Strange as it sounds, sitting in Carnegie Hall listening to a virtuoso string quartet play some of Beethoven’s most sublime compositions, I kept thinking about Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. In the film, Beethoven’s music is on the one hand a grand (and seemingly appropriate) backdrop for Alex de Large’s decadent orgies and remorseless acts of “ultra-violence”; on the other, it’s an instrument of divine wrath: After Alex weasels his way out of jail by submitting to an experimental “cure” that conditions him to react to aggression and, in a punitive twist, his favorite symphony (Beethoven’s Ninth) with debilitating physical pain, a former victim (whose eerie resemblance to Anton Dietrich’s famous bust of Beethoven-as-godhead makes him a perfect placeholder for the composer) locks the errant lad in a room and exacts poetic justice with a P.A. system. Art, it seems, has been redeemed from the clutches of this particularly repulsive proponent of Romanticism (in that he defines beauty, right, and wrong in purely subjective terms), and returned to realm of the fixed, classical Ideal. But either way, the music seems to fit. The underlying tension is nothing new. In fact, music historians have fought over designations such as “Beethoven the romantic” and “Beethoven the classicist” for centuries. But with Beethoven: The Quartets in Context, a sweeping series of concerts at Carnegie Hall this June—during which the entire cycle of Beethoven’s string quartets was performed alongside carefully selected “context” pieces ranging from Mozart to Shostakovich—the prestigious Emerson String Quartet made the most persuasive argument in recent memory for radically reevaluating, if not calling off, the whole fight—and they did it without uttering a word.
After his death in 1827, writers and musicians invested in Romantic ideals, such as Hugo and Wagner, more or less carried the day, insuring the dominance of the Beethoven-as-romantic paradigm until well into the twentieth century. In the late 1920s, however, a series of influential books and articles suddenly shifted the balance of power and, as scholar Maynard Solomon writes in his essay “Beethoven: Beyond Classicism,” “overturned the accepted notion of Beethoven’s romanticism and established the dominant modern view of him as the inheritor of twin traditions—ideologically those of the Enlightenment and musically those of European, especially Viennese, classicism.”
Beethoven was, after all, deeply devoted to classical idioms like the sonata form, and an understanding of his work certainly benefits from knowledge of his predecessors, such as Mozart and Haydn. But the trouble with a purely classical picture—however persuasive it might seem after the reckless disregard of historical detail by hordes of Romantic appropriators—is that it tends to overlook the incredibly innovative, even transgressive, character of the great composer’s music. “Such conservative perceptions of Beethoven would have come as a great surprise to both his supporters and his adversaries in his own time,” writes Solomon.
There is another way. No law says you have to think about Beethoven in terms of a couple of loosely defined artistic movements—especially movements some scholars don’t even believe to be distinct. Besides, as movements can’t be defined by specific characteristics in the first place, but by what philosopher (and Beethoven fanatic) Ludwig Wittgenstein referred to as “family resemblances,” rigidity renders them useless. (“For if you look at them you will not see something that is common to all, but similarities, relationships, and a whole series of them at that,” Wittgenstein observes in Philosophical Investigations. “To repeat: Don’t think, but look.”) And what better evidence for their uselessness in a given situation than generations of confusion and disagreement? We need a new way of seeing—what Oswald Spengler, in The Decline of the West, called a “Principle of Form.” And that’s where the Emerson Quartet comes in.
Although most listeners are more familiar with his symphonies, the string quartet form was particularly dear to Beethoven throughout his life. More or less invented by Haydn, under whom Beethoven studied, it was prized by Viennese connoisseurs for its relationship to the ideal of polite conversation: four parts of equal importance engaged in sophisticated dialogue, each voice both easy to pick out and an inextricable part of an organic whole. Quartets also fit seamlessly into the artistic economy of eighteenth-century Vienna, in which new works were circulated via sheet music and performances were generally amateur affairs in private homes or small gatherings of aristocrats.
