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Beethovens last quartets

Print edition : Oct 19, 2012 T+T-
Ludwig van Beethoven. He captured in his music the richness and variety of human emotion in ways that are both very inward-looking and directed outwards.-THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Ludwig van Beethoven. He captured in his music the richness and variety of human emotion in ways that are both very inward-looking and directed outwards.-THE HINDU ARCHIVES

It is apt as a musical representation of our times: full of tragedy, injustice and farce, and also full of humour and hope for the future.

HOW does one describe our uncertain and volatile times? Indians are fond of referring to this period as Kaliyuga not only because this is what is apparently suggested in some ancient texts, but because so much of what goes on at present fits in with the general description of anomie and disorder that is said to characterise that epoch.

Consider just some of the features of Kaliyuga that are listed in a passage in the Mahabharata by the sage Markandeya: unreasonable rulers, who become dangers to the people they govern; greed, anger and conflict as defining features of social life; the proliferation of sin and sinners, while virtue languishes and declines; absence of norms that provide stability to social interactions; lack of respect for learning and the learned; and so on.

Even the double standards of much of current public practice and their intellectual justifications are presaged: (People) will practise morality and virtue deceitfully and men in general will deceive their fellows by spreading the net of virtue. And men with false reputation of learning will, by their acts, cause Truth to be contracted and concealed. And in consequence of the shortness of their lives, they will not be able to acquire much knowledge. And in consequence of the littleness of their knowledge, they will have no wisdom. And for this, covetousness and avarice will overwhelm them all. And wedded to avarice and wrath and ignorance and lust, men will entertain animosities towards one another, desiring to take one anothers lives. (The Mahabharata Vana Parva, Section CLXXXIX, translated by K.M. Ganguli, Bharat Press Calcutta, reprinted by Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers and available online through the Gutenberg Project).

Far too much of this is familiar to us in our everyday lives at all levels, including geopolitically. But it also shows that we are not alone in thinking of ourselves as living in times of general dissolution and despair. We know that in Hindu mythology the end of Kaliyugaand the beginning of another time cycle starting with Satya Yugacomes about through the active intervention of Kalki, the 10th avatar of Vishnu who battles the dark forces. But this battle is not an easy one: it leads to the destruction of everything before something new (and presumably better) can emerge in its place.

It can be hard, in such a situation (however near or far from reality such a perception actually is) to move beyond fatalistic depression. And so we find that even in artistic creation, the anomie and nihilism gets reflected. But in the finest of such work, depression is transcended into something much more, even into sublimity, and the most tragic circumstances can generate some sense of uplift of the spirit.

One classic example of this in music is to be found in the late string quartets of Ludwig van Beethoven. Composed nearly two centuries ago, they are nevertheless astonishingly contemporary in the way they stretch the boundaries of tonality and form, their extraordinary combination of deep sadness and continuing vitality, even joyfulness. Romain Rolland has remarked that Beethoven was capable of feeling joy and sorrow almost simultaneously; the one did not exclude the other but even required it, as two poles of an electrical genius that determined his particular form of creativity.

The six string quartets and shorter piece (Grosse Fugue) that Beethoven composed towards the end of his relatively short life would be remarkable by any standards. He wrote them when he was completely deaf, and could not possibly hear them in any aural way, although obviously his inner ear was still delivering to him this magnificent music. By choosing a smaller and relatively more intimate formatthe string quartet with four instruments that are mostly equal and constantly engaged in dialogue and the creation of harmonyhe also indicated that this less ambitious grouping would be more able to capture the complexity and intricacy of his feelings than a larger agglomeration like a full orchestra.

In this music Beethoven captured (as closely as can be expected of any one set of musical compositions) the richness and variety of human emotion, in ways that are both very inward-looking and directed outwards. Partly because of this, this is challenging musicnot just technically for the musicians playing it but for listeners, both intellectually and emotionally. There are sometimes wild contrasts, drastic swings of tonality and extensions of formal structure, sudden moves from phrases of extraordinary beauty to harsh and aggressive chords that can grateso much so that sometimes they can even be bewildering. So this is not approachable music. But perhaps for that very reason, it rewards those who do approach it.

Take the String Quartet Opus 131 in C Sharp Minor, which Beethoven himself considered to be among his best worksand which is generally recognised to have a perfection that is beyond controversy (Robert Simpson writing in The Beethoven Companion, Faber and Faber 1971). Richard Wagner described the first movementa fugue in which the four string instruments have separate voices that follow and then merge in a wondrous intermingling of supremely elastic and longing phrasesas the greatest expression of melancholy in all music. Yet melancholy is a rather tepid and even misleading word for this music. It is indeed an expression of great tragedy, but so distilled that it almost seems to draw from that tragedy a pure and heart-wrenching beauty, a mystic vision of something that can only be called other-worldly. There is something calm, even passionless, about this clear-eyed assessment of the great sorrows of existence, similar in some respects to the approach of the sage Markandeya.

But, of course, it would be impossible for anyoneand certainly not someone as full of human passion as Beethovento maintain for too long such a state of serene bliss born from knowledge. In the later movements, and then in the last quartets, he shows once again the tempestuous and forceful nature of his character and indeed his volatility of temperament.

But the most extraordinary work of all is probably the last quartet, which has been found over successive generations to be completely mind-boggling because it is so hard at first even to grasp what exactly Beethoven is doing. This is a shorter work than the others, but no less complex for that. After an eccentric first movement, in which combinations of phrases and tonalities are exploited in all sorts of ways, there is an explosive Scherzo (joke) movement, which erupts into a thrilling close. The slow movement is more tranquil and thoughtful, but the memory of the earlier hyperactivity lingers and seems to be just under the surface. Indeed this music has been described by Robert Simpson as deep contemplation without relaxation. The last movement of the last quartetprobably the last thing Beethoven ever wroteis subtitled the difficult resolution. At first, it seems easier to approach, but this is weird and enigmatic music, sometimes serious and sometime jocular, but characterised by enormous amounts of controlled energy and ultimately vitality and love of life. It seems to express his defiant attitude to sorrow: you will not succeed in bowing me utterly down! Precisely because it is so hard to comprehend, it remains continuously engaging and fascinating.

This may be why it is so apt as a musical representation of our times: full of tragedy, injustice and farce, but also complex enough to be full of humour, love of life and (despite everything) hope for the future.