Loss and Resurrection Notes

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) :: String Quartet op. 135

Last works of composers are often met with a sense of wonder and reverence mixed with curiosity. It is as if they as whispering to us from their death beds, and we desperately want to know what it is they mean to say. In the case of Beethoven’s op. 135—the last work—he “speaks” directly to us with two brief sentences written in the score, which are uttered extraordinarily clearly to the ears of the audience by the syllabic rhythm: Muss es sein? Es muss sein! (Must it be? It must be!)

Op. 135 has been described as “…a brilliant study in Classical nostalgia” by a man who had, in many ways, helped ushered in the Romantic era and tested the boundaries of all the forms (sonata, variation, fugue, etc.) by the time his life came to a close. Indeed, compared to the adventurous musical terrain covered by the (in)famous last quartets and piano sonatas, Op. 135 seems almost conservative while still punctuated with unmistakably defiant Beethovenian gestures (and the seemingly ever-present in the late works suggestion of a fugue). 

In his last decade the great composer was busy, focused on the Symphony No. 9, sketched a 6th piano concerto (unfinished), wrote the string quartets nos. 12-16, piano sonatas nos. 28-32, along with the Diabelli variations, and a smattering of songs, smaller piano works, cannons, and more. Amidst the triumph of his successes and fame, there was ample perpetual personal tragedy with dysfunctional and/or crumbling relationships. Then there was the hearing loss that threatened to catastrophically derail his livelihood and life’s passion. But, it didn’t. 

Young Ludwig, the son of a drunkard who physically abused him in alcoholic rages and ambitions for the next wunderkind had to confront the question “Must it be?” many times throughout his life. Each time, through his music, he answers, as he does in his last work, “It must be!” and carries on. 

 

Kevin Puts (b. 1927) :: Credo

Program note by the composer

[Credo (krÄ“’dÅ ) first person sing. of Latin credere, to believe]

When Daniel Ching of the Miró Quartet asked me to write a quartet for a program he was planning exploring ‘the lighter side of America,’ I wasn’t sure I could deliver. It was hard to find things to sing about. The government stubbornly and arrogantly continued to pour young lives and billions of dollars into a hopeless war, one to whose protest millions at home and abroad marched with what E.L Doctorow described as “the appalled understanding that America was ceding its role as the best of hope of mankind,” that “the classic archetype of democracy was morphing itself into a rogue nation.” Also around this time, a disturbed loner finally enacted his plan to gun down a record-breaking number of his fellow students at Virginia Tech and—amazingly—this failed to prompt any heightened talks over gun control by politicians who feared they might offend their gun-loving constituents before the next election.

One day on my weekly commute from New York to teach at the Peabody Conservatory, I noticed as the train pulled into Baltimore the word believe emblazoned across a building. I later learned this was part of a campaign by the city of Baltimore to do something about the fact that ten percent of its population is addicted to either heroin or cocaine. As one who relies little if at all on blind faith, I found this to be a rather alarming approach. On the other hand, sometimes it seems all you can do is believe. For example, many of us believe we’ll find our way out of the mess. In the meantime, I have found solace in the strangest places:

...in the workshop of a stringed instrument specialist in Katonah, New York, you can believe nothing in the world matters but the fragile art of violins and violas hanging serenely from the ceiling. He listens chin in hand as his clients play excerpts for him, then goes to work on their instruments with sage-like assuredness...

...on the jogging path along the Monongahela River in Pittsburgh, you encounter above and below you the steel girders, asphalt and railroad ties of infrastructure, an immovable network of towering bridges and highways engineered by some deific intelligence...

...from my apartment, I watched in a window across 106th Street a mother teaching her daughter how to dance.

Credo was commissioned by Chamber Music Monterey Bay, and premiered by the Miró Quartet in 2007.

 

Richard Strauss (1864-1949) :: Metamorphosen

In the early 1930s, Richard Strauss reached out to the author Stefan Zweig asking him to write the libretto to his new opera, Die schweigsame Frau (The Silent Woman). It would be their first, and last, collaboration. The Nazis soon intervened to forbid Strauss, head of their Reichsmusikkammer (Reich Music) institution, to continue collaborating with the Zweig, who was Jewish. It was one of the early blows. Soon they would accumulate and quite literally destroy Strauss’ world.

As World War II progressed, Strauss was in a precarious position between his professional aspirations and his personal life. Professionally, he worked within the restrictions imposed upon him by the Nazis, while personally he worked to secure the safety of his daughter-in-law and grandson, who were Jewish. Strauss’ refusal to protest by taking an overt political and ethical stance against the Nazis has tarnished his reputation to posterity, though it is widely agreed that he probably internally disagreed with the ideologies of the party, and remained silent in order to secure the ability to continue writing music in his homeland. Often quoted is Arturo Toscanini’s succinct appraisal: “To Strauss the composer I take off my hat; to Strauss the man I put it back on again.”

Metamorphosen was written in the direct aftermath of the bombing of Munich—Strauss’ hometown. The opera house where his father, Franz, had performed as principal horn player was destroyed. Strauss mourned the loss tremendously, viewing it both as a personal loss, and a societal loss of hundreds of years of German culture. He wrote: “The burning of the Munich Court Theater, where Tristan and Die Meistersinger received their first performances, where I first heard Freischütz seventy-three years ago, where my father sat at the first horn desk for forty-nine years—it was the greatest catastrophe of my life; there is no possible consolation, and, at my age, no hope.” 

In Metamorphosen Strauss embedded a musical quote: the funeral march from Beethoven’s Eroica, Symphony no. 3. 

By the time Strauss completed the work, the war was over. Paul Sacher, who had commissioned the work, conducted its first performance on January 25, 1946 in Zürich to a very different world than they had all known as children. 

In his beautiful and touching autobiography, The World of Yesterday, written in South America where he had fled to avoid the war and persecution, Zweig writes: 

“Even from the abyss of horror in which we try to feel our way today, half-blind, our hearts distraught and shattered, I look up again and again to the ancient constellations that shone on my childhood, comforting myself with the inherited confidence that, some day, this relapse will appear only an interval in the eternal rhythm of progress onward and upward.”