LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN Defamiliarising the familiar

The old adage that the most powerful shots of wisdom teach you nothing new, but rather make you freshly aware of things you already know, applies with equal validity to great music. Take Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Two big blocks of four notes form its opening. When I first heard the work in my early teens I was at an inestimable advantage: not for me the popular ‘V for Victory’ association, or ‘Germany Calling’, or ‘fate knocking at the door’, but music plain and simple, an opening movement that puts its cards on the table, argues the toss then revisits those same cards with renewed force and clarity. Sonata Form is what it’s called, though I wasn’t aware of the fact and even if I had been, it wouldn’t have mattered a jot. Beyond that first movement comes a rolling processional, an imperious scherzo, a quietly tapping reminder of the opening motive and then, wham! Beethoven becomes Jack and the beanstalk and delivers a high-rise, deliriously excited finale. The Symphony’s dénouement achieves genuine closure. I’ve listened to the 5th countless times since, always with that same uncanny sensation – that it reminds me of what I already know.

OK, let me take another route to this same theory, one of Beethoven’s last works, composed in the isolation of deafness. Written without hearing or adequate sensory perceptions Beethoven is in effect playing mind games with us, scoring the notes its true but relying primarily on our pooled intuition to interpret them. People whose intuition functions at a relatively low ebb tend not to appreciate late Beethoven. They find the music too diffuse, formless and unhinged, certainly in comparison with the ‘early’ and ‘middle’ works (the Fifth Symphony being a good example of what I mean). I’ll quote in particular the B flat Quartet Op. 130, No. 13 in the canon, which exists in two forms, the first, or the ‘original’, a sequence of six movements, the last of which is a gargantuan ‘Great Fugue’, confrontational music, like a dramatised representation of  Michelangelo’s ‘The Creation of Adam’ on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, aural lightning that rails or relaxes, thinks aloud, dances and sings then rushes to close on a tide of emotion. Amazing how Beethoven had preceded it with a beautiful love song, or ‘Cavatina’, lulling us into a false sense of security before catapulting the barbed Fugue at us. That ‘Cavatina’ has proved popular as a stand-alone piece (it’s the final item on the ‘Voyager Golden Record’, which was sent into space in 1977), while the ‘Grosse Fuge’ has also achieved a life of its own.  But reaction to the Fugue at the parent work’s premiere was so negative that Beethoven’s publisher suggested a much shorter and lighter replacement, which turned out to be the composer’s last completed composition. It’s a gaily dancing ‘allegro’, or contredanse, very pleasant but that transforms Op. 130 from an epic that ends with a massive, shock finale to a sort of likeable divertimento. Not, surely, what Beethoven originally had in mind.

Many performing quartets who deliver, or delivered, complete Beethoven quartet cycles in concert offer two complete performances of Op.130, one with the Fugue, one with the Allegro (Busch, Elias, Alban Berg Quartets) but for me there’s no contest between options. It’s the ‘Grosse Fuge’ or ‘Great Fugue’ every time.

And there’s the last quartet of all, No. 16 in F major, Op. 135, where the finale, headed ‘Der schwer gefaßte Entschluß’ or ‘The Difficult Decision’, presents us with an unexpected conundrum. It opens with a darkly agitated passage ‘Muss es sein?’, ‘Must it be?’, then jumps to an affirmative allegro ‘Es muss sein!’, ‘It must be!’ These words are precisely reflected in the music’s notation. The most popular theory about this strange juxtaposition, one backed by certain written evidence, is that it refers to an unpaid debt. But let’s ditch that idea just for a moment and return to the music. Half-way through the movement, the question returns, as if there was no escaping it after all – the end is indeed in sight. But then Beethoven shrugs it off again and you could say that what he’s suggesting to us is not ‘this is the end’, but ‘this is a new beginning’.



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