Guest blog: How I first encountered Beethoven and his quartets

PatrickBorn in 1938 in Belfast, Patrick Vaughan was raised in Northern Ireland, taking Music as one of his A level subjects. After graduating at Trinity College Dublin and Cambridge University, he spent most of his working life in Adult Education. In 1990 he opted for a career change, and became a Social Science Researcher in the Civil Service (Department of Education and Employment), managing Government research projects in Adult Learning. For eleven years he was also an Open University Associate Lecturer, tutoring courses on ‘Religion in 19th Century Britain’. Following retirement in 1998, he bought a large pre-Victorian villa in Sheffield which he has enjoyed renovating. Its top-lit ‘Lantern Room’ has been used as a regular rehearsal space for Ensemble 360 musicians, including the Elias Quartet.

 

I’m in my early 70s now, and its not an exaggeration to say that Beethoven’s quartets, especially the late quartets, are a significant part of what I might call ‘my spirituality’. By which I mean that they express for me something profound about ‘the meaning of life’ and contain a number of clues as to how ‘the good life’ should be lived. But it has not always been so.

Beethoven’s music has been a part of my life since teenage. At school I discovered the piano sonatas. My ‘A’ level performance piece was the opening movement of the Tempest sonata, which by sheer dint of daily repetition I managed to convince the examiner that I was worth a distinction – though I know now that that was rather delusory, as I have never possessed a proper pianistic technique. But alongside this exam piece, I steadily worked my way through the slower sonata movements in the company of another close boyhood friend. Neither of us enjoyed life in our boarding school, but we both got considerable solace from listening to Beethoven, and performing him as best we could.

The listening happened through rather primitive electric gramophone equipment – a turn-table whose pick-up took thorn needles which you had to sharpen on a special gadget, and the amplifier of course was of the old valve type. Each term Fred (my music-loving friend) would bring back in his trunk a collection of 78s inherited from his uncle. They were so heavy that he could usually only manage to bring back two or three works – perhaps a symphony or concerto, and maybe a couple of sonatas played by Artur Schnabel. These would be our companions for the rest of the term. In this way, we steadily over several years worked our way through all the piano sonatas and the symphonies. It was fun too having a go at playing piano duet transcriptions of the symphonies.

While at Cambridge I saw that the Ninth Symphony was being advertised. I was determined to take the chance to sing in it, and just managed to pass the audition in time to sing in the bass chorus line under the direction of David Wilcox. A tremendous experience – and one which let me discover at first hand about Beethoven’s total disinterest in accommodating his writing to performers’ limitations.

Working life took me to places where it was scarcely possible to hear live performances, so playing LPs of symphonies and sonatas were the only way for me to access Beethoven through the inadequate medium of loud-speakers. But for all these decades I was unaware of the Quartets. Then at the age of 57, shortly after I had come to live in Sheffield, I had a chance encounter at a party with a long-term Sheffield resident. Being still somewhat adrift in my new environment, I asked him what was the best thing about life in Sheffield, and without a moment’s hesitation he replied “Going to Music in the Round concerts, and hearing The Lindsays”.

I had already been to a Music in the Round concert the previous winter (in November 1994) to hear Richard Goode play Beethoven piano sonatas which I knew and loved. But it had not occurred to me to attend a quartet recital. So on the basis of my friend’s recommendation I launched out into new territory, and bought a ticket for a Lindsay concert in the Crucible Studio. I still have the programme for it (28 October 1995): they played Haydn Op.33:2 (The Joke) and Beethoven Op.127. It was the first time I had heard a Beethoven quartet live. I was bowled over by the intensity of the experience. That concert was the first of a planned series: each month there was a recital of one of the Haydn Op.33 set, one contemporary quartet and one of the late Beethoven quartets. I lapped up the opportunity, and went to all of them. Peter Cropper spoke in his usual informal style, describing one or two features to listen out for, each illustrating how the quartet form had developed. I was hooked. I was able to built up my knowledge of other Beethoven quartets during the following May Festival, which had the theme ‘Beethoven & His Contemporaries’. I see, looking back at my copy of the festival brochure, that I heard The Lindsays perform Op.74 (The Harp) – against which I have scribbled in pencil: “What creation of rhythm – continuing through silences and rests! Tremendous explosion of energy at end”.

