus the Presto could conceivably be considered repetitious, by itself, while the objection is obviously untrue of the movement in its place in the quartet, where less would not be more and abridgment is unthinkable anyway. Thus, too, the final Allegretto variations, which fittingly succeed music of the most exalted feeling and ineffable radiance, could imaginably seem almost trivial “in themselves,” if they can be evaluated “in themselves.” The Presto recalls the Pastoral Symphony, incidentally, in the character of the second theme and its accompaniment, the limited harmonic plan, the echoed hallooings, the silences like the pauses before the storm in the symphony.

TO SAY that each quartet is distinguished by a quality of sonority is probably to say nothing more than that the quartets themselves are different; yet the luster of the instruments in these variations is unique. (“Singing masons building roofs of gold,” says the Archbishop in Henry V.) One’s “soul” actually seems to migrate during this music, in fact—to one’s no small surprise, the earlier movements having formed and implanted this ill-defined zone by stealth. Nor is the ethereality shattered by the pizzicati in the 6/8 variation, even though this effect has now been associated with pirouetting hippopotamuses, or other improbable acrobatics by other denizens of the Disney animated zoo.

The most affecting music of all, to me, is the beginning of the Andante Moderato variation. The mood is like no other (“impassive,” one commentator called it, but he meant “impenetrable”), and the intensity, if it were to endure a measure longer, would be intolerable.


It will be the last and it has given me much trouble….”

—Beethoven, October, 1826

The weaknesses are obvious: the shortness of breath, the failure to push the argument, the stylistic jolt of the final movement and its musical-snuff-box tune; but the strengths outweigh and outnumber them. The quartet is said to be short on innovations, too, but the repeated figure in the Vivace is the newest and most astonishing idea Beethoven ever had. The modulations in the end movements are new and fresh, too, but also abrupt, some of them, as if the composer’s restlessness had been translated to a dislike of being confined in any tonality for long. In defense of musical snuff boxes, moreover, it is at least arguable that the now too tinkly pretty effect of the pizzicati on the last page is really the fault of Tchaikovsky, who oversold it.

Beethoven described the slow movement in a preliminary stage as a “süsser Ruhegesang oder Friedensgesang“; but to me it is Trauermusik—not necessarily a contradiction. The second variation is a dirge, in any case, and the prescience of death in the elegiac fourth variation is unmistakable.

THESE QUARTETS are my highest articles of musical belief (which is a longer word for love, whatever else), as indispensable to the ways and meanings of art, as a musician of my era thinks of art and has tried to learn it, as temperature is to life. They are a triumph over temporality, too, possibly a longer-lasting one, as events are threatening to prove, than other triumphs in other arts, for at least they cannot be bombed, melted down, or bulldozed by progress. This “immortality” in the music appears to have been recognized even by Beethoven’s contemporaries. “He will live until the end of time,” Grillparzer said, the words being read out in the Friedhof cemetery as the mortal part was lowered into the earth, taking with it the largest share anyone ever had of the power of musical creation itself. The poet then asked the departing mourners to “Remember this hour in times to come when you feel the overpowering might of his creations like an onrushing storm.”

  1. 1

    As the 3/8 is played on my recording, a performance otherwise notable for a great deal of Xenakis-like sliding about, presumably under the stress of emotion, and an inability to count from one to two, steadily, and of producing two consecutively in-tune notes. Schnabel’s dictum, “Great music is better than it can be performed,” is being taken too complacently.

  2. 2

    Concerning the octaves immediately before, I wonder if the strategic effect of the same device in Bach’s two-voice E-Minor Fugue had lodged in Beethoven’s imagination at some earlier time.

  3. 3

    The tied-eights-for-quarters notation “conveys the grasping urgency of the theme,” says Mr. Kerman, and so it does, at any rate to score-readers, but before doing that it conveys the imminence of rhythmic subdivision.

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