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Monday, August 13, 2018

Week One, Kerman's 'The Beethoven Quartets' reading group

This week's illustration is Robert Anton Wilson's "Classic Cowboys" Beethoven T-shirt, which Joshua Hallenbeck purchased during last year's auction of Wilson's personal items. Photo courtesy Joshua Hallenbeck.

By Eric Wagner, guest blogger

Kerman’s The Beethoven Quartets – Week 1: Chapter 1

Willkommen, bienvenue, welcome.

The game plan:

8/13 Week 1 Chapter 1 Op. 18, No. 3

8/20 Week 2 The first half of Chapter 2 Op. 18, No. 1

8/27 Week 3 The second half of Chapter 2 Op. 18, No. 2

9/3 Week 4 The first third of Chapter 3 Op. 18, No. 5

9/10 Week 5 The second third of Chapter 3 Op. 18, No. 4

9/17 Week 6 The final third of Chapter 3 Op. 18, No. 6

9/24 Week 7 Chapter 4 Op. 59, No. 1

10/1 Week 8 The first half of Chapter 5 Op. 59, No. 2

10/8 Week 9 The second half of Chapter 5 Op. 59, No. 3

10/15 Week 10 The first half of Chapter 6 Op. 74

10/22 Week 11 The second half of Chapter 6 Op. 95

10/29 Week 12 Chapter 7

11/5 Week 13 The first half of Chapter 8 Op. 127

11/12 Week 14 The second half of Chapter 8 Op. 132

11/19 Week 15 Chapter 9 Op. 133

11/26 Week 16 The first half of Chapter 10 Op. 130

12/3 Week 17 The second half of Chapter 10 Op. 131

12/10 Week 18 Chapter 11 Op. 135

12/17 Coda

Please read chapter one this week and listen to Op. 18, No. 3.

Former members of the Illuminati in Bonn in the 1780’s formed the Reading Society. They included Beethoven’s important early teacher Neefe, and they commissioned the young Beethoven’s Emperor Joseph Cantata which Robert Anton Wilson repeatedly praised. I think of this reading group as our contemporary Reading Society.

Joseph Kerman’s book appeared in 1966, 52 years ago. Germany existed as two countries then, with Bonn, Beethoven’s home town, as West Germany’s capital.

Pg. 8 of my edition: Maecenas acted as a patron to Horace, Virgil and other poets in Rome during the reign of Augustus. Maynard Solomon has pointed out the importance of the classical world of Greece and Rome to Beethoven. (Please let me know if my page numbers work for any other editions of Kerman’s book.)

Pg. 11 – I disagree with Kerman about considering Haydn’s piano trios as secondary works. Charles Rosen has a great chapter about those trios in his book The Classical Style which didn’t appear until 1971 or 1972. (Kerman loved that book).

Pg. 27 – The use of the generic pronoun “He” for a composer shows the changes in the English language since 1966.

Pg. 28 – The discussion of Tovey’s writing here makes clear his huge influence on Joseph Kerman.

Please post your comments on this chapter and this quartet. See you next week.


Cleveland Okie (Tom Jackson) said...

Beethoven wrote his first string quartet between 1798 and 1800, early in his career, and wrote his last one in 1826 (he died in 1827.) So our survey really will cover a long part of his career and should give us a good look at his work.

Eric Wagner said...

Yes indeed. I find it sobering to realize I have reached the age at which Beethoven died.

Roman said...

I find it a remarkable coincidence that both Beethoven and Mozart began seriously composing string quartets at the age of 27 (though of course 16 years apart), both working hard and exclusively (or almost so) on string quartets for 2 years. 27 back then was pretty much middle age, which shows that the composition of quartets requires some level of maturity, both musical and emotional.

Oz Fritz said...

27 is the age that several popular contemporary musicians have died.

I'll be able to join in the discussion in a couple of days. I just got back from a chaotic trip yesterday. When I unpacked I discovered that my Kerman book had disappeared in action. I ordered a new one and it's on its way. Also ordered a set of the Quartets on cd.

I'm interested in this course because of RAW's interest in Beethoven and to increase my meager knowledge of classic classical music.

Eric Wagner said...

In a universe next door Mozart lived to a ripe old age and served as Beethoven's teacher for a while. Mozart wrote many more string quartets, and that changed the composition of quartets by Haydn, Beethoven and others.

Cleveland Okie (Tom Jackson) said...

I've started the Kerman, and it's obvious that I won't get everything he's trying to tell me, and also obvious that I'll learn a lot, anyway.

I've listening to the Guarneri Quartet's recordings of the Beethoven quartets, and on Kerman's recommendation, I've started downloading the same group's recording of the six Haydn quartets by Mozart.

Branka Tesla said...

Tom, I am with you here:

"I've started the Kerman, and it's obvious that I won't get everything he's trying to tell me, and also obvious that I'll learn a lot, anyway."

I checked out the first edition (1966) of Kerman's  The Beethoven Quartets from Berkeley Public Library the other day and was pleasantly surprised to find a paper pocket still attached to first page of the book with an inserted pink card and hand written card holders numbers of people documenting who had borrowed the book since 1966. Somehow I found it touching and romantic. (I am really surprised the pink card has been there for some 52 years and did not get lost.)

As I was reading a note about the author I learned that Kerman was "a professor of music at the University of California in Berkeley" and that he died just a few years ago (2014) in Berkeley. (Wow! I live in Berkeley and I did not know that! Shame on me!)

Anyway, looking forward to learn more!

Eric Wagner said...

Oz, I find it interesting that the Beatles did such wonderful work in their late twenties. After reading a lot about Beethoven and listening to a lot of Beethoven over the summer, I binged on Paul McCartney last week which proved a welcome contrast.

