Saturday, August 06, 2005

The Grosse Fuge: Unequally Yoked

It's fashionable these days to perform Beethoven's Op. 130 quartet with its original finale, the Grosse Fuge. Behind these performances is the belief that following the composer's initial intent is somehow more authentic or correct. Although it's interesting from a historical perspective to experience the quartet as it was first envisioned, this type of performance should be much less frequent.

At the quartet's premier, two other movements were encored at the audience's behest, but the fugue left them quite bewildered. Beethoven was upset, and supposedly responded, "Why not the fugue? Cattle! Asses!" This is an understandable reaction, since the fugue represents an almost superhuman culmination of his artistic and technical skill -- undoubtedly, he was fiercely proud of it. Later, when the publisher suggested he compose a replacement finale, he agreed, and the quartet was published with the new movement (the fugue was published separately, as Op. 133).

Why, then, do so many modern performances include the fugue instead of the replacement finale? Do performers assume that Beethoven faltered under pressure, yielded to the publisher's demands, and begrudgingly allowed the quartet to be published with the new movement -- Beethoven, who was notorious for his stubborn independence? It's much more likely that Beethoven simply realized, independently of the publisher, that the gigantic fugue was frighteningly out of place. Its forceful character, strange thematic material, relentless counterpoint, and gargantuan proportions are completely foreign to the rest of the quartet. The replacement finale, on the other hand, compliments the previous movements perfectly with its character and size. The Grosse Fuge, given its monolithic nature, doesn't deserve to be trivialized by these previous movements (I'm not questioning their quality -- the cavatina is one of Beethoven's most inspired utterances), and these movements don't deserve to be bogged down or overshadowed by the fugue.

Did Beethoven ever change his mind about any of his other pieces? Did he ever have to struggle to make compositional decisions? The answer to both questions, of course, is yes. For instance, he originally performed the Op. 53 Waldstein Sonata with the Andante Favori (in F major) as its slow movement. After weighing the criticism of a friend, he published the movement separately, and composed the replacement "introduction" to the finale. Another example of this involves the early, discarded sketches of the Ninth Symphony's finale, which he later recycled in his Op. 132 quartet. In fact, all his large compositions undoubtedly involved some major rearrangement or rethinking.

So, while these performances of the quartet and fugue together are indeed interesting curiosities, the idea that they are somehow more "correct" or "authentic" is blasphemous disregard for Beethoven's ultimate (and wise) decision.

Monday, August 01, 2005

Carl Nielsen: Music Critic

Apart from having been a hilarious teenager (I've never seen a picture quite like this from the 1800s) and probably the most unduly neglected composer of the Twentieth Century, Carl Nielsen was also an insightful music critic. His little book of essays, Living Music, contains a wealth of sound advice and criticism for performers, composers, and musicologists alike.

One of the essays, entitled Mozart and Our Time, contains this brilliant quote:

“It is an offence against Mozart and against the young student of music, therefore, for a teacher to set his pupil to play Mozart’s sonatas and quartets as soon as he has acquired a modicum of technique. It is barbarous, in fact, and will only spoil the pupil’s desire to study Mozart subsequently. How can we expect young people to appreciate the exquisitely alternating moods of this music, or feel the beauty of an art which expresses itself with such restraint and in so strangely spiritual a manner! What youth wants, above all else, is something it can grasp, something it can lay hold on with both hands. But the content of Mozart’s music is the least tangible, and so it is better to let the young musician get his fingers into Chopin and Liszt than choke the life out of Mozart. Later, however, when a measure of spiritual maturity has been attained, and the executive musician must learn to exercise not only his fingers but his mind and his soul, then the music of Mozart will be infinitely instructive. . .”

Incidentally, this reminds me of a scene from the movie “Shine,” from which I quote the following:

Peter: I have decided I would like you to teach David.
(Hands him some music.)

Rosen: Rachmaninov? (the Third Concerto) Don’t be ridiculous!

Peter: He can play it already.

Rosen: He’s just a boy. How can he express that sort of passion?

Peter: You are a passionate man, Mr. Rosen. You will teach him, no?

Rosen: No. I’ll teach him what I think is best.

Peter: Rachmaninov is best ---
But you are his teacher; I let you decide.

Rosen: Thank you. We’ll start with Mozart.

As a composer myself, this scene offends me, since I value any Mozart piano concerto more than all four Rachmaninov concerti combined – but I can see why a pianist might prefer Rachmaninov’s, since they are better vehicles for satisfying egos. In any event, Mr. Rosen should have heeded Nielsen’s advice, and agreed to teach Rachmaninov – until the boy was ready to play something that required genuine passion, and not the overblown, immature passion with which impetuous performers play surface music (watch Lang Lang’s face as he plays Rachmaninov for a dramatic visualization of this nauseatingly insincere “passion.”).

Well, since this was meant to be a post about Carl Nielsen, I'll conclude with a listening recommendation. Nielsen’s six symphonies are relatively well-known (although the First and Second should be performed much more frequently), but a startling masterpiece remaining still in obscurity is the E flat major quartet, Op. 14. Here is a work of impeccable craftsmanship and exotic beauty. I can’t think of a comparable quartet between those of Beethoven and Bartok (granted, there isn’t much competition, even from great composers like Brahms). Here are some excerpts:

Mvt. 1 (exciting ending)

Mvt. 2 (exotic beauty)

Mvt. 3 (crazy middle section)