I need to explain how special and unusual the Studio is, and how its shape and atmosphere impinges on one’s reception of the music. It is a small auditorium, seating perhaps 300 people. But there is no stage. Instead the performers sit in the centre at ground level, and the tiered seating surrounds them on all four sides. If you sit in the very front row you are less than 6ft away from the performers, and you hear very much what they are hearing while they play. The sound is actually not quite balanced (especially if you are straight behind the cellist). But you can read their part on their music stand. However, I prefer to sit three or four rows up the bank of seats, where the sound is more melded.

But the really important thing about the Studio is that you cannot but help be very aware of the rest of the audience. You can even watch them during a performance, and see with your eyes how the music is effecting them. And of course they can see you too. This situation leads to a very special concentrated quality of listening, which visiting musicians always remark upon. The four musicians are seated ‘in the round’, facing each other. And so are we the audience. We are engaged in the same process of music-making as they are. We are not simply recipients of something performed to us. By our closeness and our quality of listening, we are actually effecting the performance of the players.

This is the situation in which I first came to know the Beethoven quartets. I was profoundly impressed by the struggle the musicians went through before our eyes to bring the black dots on the printed page into existence as vibrations on the airwaves for us to hear. The effort it cost them was immense. In time, I learned to forgive Peter Cropper for his ‘heavy breathing’ – he was so bound up with the emotion of the music that it wrenched his own soul. He simply could not play certain passages without such audible effects. In this way I quickly came to understand that Beethoven’s late quartets were written at the cost of much struggle, and can only be performed adequately if the musicians themselves also enter into that struggle. So for me, this music has come to be an outworking of what Darwin termed ‘the struggle for life’. After a performance, I will of course applaud the quartet; their enormous determination and artistic skill has brought the work to momentary life for us all. But really I would much prefer to leave the Studio quickly and in silence, and go home and live with that struggle in solitude for a while. I don’t need the social chit-chat of my fellow audience members. Beethoven has expressed such a huge range of emotional states – bold defiance, aching pain, endless longing, dancing exhilaration, and tenderness unmatched – that I just want to allow quiet time for my own inner life to be touched where it hurts, where it longs, and where it glimpses a way through ‘the struggle for life’.

I was lucky to be living in Sheffield during ‘the golden years’ of The Lindsays, before they dissolved themselves in 2005. Over the years, I have heard them play all the Beethoven quartets – some of them (especially the late quartets) on several occasions. I grew accustomed to The Lindsay’s approach to performance: where vigour and commitment to living dangerously mattered more (if it came to the crunch) than complete accuracy or perfection of intonation. This style was their hall-mark, and it was thrilling to hear. Their particular sound, too, was memorable, blessed as they were with four magnificent instruments: a Golden Period Stradivarius (1st violin), the ‘Campo Selice’ Stradivarius (2nd violin), an Amati viola (c.1630) and a Ruggieri cello (1694). Although my musical memory is rather weak, I still carry in my head the plaintive string tone that Peter Cropper would produce in the beklemmt passage of the Op.130 cavatina. Because it was how I first heard this work, reducing me to dripping tears in the concert, I still vainly hope for the same tone at the hands of other players – and am always disappointed. The memory of that sound, and that experience of being touched by it, remain for me a sign of wonder. It is amazing that this man Beethoven, whose experience of life was so troubled and so lonely yet reached depths of calm and beauty through his art. In his ‘struggle for life’, he found a way to interior peace – at least for a moment in time. I remain for ever indebted to the contemporary musician who more than once made that moment real for me too.

