I was returning from a winter’s journey alone, driving, thinking. I needed some music. I reached without looking into the box of CDs on my front seat, and popped a disk into the player.
I recently wrote about Beethoven, and how his late piano sonatas are a wonder. The late string quartets no less so.
They are personal, confessing, exploring. They look inward, and outward to the universe. Lost in thought, yet trying to express that thought to the listener. And modern. I was struck by how modern they sounded. I don’t mean like 1905 modern. I mean, it sounds like they were written last Thursday.
I became fascinated by the cavatina movement in Opus 130, the Quartet in B-flat Major. I listened to it again and again. How did he do that? What is he telling me? It is beautiful.
I found an essay on Opus 130 written by a member of the Brentano Quartet that you may find helpful. The website also contains more short essays written by quartet members on various late string quartets and other works—they are very interesting and elegantly written. More essays can be found on The Beethoven Project website, where a variety of performers discuss the quartets. Here you can find an essay by pianist Jonathan Biss. Essays by other performers may be found on that same page in the Explore column on the right. Reading these essays, you will learn more about what Beethoven did, how it works, what it may mean. You will find that the artists are also awe-struck by the amazing achievements embodied in the late string quartets.
But what you take away in the listening is solely yours. See what Beethoven can say to you. He offers a universe like small gems in the palm of his hand.
The cavatina continues to defy time and space in a way that you might not expect. It is the final music selection on the golden records affixed to the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft. Beethoven has entered interstellar space, a noble representative of what it means to be human.
Postlude: Need more Beethoven? You can get free access to the Naxos Music Library through the Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s Beethoven On Demand program by signing up for a free account. [Sorry, this is no longer available]
Image attribution: Photograph by C. Gallant, Copyright 2016.