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Eugene Drucker on Beethoven

Eugene Drucker. Photo: Lisa Mazzucco

I recently interviewed Eugene Drucker about his Southbank Centre concert with the Emerson Quartet on Sunday, 16 November, which you can read about here. But he had so many interesting ways of explaining Beethoven’s groundbreaking and difficult Op.130 and Op.132 Grosse Fuge that I ran out of space, so here are some of the broader concepts he talked about, which didn’t fit the piece.

Out of this world

‘Because Beethoven was completely deaf he had been forced to imagine and create music completely divorced from acoustic reality. This gave him a kind of freedom that he might not otherwise have had. He was able to imagine extra musical dimensions. In the musical space that he contemplated, the statements of the subject and counter-subject could unfold without getting in each other’s way, as they would for the rest of us hearing them within the range of a string quartet. Beethoven could imagine extra pockets in the way that string theorists can imagine extra dimensions of the universe beyond the three spacial dimensions we’re used to. He could go beyond the boundaries of what is normally available to human perception.’

Looking forwards and backwards at the same time

‘Beethoven combined the trailblazing willingness to break rules all over the place with a fascination for older music. In Op.132 he was looking back not so much to Haydn and Mozart any more, reevaluating their procedures and adapting them to his style, but hundreds of years, to medieval music. He also uses species counterpoint, a 17th-century polyphonic technique. In the third movement, the Heiliger Dankgesang, he’s thanking God (or some notion Divinity – I don’t think he was formally religious) for his recovery from a long illness. The old-style music is used to represent a sense of otherworldliness. This is contrasted with sections that are marked ‘Neue Kraft fühlend’ – ‘feeling new strength’. Those sections are based in D major, a tonality rooted in his time. His ability to look way back and, at the same time, forward to some of the startling developments in modern music is almost like the Roman god Janus – two profiles looking backwards and forwards simultaneously.’

Applause between movements

‘This was contemporary music to the audience, like the kind of music the Arditti Quartet plays for us today. Beethoven was too nervous to go to the premiere of Op.130 so he waited in a tavern nearby and his friends came to report. In the early 19th century it was an accepted part of performance practice that if the audience liked a movement it would be reprised immediately. They hadn’t developed our modern sense that a piece mustn’t have applause between movements and that the overarching structure is important in presentation. The audience would show its reaction right away. They really loved the inner movements of Op.130 and Beethoven was gratified to hear that, but they couldn’t understand the sixth movement, the Grosse Fuge. He was furious.’

Great art doesn't presuppose knowledge

‘One thing that distinguishes classical music from most forms of music that appeal to mass audiences is that we’re dealing with much bigger timeframes. Of course we have short musical forms within the realm of classical music but Classical composers always had to grapple with questions of large-scale structure. Their ability to generate structure depends on cohesion and coherence. They use material that has become familiar to the audience and therefore this strategy depends on the audience’s ability to remember, either consciously or unconsciously, the music that has been heard already.

For example, Beethoven and Mendelssohn experimented with an arch structure, where the last movement refers back to the first movement. Mendelssohn does this with two of his quartets, Op.12 and Op.13. In his Ninth Symphony, Beethoven quotes material from all three of the first movements in the last movement, in a kind of stream of consciousness effect. Sometimes it’s almost literal and sometimes it’s been transformed, but it’s still recognisable. Either way, it depends on the memory of the listener and an assumption that the listener has been changed from all the experiences that have happened in between. Therefore, when you hear an almost literal repetition of the opening material towards the end, it takes on a greater significance. It’s like when a long novel ties up its themes in the final chapter or in an epilogue: if you took the ending out of context it wouldn’t seem complete, because the reader hasn’t had the full experience.

The challenge for the performer and the goal of the creator is to engage the audience in such a way that they live through the piece as if it’s unfolding for the first time. There may be an assumption that listeners have a cultural background and might have listened to other music, but the coherence depends on just being there in the moment. One can analyse the music, and really great art might be enhanced by understanding that context, but it also has a visceral effect that doesn’t depend on that sort of knowledge. If listeners just open themselves up to what is happening they’ll get the message.’

Click here to listen to the Emerson Quartet playing Op.130 through Spotify.

Photo: Lisa Mazzucco

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