Beethoven String Quartet in C sharp minor, Op.131

As I said in an earlier post, in the first semester of my freshman year in college I lived in place called Gemini House, which was full of science majors, with whom I had little in common. There was one exception–an upper classman named Truell West. Truell had too much on the ball to be labeled a “hippie,” but he had a full beard and long hair and didn’t quite fit the mold of the rest of the guys in the house. He was well versed in classical music and he even had a violin, which he said he had studied for a number of years. He was quite personable, and I used to hang out in his room, talking about music, art and literature. I suppose I thought of him as a potential mentor, but we never really clicked that way.

The previous summer, I had bought a second-hand violin in a pawn shop for $50. So I tried to get Truell to teach me how to play it. He showed me some fingering, but as anyone knows who’s taken lessons, the violin is very hard to play, and I soon abandoned my attempts. I think Truell was relieved. Who needs an pimply-faced geek hanging around when you’re about to graduate?

Truell kept on top of the schedules of performing arts at Purdue and told me when there was something good coming up that he thought I would enjoy. Once, he and I climbed into his old Volkswagen beetle and went to the local Catholic church to participate in a sing-in of Handel’s Messiah. Another time, he told me that a famous string quartet was coming and we got tickets. It turned out to be the Guarneri Quartet, who played on instruments made by the Guarneri family, which like the Stradivari and Amati families, came from Cremona. It turns that this quartet is based at the University of Maryland, near where I now live.

The evening I saw the Guarneri Quartet, they played Beethoven’s String Quartet in C sharp minor, Op.131, of which Stravinsky said “Everything in this masterpiece is perfect, inevitable, unalterable.” Until then I don’t believe I’d ever listened to a string quartet, let alone seen one perform. Oh perhaps I did see some television show or movie which had a string quartet sawing away in a corner at a ball, but the Guarneri performance had nothing to do with that. As you probably know by now, I am given to hyperbole and have used the word “galvanize” to describe my emotion before just about every piece I’ve written about so far. If any piece of music ever galvanized me, however, it was this quartet.

With seven movements, it is by far the longest of Beethoven’s quartets, but don’t let its length daunt you. Beethoven wrote this the year before he died and three years after his Symphony Number 9. Since he was only 57 at the time, we can say he was at the height of his powers. I seem to recall reading somewhere that Beethoven regarded the string quartet as the greatest form, even more expressive than symphonies. Once, at a performance of the Third Symphony I saw that Beethoven would start a melody in the first violins, move it to the seconds, then to the violas and finally to the cellos. Those four instruments, of course, comprise the string quartet, but the tight playing of the Opus 131 quartet could not be achieved in the symphonic form. Indeed where you tend to be carried along majestically in many symphonies supported by the lush melodies, in a string quartet you’re rushing along at 1000 miles an hour in the nose cone of a missile. (Oops. Hyperbole again.) But listen to the presto movement, if you don’t believe me. I found the sheet music to the quartet in a garage sale once and followed along. It was exciting: the notes seemed to fly off the page.

After that semester, I lost touch with Truell. Though he did not become my mentor, he did me a great favor by turning me on to this piece. This quartet is not melodious in the sense that it has few “hum-able” tunes in it, but it contains beautifully lyrical passages that transport you with their depth of feeling. I cannot recommend any more highly this piece to anyone wanting to listen to a great piece of classical music.

Wikipedia entry on this Quartet

Download CD or the Quartet or Buy CD from Amazon

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About kurtnemes
Writer and Education Professional. Specialties include Ethics, Personal Memoir, Classical music, Tai Chi, Stress Reduction, Meditation, Coping, Classical Music, Aging, Love, Joy, Compassion and Equanimity (& what interests me.)

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