Tom, in college I had an LP of the Guaneri Quartet playing Hadyn's Op. 77, No. 1 and 2 which I loved. Also, I've read this Kerman book at least ten times, and I know I haven't gotten everything he has to say in it.

Branka, in a universe next door I attended Berkeley and studied with Kerman and Ishmael Reed, earning a Ph.
D. in musicology. I try to let that universe meld with this one.

Cleveland Okie (Tom Jackson) said...

Much of early Beethoven sounds like late Mozart to me. The Beethoven quartet we are listening to seems to me similar in style to Mozart's String Quartet No. 14, one of the Haydn Quartets, which I also listened to yesterday.

Branka Tesla said...


Thank you for the clarification. No wonder you selected this book. This must be very personal for you.

Cleveland Okie (Tom Jackson) said...

Branka, My copy has the old paper pocket, too. Takes me back to when I searched for books in a card catalog, and wrote down the location with one of those little pencils.

Eric Wagner said...

Roman, yes, I think quartets proved a rite of passage for both Mozart and Beethoven. In the Haydn Quartets Mozart paid homage to Haydn and revealed his own mastery. In the same way Beethoven paid homage to both Mozart and Haydn in the Op. 18 quartets and revealed his own mastery as well.

Tom, the musical language of the Op. 18 quartets owes a lot to Mozart and Haydn. Beethoven really begins to mark out his own path in the slow introduction to Op. 18, No. 6.

Branka, I, alas, did not really earn a Ph.D under Professor Kerman. I suspect that in a universe next door I might have attended UC Berkeley in the 1980's and fallen under his influence.

CrypticMusic said...

p.5 - "Private persons...cultivated instrumental music with a passion..." The importance of patronage to sustain a musician's career. These days we have Kickstarter campaigns, and pirated downloads. Music has become a "free" artform that has lost its monetary value. Where are the 1%-ers and why don't they commission great works of art these days? Who has the vision to support and encourage the genii of today?

p.4 - "Albrechtsberger, a painstaking theorist who ran him through the old-fashioned contrapuntal curriculum." The old-fashioned curriculum was probably the Gradus ad Parnassum by Joseph Fux, a Renaissance polyphony textbook. It's still held up as the model for contrapuntal (multiple independent voice) writing, one of the foundations of Western classical composition. The composer Alan Belkin has a very good class on contemporary counterpoint derived from Fux on his Youtube channel.

p.11 - " artist paints a picture not because he has seen a tree, but because he has seen another picture of a tree." All art is about other art, we can't escape the weight and influence of our cultural forebears.

p.14 - "Beethoven experiments again and again with the old counterpoint in its most scholastic forms.... Ultimately it sustains the contrapuntal obsession of the last period, which played itself out in the Great Fugue and the Quartet in C# minor." Counterpoint was so important to Beethoven that the struggle with it sustained his greatest creations. The Great Fugue gets its own chapter in this book. In research more recent than Kerman's, it is conjectured that the pursuit of complex counterpoint was related to the alchemical quest for the philosophical gold. ( Did Bach's alchemical counterpoint feed Mozart's Masonic ideals, thus spilling into Beethoven's great spiritual quest?

p.21 - "The chromatic inflections in the second group are flatulent..." Academic writing sometimes catches me out, especially when the descriptive writing gets a bit archaic. I suppose this use of "flatulent" is the definition "inflated or pretentious in speech or writing."

p.25 - "Yet none of this ingenious hinting at 'unity' seems to count. Beethoven has not yet found a way out of the classical scheme of essentially independent movements within the four-movement form. It is not even certain that he yet fully appreciated the need to get out." In my memory, Beethoven is lauded for two major techniques in his music: motivic development, where very short seed ideas generate much larger forms (eg. 5th Symphony); and thematic unity, where multi-movement works are unified by germ ideas across different moods. In Mozart's time, a set of pieces was unified by the simple fact that they were grouped together, but each part was essentially independent. In this first quartet, Beethoven has not yet broken out of this mold.

p.29 - "Our response to art is various and always partial, and therefore open to infinite instruction, so that provisional illumination can be brought to bear from many points of view." Is Kerman espousing a multi-model approach? I think RAW would have appreciated this. Kerman lets us know that he is going to use three main approaches throughout the book: technical analysis (which can be somewhat "cold"), intuition, and taking an opposing view. He is prepared to shine a light on Beethoven's genius by revealing all of the faults and failures in the work, presumably to lead us through Beethoven's own development and growth.

CrypticMusic said...

In listening to the quartet (I have the Medici String Quartet recording), I am struck by the immediately recognizable voice of Beethoven. The texture of the music still has a foot firmly in the world of Mozart and Haydn, but Beethoven is clearly setting out on his own road in terms of the moments of excitement and surprise. The stretto chord in triple rhythm at 6 min. into the first movement caught me off guard on the first listening, but on repeated listenings it was clearly telegraphed in advance. How does he make it sound logical and yet unexpected? The same can be said for some of the harmonic turns he makes in his development sections: perfectly logical within the syntax of the time, but making choices that Papa Haydn would never have turned to. Perhaps the biggest surprise was the end of the final movement, which builds up to a powerhouse ending, but then cheekily backs away at the last moment. All of the scowling portraits of Beethoven don't paint him as much of a humorist, but he can certainly keep his tongue in his cheek when he feels like it.

This early period of Beethoven reminds me of his Minuet in G from 1796 ( which inspired the theme for Fawlty Towers (


Eric Wagner said...

Zukofsky and Pound both wanted to capture fugal qualities in poetry. I look forward to rereading Zukofsky's "A" in December.