Some of you know I had a partial career as a music critic years ago. (Most everything is now “years ago,” it seems.) I wrote about jazz, the record business, ‘70s rock and, later, classical. My writings were all ephemeral; but the music is not. Most all of it is on record in one form or another, the wine and the dregs.
When I was growing up, a lot of Beethoven echoed in my house. Music was an intrinsic part of our lives, and Beethoven was at the heart of it. I’ve talked about that here and in a book I wrote but not much about Beethoven. Well, the Eroica symphony was a revelation to me as a teenager because it completely broke new musical ground. When I began to really listen to the string quartets in college, they became touchstones of my musical life. Jazz was my daily fare, Beethoven the haute cuisine.
Last night, over leftover noodle casserole, I listened again to all three Rasumovsky Quartets, from Beethoven’s middle and troubled years. There is no music in the world like this. Here is Opus 59, no. 2 of these masterpieces.
I won’t give you a critique here, rather some thoughts that the music evoked. First, the surprising turns this music takes: I remembered that critic Whitney Balliett once called jazz “the sound of surprise.” The three quartets embody surprise in abundance. Second was the stark contrast between the world this music projected and our own disjointed times—the ways in which Beethoven could render his disjointed life and times in the coherence and power of his musical speech.
Later I was to think about how the Eroica Symphony and later the Rasumovsky quartets revolutionized the music of Haydn and Mozart. Here’s how Joseph Kerman put it in his classic work on The Beethoven Quartets:
A new world was being explored, and if the string quartet was going to find a place in it at all, it had to smash the fragile, decorous boundaries set by the classic image of chamber music, . . . a new “symphonized” quartet necessarily had to come into being (p. 151).
Haydn and Mozart provided the building blocks, but the decorous age was clearly over, another instance of the surprising ways the 18th century changed thought and art.
There is no analogue today. The crudeness of our pop music and the irrelevance of much contemporary classical offer no relief from the social and political chaos around us. When I’m hungry I go back to Beethoven.
The recording I listened to is a two-SACD set by the Tokyo String Quartet. The sound is extraordinary, their interpretations exemplary. I have other different but interesting renditions on vinyl by the Guarneri, Budapest, and Juilliard ensembles.
Beethoven would go on to even greater heights of expression in the Late Quartets, one of which (the C-Sharp Minor, Opus 131) would change the way I thought about music forever. More on that later, perhaps.