The Elias Quartet in Sheffield

 

When Peter Cropper announced that The Lindsays would be ‘retiring’ in the summer of 2005, Music in the Round ‘Friends’ and audience members were very disconcerted. Would Sheffield continue to be such a good centre for chamber music? But excitement was also stirred when Peter went on to say that he would continue as Musical Director, and that the plan was to recruit a new young Ensemble composed of a string quartet, a wind quintet, a double bass player and a pianist. A meeting of Friends of MitR was called, which I attended. Peter explained his plans, and asked for comments and suggestions from Friends. During this meeting, an idea was born in my mind which has changed the shape of my life in retirement – and also my understanding of chamber music.

I live in a large pre-Victorian house with three reception rooms; they are spacious with high ceilings. The idea came to me: might this be a suitable rehearsal space for the new Ensemble? After the meeting I raised the idea with Peter Cropper. He came round the next day to look at the space – and greatly surprised me by asking whether The Lindsays themselves could rehearse here for the last few months of their existence. That sealed the matter!

In due course (on the weekend of 22/23 January 2005) semi-public auditions for invited musicians were held in Sheffield. The Friends of MitR were invited to participate in the selection process. Two string quartets had made the short-list – the Elias and one other. So that is how I first met and heard the Elias Quartet. Their set pieces were Haydn Op.76:4 (The Sunrise), Schumann Op.41:3 and Schubert’s Trout quintet. They were quickly appointed, together with the pianist Tim Horton. Some weeks later the winds and bass were also appointed. The new group chose the name Ensemble 360, with the Elias Quartet keeping its distinct identity within the Ensemble. Rehearsals for the new season began in the August 2005.

One way or another from this moment onwards the house was full of music-making. I gave the Quartet a key, and they came and went as they needed to. They had the run of the kitchen and the garden as well. Indirectly, from the sidelines, I picked up a great deal about how a Quartet like this ‘works’. In some respects, it seems to be a job, like any other employment. At least an hour of individual practice per day, keeping the fingers agile (rather like sports training); then four of five hours rehearsal of works which have to be got ready for up-coming concerts. There would be a coffee-break and a lunch break, during which there might be a small chance of relaxing (often in solitude) after the intensity of close company in the rehearsal. One might sit quietly in the conservatory reading the day’s paper; another go outside for a smoke; and inevitably there were emails and text messages to keep up with. Much of this messaging was business administration: fixing times and programmes for future concerts; arranging travel plans; buying train tickets; making decisions with other members of the Ensemble about who to invite as visiting musicians. The daily pattern could be quite varied: sometimes including educational visits to schools, or evening concerts outside Sheffield. The work pressure seemed to me relentless – not least because expectations were so high.

Sometimes I would quietly slip into the room, if the music was something I liked. But it has to be said that much rehearsal work is not very interesting for the outsider to listen to. Its all stops and starts; trying out different ways of handling the composition, as each member of the Quartet offered ideas. I found the Elias to be a very democratic group: all ideas put forward would be considered and tried out – variations in tempi and dynamics, or in phrasing and bowing; there would often be discussion of the mood or emotion they were trying to convey through the music. Many of the points discussed were very small details indeed – most casual listeners would not be aware of them at all; but these are the details which distinguish a pedestrian performance from an inspiring one. When learning a difficult new piece, the Elias would regularly spend some time at the beginning of the day’s rehearsal playing the piece at a very slow speed in order to get the intonation absolutely correct – emphatically not an attractive sound to the outsider!

I found that the most interesting time to listen in to a rehearsal was when the Elias were beginning to learn a new work. They would usually run through it movement by movement, just to get the feel of it. They might stop at the end of a movement to mention things that seemed puzzling, and would need to be sorted out later on. Once the work had been played right through, I would probably leave them to it. But then later in the day, they might suggest that it could be helpful if I was to come in and listen to a play-through (without stopping) – the presence of someone who was deliberately listening seemed to provide useful psychological pressure in performance.

During their first season with Ensemble 360 the Elias were spending a huge amount of time learning works to play with the other instrumentalists, and consequently their quartet playing was limited. They wisely did not attempt any Beethoven quartets – wisely, because in the previous year (2005), The Lindsays had treated us to a performance of every single Beethoven quartet, and their final May Festival, entitled Beethoven … must it be? culminated in a performance of his last quartet (Op.135). A final weekend in July 2005, entitled The Lindsays … it must be, marked the last time The Lindsays played together before disbanding. Appropriately, Op.135 with its enigmatic inscriptions Muss es sein? Es muss sein! was the very last work this famous quartet played together. For all of us Beethoven music lovers in Sheffield, 2005 was a vintage year.

