Thursday, April 7, 2011

The Adorno quartet forges ahead!

A brief update on the activities of the Adorno Quartet. We are continuing to play Beethoven, and adding a few other works to our repertoire in the meantime. Upcoming events include an event at the Phelps Mansion in Binghamton, NY on May 15th, with Op.18 #5 and Op.59 #3, with the theme being "Mozart's Spirit from Haydn's hands". In July we're at the Westben Arts Theatre in Campbellford, Ontario for a concert with Andre Laplante which includes Haydn Op. 20 #4, Bartok Third Quartet, and the Brahms Piano Quintet, Op. 34. In August we appear at the Maison Trestler, in Vaudreuil-Dorion, the program includes Haydn Op.20 #4, Bartok Third Quartet, and Beethoven's Op.59 #3.

Beethoven and Schubert - Intersections

In advance of the upcoming release of the New Orford String Quartet's debut recording of Beethoven's Op.135 and Schubert's D.887 in G major, I would like to share some thoughts about Beethoven and Schubert. The recording will be released on Bridge Records in the summer of 2011.

In our time, Beethoven and Schubert can hardly be separated from each other. They have become intertwined in a way that they never were during their lives. In spite of sharing the same city streets during the same epoch and making acquaintances with many of the same people, they never had any direct contact. Part of this is easily explained by the difference in their ages, twenty-six years. By the time Schubert was beginning his musical career, Beethoven was already very famous, almost completely deaf, and because of this, increasingly shut off from society. The two quartets on this disc were composed in the same year, 1826; in the same city, Vienna; apparently in splendid isolation from each other.

Vienna in the early 19th century had a population of around 300,000. In a city of this size one would expect that two musicians would cross paths in the course of daily life, but that is not the case. The points of intersection between the two men are few. As the imperial capitol of the Austrian Empire, Vienna had been subjected to a brief siege by Napoleon in 1809. Schubert was a schoolboy, and witnessed the damage to his school building from the shelling. During the bombardment, Beethoven retreated to his brother's cellar and held pillows over his ears, desperately trying to prevent further damage to his hearing.

Both composers lived with serious personal afflictions which color their existence, causing social isolation and an inward retreat: Beethoven's deafness, and Schubert's venereal disease.

Both men worked with the violinist Ignaz Schuppanzigh and his string quartet, but the relationship between the two composers and the violinist couldn't have been more different. Beethoven dominated Schuppanzigh, laughing at him when he struggled to play something Beethoven had written, writing a joking little song about Schuppanzigh being a “fat lump.” Schubert, on the other hand, was deferential. He had no response to Schuppanzigh's criticisms of the violin writing in the “Death and the Maiden” quartet; “my dear fellow, this is no good, leave it alone; you stick to your songs.”

Both men responded to Anton Diabelli's call in 1819 for composers to write a variation on his waltz theme. Schubert was one of the very first eager respondants, with a single very fine variation. Beethoven took this as an opportunity to singlehandedly outcompose all those responding by writing a massive work, four years in the making, and very pointedly one variation longer than the great Goldberg variations of J.S. Bach.

There are moments when the two men crossed paths, but surprisingly no direct contact can be established. We know that Beethoven was aware of the younger Schubert. In an 1823 conversation book entry, Beethoven's nephew Karl comments - “They greatly praise Schubert, but it is said that he hides himself.” Schubert was on hand at the legendary premiere of Beethoven's 9th symphony, an event that resonated enough for Schubert to quote the “Ode to Joy” theme in his own 9th symphony. Schubert was also present at the 1826 premiere of Beethoven's string quartet Op.130, at which some movements were well received and had to be repeated for the enthusiastic audience, but the last movement, the still controversial “Grosse Fuge,” was not understood at all. One wonders what Schubert thought of the performance.

During Beethoven's final months, Anton Schindler presented the bedridden composer with a collection of about 60 of Schubert's songs. According to Schindler, Beethoven was “amazed at the number of them,” and “utterly astonished when he got to know their content.” He “simply could not believe that at that time Schubert had written over 500 songs.” Beethoven, quoting Schiller's “Ode” himself, said “Truly, in Schubert there dwells a divine spark!” and pronounced “that he will still make a great stir in the world.” A month later, Schubert was one of the many torch bearers in Beethoven's epic funeral procession.

A year and a half later, in 1828, during Schubert's own final illness, the bedridden Schubert asked for Beethoven's string quartet Op.131 to be played in his tiny, sad chambers. After the musicians, including Karl Holz, the long time second violin of Schuppanzigh's quartet, finished playing, Schubert is reported to have said of Beethoven – “He's left us nothing else to write.” Schubert's wish to be buried next to Beethoven was finally fulfilled in 1888, sixty years after his death, when the two men were moved to new graves, still in Vienna, side by side for eternity.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Not Lead Poisoning!

Just after delivering the diagnosis in Part Six that Beethoven likely died of lead poisoning, I read that after tests of skull fragments that lead poisoning has been emphatically ruled out as the cause of Beethoven's death! For more go to:

A brief outline

I thought a brief, but by no means complete, outline of the topics covered in the three years we've been doing this might be interesting:

Part 1: Absolute Music as Philosophy and Religion. Economics in music ca. 1800

Part 2: The Enlightenment and Classical Greece. Orpheus and his “Eternal Recurrence”, Waldstein's “Mozart's spirit from the hands of Haydn.” Wagner's program for Op.131 and our first taste of Faust and Goethe.

Part 3: Fame and fortune in the salons of Vienna, the 1790's piano duels or “battle of the bands”. Beethoven contra Napoleon. The Heiligenstadt testament and the patterns of death and rebirth in Beethoven's “Heroic Style”. The “Grosse Fuge” is it the seed of 20th century music?

Part 4: Beethoven on the comics page: Peanuts. Music for boys and girls: is music Gender coded? Beethoven's love life and mystery of The Immortal Beloved.

Part 5: Mann's “Faustus” and Strauss' “Metamorphosen” - reactions to the catastrophic failure of the Enlightenment and “Bildung”, Clockwork Orange and the “Ode to Sorrow”, Does high culture civilize? Is Beethoven to blame?

Part 6: What other composers have to say about Beethoven. Muss es Sein? Beethoven's death, was that clap of thunder the “Divine Spark of Heaven”?

Nearing the finish line

It's been a long time since I last posted anything on the blog! The quantity and density of the projects I've undertaken in the last year has been somewhat overwhelming. We've passed through part 5, and are now into the sixth and final segment of our three year journey. In the course of doing this, we were even convinced to give a name to our quartet, the Adorno quartet. The reason for this are practical. We played last summer at the Westben Arts Theater, and in advertising the concert, they needed something to call us. They began with "the Jansonius Quartet", but we vetoed that and came up with the somewhat ironic "Adorno" name. We are playing Part 6 eight times in seven different "salons", four straight weeks of Beethoven quartets! I am also in another quartet, more commercially oriented, the "New Orford String Quartet". On top of this, I decided to record and perform all the Bach cello suites this year. The recording and editing is finished, and the CD will be released June 27th, 2010. What was I thinking? This is a huge undertaking! I will be performing them along with Eric Siblin, the author of "The Cello Suites" at the first Festival ALexandria concert on June 27th. In the course of this, I started my own recording company, STORKCLASSICS!

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Part Five coming soon...

Only two quartets will be presented in this segment. The subject on my mind is Culture vs. Barbarism. Does "culture" civilize? It seems that the view on this has changed quite a bit since Beethoven's time.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Part Four begins today!

We're starting the fourth of our six part Beethoven cycle today. The topic this time centers on Beethoven's love life. It should be interesting!