This Week’s Composer – last week – on Radio 3, was Beethoven. Actually this year’s composer – every other week – because it is the 250th anniversary of his death, has been Beethoven. The week focused on the late string quartets, and ended on Friday with Beethoven’s last work, the Quartet in F major, opus 135.
I heard the Amadeus Quartet play the Op. 135 many years ago at the Edinburgh Festival. To start at the end, the final rendition of the rather chirpy theme of its final movement is played pizzicato, and I remember Norbert Brainin, the Amadeus’ first violin, made to play the theme arco, before remembering at the last minute that he needed to pluck rather than to bow the string. I can vividly recall the look of self-disgust on his face as he berated himself. Afterwards I went back stage and got the autograph of the Amadeus’ viola player, Peter Schidlof. Shortly after that I actually played the Op. 135 myself in a chamber concert. I mention it to say that, note for note, I know the piece pretty well; but to be honest I didn’t really understand it. The inner movements, maybe. The second movement, Vivace, with its syncopations and abrupt interjections, is astonishingly modernistic; the ensuing Lento assai, cantata e tranquillo, is one of these profoundly reverential and religious expressions, reminiscent of the Cavatina from the Op. 130, and, from the Op. 132, Molto adagio, the Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit, in der lydischen Tonart. But the outer movements? They are quirky; full of humour. How does it all fit together?
Beethoven even draws our attention to the contrast between gravitas and quirkiness, by giving a title, and an annotated subtitle, to the last movement:
Der Schwer gefasste Entschluss:
Muss es sein? Es muss sein! Es muss sein!
The difficult decision: must it be? It must be! It must be!
Given that this is the final movement of Beethoven’s final work, the question arises: is this a portent? Is it an intimation of mortality?
If it is, then it is as if the composer immediately mocks himself for being “portentous”. Isn’t it interesting that the very word “portentous”, pertaining to a portent, carries with it a pejorative connotation of pretentiousness, just as does the adjective from “pomp” – “pompous”. Maybe Beethoven had a sense that the Beethoven brand, the ill-temper, the Sturm und Drang, the seizure of fate by the throat, was vulnerable to parody. The owners of huge personalities often turn themselves in later life into cartoon figures. Think of Churchill with the polka-dot bow tie, the defiant jowl, the cigar, and the V-sign. On Radio 3, Edward Dusinberre, the first violin of the Takács Quartet, said Muss es sein? was all tongue in cheek. Beethoven was reminding somebody who wanted to borrow some music society’s sheet music that he hadn’t paid his dues to the society. I’d heard previously that it was a remark about his laundry bill. Enigmatic quotations at the head of music scores tend to be open to multiple interpretations.
A quality of self-parody is quite common in any artist’s late period. We see it all the time in popular culture. Elvis retired to Las Vegas, dressed outlandishly, and started doing Elvis impersonations. Fleming mocked Bond; made him fight Count Lippé with the therapeutic accoutrements of a Health Farm while weakened by a diet of carrot juice. Later he made him go mad, and try to murder M. The Beatles sang “You know my name – look up my number.” And lest we think this transition from farce to the surreal is restricted to popular culture, think of Shakespeare’s last play The Tempest:
Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air;
And like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve;
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.
The Tempest and Beethoven’s Op. 135 seem to me to be rather alike. They share a fey quality. Milan Kundera called the sense of the gossamer fragility of life, and its melting into thin air, The Unbearable Lightness of Being. And in that book, he quotes Muss es sein? from the Op. 135.
The late Beethoven quartets are seen as part of Beethoven’s third, or late period; and musicologists often say that the Op. 135 might have been the start of a “fourth period”. It’s nice to think that, far from being a statement of resignation, “Es muss sein” is all about embarking on something entirely new.