Nevertheless, in autumn 2006, the Elias did begin the long assault on the multiple summits of the late Beethoven quartets. And it began in the foothills of my drawing room, where they started learning Op.127. It was a special thrill to me to witness this great late quartet taking shape. Each player of course had already studied the work and had practised their own part. But it was not until they worked together on it (in the manner I have described above) that decisions about the mood and the ‘meaning’ of the quartet could begin to form over many days. I would borrow Marie’s score to follow while they played; but then something would occur which caused a halt, and discussion, and she would need it back for reference. They finally performed it in the Studio on 9th October that year, and afterwards kindly presented me with a copy of the Henle study score, duly signed by each of them, together with the inscription: Dear Patrick, Now you can have your own score! With all our love, Elias Quartet. XXX.

That, of course, was only the beginning of understanding this work. Four years later, after the Elias had left Ensemble 360 in order to concentrate on the quartet repertoire, they were back rehearsing in my house. This time for a 24 hour stop-over and a lesson with Peter Cropper on Op.127. By agreement, I sat in on this intense 3-hour session. It was both humbling and exhilarating to sit in the presence of someone who has lived inside this quartet for forty years; Peter’s knowledge of the score is such that he does not need it in his hands (except to refer to bar numbers in discussion). He would ask them why they thought Beethoven had written particular dynamic markings, what they thought the emotion of individual gestures was, what was the meaning of the whole movement, and how they were trying to convey it. He would share, but not impose, his own understanding of these things. He might demonstrate on his violin, with simultaneous verbal commentary, how the energy in a particular passage built up. The Elias would try out these new ideas for size, and in a matter of minutes I could hear different qualities emerging. The whole occasion was packed with energy, inspiring and utterly exhausting, leaving the Elias with the future task of living their way into the new insights.

 

Glimpses of internal dynamics

 

I have been very fortunate to have all this rehearsing in my house. Once or twice coming home on a dark winter’s evening, I was surprised on approaching the front door to hear the sounds of music inside. The Quartet had stayed on into the evening for some emergency rehearsal. Reflecting on it now, I realise how my understanding of quartet music-making has changed. I used to think of the music in the abstract, a sound to entertain, to inspire, to ponder. Mechanically to be switched on at the CD player. But now I realise that there is no sound without the musicians, and their skill and dedication. Their talent recognised in childhood, trained through special schooling, and ever since a way of life devoted to the music. I now know more clearly how costly that way of life is.

The nature of quartet playing is that it is very intimate. You can’t rehearse a Beethoven quartet without in some sense baring your own soul to your colleagues. But there also needs to be a fine distinction between emotional closeness and necessary distance. This tension is what produces great performances. However, in personal terms this is a stressful way to live. At the end of a day’s rehearsal or performance, there is not much energy left for the rest of home and social life, making local friends, or sustaining meaningful relationships. In fact having a place called ‘home’ can be problematic. Its in the nature of a musician’s life to be constantly on the move – to the scheduled concert venues, on overseas trips, to rehearse with other instrumentalists or singers. When one Quartet member is ill or off-colour, its hard to call in ‘sick’, because of the time lost by the other three. I’ve sometimes seen a poorly person completely wiped out at the end of a rehearsal, and asked them how they managed to carry on. The answer always was: ‘Its the music that kept me going; it feeds me’.

Such is the nature of a quartet player’s vocation, and I have learned to have the utmost respect for it. In fact I have changed the way I thank the Quartet immediately after a fine recital. They don’t particularly want to receive congratulations on their skilful playing or their brilliant technique. But if I say: ‘You have helped me to a deeper understanding of what Beethoven was on about’ – that’s taken as a real compliment.

 

Patrick Vaughan