As practice gradually moved away from this insular model, and standing, virtuoso quartets replaced ad hoc groups as the chief vehicles of chamber music performance, Beethoven’s compositions became increasingly experimental (and daunting). Legend has it that when Ignaz Schuppanzigh—a well-known Viennese violinist and Beethoven supporter—complained about a particularly difficult passage in one of the Op. 59 quartets, the master retorted, “Do you suppose I am thinking about your wretched fiddle when the spirit moves me?”
The overwhelming progression from Beethoven’s first six quartets (Op. 18)—which are undeniably possessed of a distinct voice, but deeply rooted in eighteenth- century classical convention—to the wildly innovative late quartets, makes for a broad cycle. At the same time, their intimate scale makes them relatively manageable. Which is why the Emersons were particularly well suited to the task of finding a more perspicuous way of thinking about Beethoven’s body of work (and his place in musical history) as a whole.
Of course, it goes without saying that their particular approach to the project—putting Beethoven’s chamber music “in context” by juxtaposing it with other work—is more tribute-album than archeological dig, and the Emersons’ embrace of this subjectivity is precisely what made the series so effective. Deftly steering between the Scylla of obsessive historicism and the Charybdis of knee-jerk movement-identification, they focused instead on Beethoven’s multifaceted influence on a wide variety of later composers.
Of the twelve context pieces, only three predated the Beethoven quartet they accompanied; one was the work of a Beethoven contemporary (Schubert); five were from the twentieth century. The series finale was a new work by Kaija Saariaho. Clearly, the “context” the Emersons had in mind was chiefly retrospective. But they had no more interest in building Beethoven up as a monolithic hero than in demystifying him (like many scholars in the classicist camp) by nailing him down to a historical matrix. Instead, by finding novel ways to make connections between seemingly disparate musical works (and, by extension, eras and movements), they fostered new kinds of “aspect-seeing.” On June 10, for example, the Emersons performed one of Beethoven’s more accessible later quartets, the Harp (Op. 74), alongside Webern’s jagged Five Pieces (Op. 5) and Bartok’s radically dissonant Quartet No. 3. While perceiving continuity between these works was initially a challenge, the simple observation that they all made use of extensive pizzicato passages gently led the listener to subtler epiphanies, which, in turn, opened upon still deeper ones (some beyond the reach of logic or language).
Another good example is the June 14 performance, which featured Bach’s Art of Fugue (composed around 1743) and Shostakovich String Quartet No. 15 (composed in 1974) alongside Beethoven’s Quartet in B-flat Major, Op. 130 (1825–26). The most obvious connection between these pieces is the use of fugue, a Baroque technique in which a single “subject” is developed by four independent but systematically interwoven voices. Bach, the undisputed master of the form, was a great inspiration to Beethoven and Shostakovich; Op. 130 culminates in the bizarre Große Fugue, and Shostakovich’s Quartet No. 15 opens with a fugue (neither of which sounds much like Bach). With this common ground as starting point, other similarities between Op. 130 and No. 15 became apparent: both are in six parts rather than four, and make extensive use of theatrical gestures. In the Op. 130 cavatina movement, for example, the first violin seems alternately to weep and gasp for air in a soliloquy of astounding pathos, while No. 15’s movements have no breaks between them and are all in adagio, giving the thirty-four-minute work the brooding density of tragic drama. Somehow, this connection sheds light on Bach’s work as well.
In The Quartets in Context, the question of Beethoven’s romanticism or classicism wasn’t avoided so much as totally transcended. Rather than highlighting one arbitrary set of characteristics or another, the Emersons chose to emphasize the composer’s far-ranging drive to innovate—both by building on existing classical concepts and by forging altogether new ones. The series’ broad swath of “context” selections, variegated though they were, all shared this experimental drive, and, by mere proximity to his work, made it clear that music’s greatest debt to Beethoven may be the spirit of modernism.
Cleve Wiese is pursuing a Masters degree in journalism at NYU and lives in Williamsburg.