We’ve been spending a lot of time with Beethoven lately! Op. 18/1, op. 74, op. 95, op. 127… and most of it has been about searching, questioning, rethinking, disagreeing, arguing, and getting further out of our comfort zones than I remember ever doing as a quartet. Somehow, Beethoven requires such an all-or-nothing commitment from us, that it is impossible to settle for anything less than what feels absolutely right, and this can bring about some passionate (and rather lengthy!) discussions amongst the four of us, some of which have yet to be resolved! Some coachings we’ve been having, though wonderful and inspiring, have added yet more possible avenues to this sense of a never- ending search.
Personally, I’m finding that Beethoven doesn’t come naturally to me as a performer; that much as I absolutely adore and revere his music, I often struggle to find a way into playing it and am hardly ever satisfied with what comes out. Being so immersed in it lately has made me wonder about why that might be. These are some of the thoughts I’ve been having…
I recently went to hear a performance of Beethoven’s Fidelio. I didn’t know the opera before and I was quite overwhelmed by the music, its exuberance, drama, and above all, those moments (especially in the choruses) where the unbearable beauty of the music seemed to reach out further and higher than the realm of the possible, as only Beethoven’s music can do. I was also struck by Beethoven’s use of the voice, almost as another instrument of the orchestra, rather than as the unequivocal star of the show. There was even a sense that Beethoven doesn’t feel at his most comfortable writing for the voice - it often stayed in middle, unfavourable registers and sometimes had some quite complex rhythmic patterns one would more naturally associate with instrumental writing- or at least, he doesn’t exploit it to its fullest potential in the way he clearly does in his instrumental writing.
Somehow, this helps me better understand my own relationship to Beethoven’s music: I was brought up on Mozart operas. When I was little, my dolls were characters in Don Giovanni or the Magic Flute, and together we would sing and act out whole acts at a time! Until I was about 10 I was sure I wanted to be a singer. Somewhere along the line, the violin must have taken over in my heart, but my approach to music has always naturally remained vocal. For example, if I’m unsure how I want to play a musical phrase, I sing it first, to get in touch with what feels “natural”, and then try to recreate this through my violin. Mozart, Schubert, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Fauré, all write in a very vocal way, and I’ve always felt very “at home” playing their music. Not so with Beethoven (or Haydn or Ravel, for some of the same reasons I suspect). Because his writing is not primarily vocal, Beethoven forces me to look deeper inside myself, in places that I am not used to visiting, for ways of expressing the music which are not so familiar to me, and have nothing to do with vocal expression. As a result, learning a piece by Beethoven can be quite a long and tortuous process for me, but it is so enriching, it helps me grow, develop and discover parts of myself that I might not have been aware of.
The later it was written, the more Beethoven’s music seems to break away (in general) from any tangible relationship to the human voice, and the more it starts to transcend even the instruments for which it was written. This is quite difficult to put into words. In working on op. 127, I sometimes have the feeling that it isn’t actually physically possible to play this music in a way that comes even close to doing it justice. It is so universal and absolute, so deeply human in its fullest and most complex meaning. It articulates a constant striving, searching, that is sometimes unbearably painful, and gradually finds its way into a kind of extraordinary fantasy world in the last movement. To try and translate such diverse and profound emotions into sounds is a huge challenge! We had an amazing coaching with Peter Cropper - leader of the Lindsay Quartet - who put his finger on exactly those aspects of the piece that we had been struggling with and gave us some incredible insights, and new angles from which to approach the music. For example, the opening of the Scherzo, marked Vivace, has a very difficult dotted motif which we were getting a bit stuck on, trying to have a lot of articulation so that every note comes through. Peter reminded us of the pianissimo marking and the questioning nature of the music, as if we were whispering to one another. Suddenly it all made sense, the articulation took care of itself with this new character and the music became easier to play.
By the time he wrote op. 127, Beethoven was entirely deaf. This is such a difficult thing to imagine for anyone, and particularly any musician, whose hearing is in good working order…. I often wear ear-plugs at night, and today I tried keeping them on when I woke up, to see if I could experience some of what it might feel like to live in a soundless world. The first thing that struck me is the strangeness of doing something (pouring some tea into a mug, opening a computer, pulling a chair out from under the table) and not hearing the corresponding sound to go with it. It was as if I was in a vacuum and my actions had no consequences, everything happened outside of my own reality. The second thing was that because no sound interfered with my thoughts, those were much clearer than usually, and I could follow an idea or a thought process further. (In fact, I was writing part of this blog, and it took much less time than writing usually takes me!) I was amazed at how much more space there was in my brain, and quite enjoyed the feeling! But over time I also started to feel alienated, I was losing my sense of time, and generally losing touch with reality. (I almost forgot that I had a lot of practise to do, on op. 127 in fact, with a Wigmore concert coming up in a few days…) The third thing was something quite fascinating and a bit eerie about the juxtaposition of my “inner” world - which had become much more present and primary to me through the loss of hearing - with the objects of every day life (kettle, pencil, table, etc..) It was almost like living two separate parallel lives, the material one and the inner one, with only a loose thread to link them. If I closed my eyes and stood still, there was only my imagination and feelings left, and this could take me just about anywhere…
It would be reductive and beside the point to venture any conclusions from this silly experiment, but it was so interesting. Somehow, the juxtaposition in op. 127 of the pillar-like maestoso introduction immediately followed by one of the most tender themes has that little bit more relevance to me now. The astonishing variation slow movement takes on an extra dimension when coloured by the kind of alienation from the world which I felt a glimpse of. And then, having finally got rid of the ear-plugs, I have rarely enjoyed practising so much!