String Quartet in E flat Major, Op.127

When I saw the Guarneri quartet play Beethoven’s String Quartet in C sharp minor, Op.131 (see my previous post), the program notes mentioned the composer’s late quartets. Beethoven wrote some 15 or so quartets throughout his life, and musicologists divide these into three groups-early, middle and late. The late quartets consist of six and bear the Opus numbers 127, 130, 131, 132, 133, and 135.

After I heard the opus 131, I had the good fortune to find a used set of the entire late quartets in a used record store. They were on the Deutsche Grammophon label and had been recorded by the Amadeus Quartet as part of the record company’s effort in the late 1960s to record all of Beethoven’s works to commemorate the bicentennial of his birth in 1970.

Now these quartets are not the type of music that you just slap on and go about cleaning the bathroom on a Saturday morning. They require intense concentration, but they pay off in emotional impact. I used to listen to them a lot, and now I realize that I have never listened to them with a friend. During my first semester at Purdue University, it would have helped had I had someone to listen to them with. Nowadays, I see that this “interior exile” was for the most part self-imposed, but there exist those who are alone for other reasons.

I met one of these in my Freshman composition class. Now before college, I had dreaded Freshman composition. Somehow, I had manage to get through high school without taking a class that required me to write and extended term paper. That scared me. What if I had to write a 30-pager? I knew I couldn’t pull it off. I’d drop out of school and end up working in a factory.

At the same time, I nurtured a secret fantasy about becoming a great writer. I thought that all you had to do was get drunk, dash something off in a fit of inspiration, and you’d be hailed at a genius. Unfortunately, I ended up with a teacher almost as narcissistic as I. We read great works of prose from an anthology, and then we had to try our hand at various types of prose. The teacher, obviously thinking of himself as the next Hemingway, looked down his nose at all of us. One day, to enlighten us as to what constituted good writing, he read one of his own pieces out loud in class. It started with a description of a man looking at himself in the mirror one morning before shaving. For some unexplained reason-existential angst perhaps-he plunges the razor into the side of his face. There followed a rather graphic description of the color of the Burmashave mixed with blood.

The guy in the seat next to me-a Viet Nam veteran-looked at me and we rolled our eyes. After class, we talked about what a piece of crap the teacher’s work was, and the guy asked me if I would like to come over to his house to listen to some music. His name was Steve Applebee and he lived in a trailer home outside of town. He was quite self-sufficient and showed off the audiophile quality speakers he had built himself. He put on an song called White Bird by a group called “It’s a Beautiful Day.” This was his favorite piece and he almost went into a trance as he listed to it. Of course, since he smoked marijuana incessantly, that might have had something to do with the effect the music had on him.

I was a bit weirded-out by him, yet always said yes when he called to see if I wanted to do something. We shot pool at the student union, and one Saturday he called me up. He asked if I wanted to go riding around the countryside in his little red convertible. He picked me up and we drove back to his house. There he took out a thermos, filled it with crushed ice, gin and vermouth and we set off. We tooled around all day in the Indian summer warmth through the Indiana countryside–past fields of corn starting to turn brown–sipping out martinis and listening to music.

Steve did things like that that made me feel so “cool,” but I never quite felt comfortable around him. Maybe it was his dark streak. He never told me about his war experiences, but you could tell he was restless. Once, a nymphomaniac started hanging around my dorm. She was the kind of girl who would stand too close to you and then suddenly lick your face. She put me off. A number of the guys in the dorm made a big deal out of having “done it” with her en masse. One day, when Steve had dropped by, she showed up and the two of them left together. He later told me that for all her forwardness, she was actually boring in bed. I was still a virgin and had some romantic notion about what sex and love should be, so this whole episode seemed to me a rather tawdry picture of how people could behave with one another.

Still, Steve did distract me from the dullness of the place I lived, and it upset me one day when after class he took me aside and delivered this piece of news: “I’m dropping out.”

“Why,” I stammered.

“I can’t stand it any more. The teachers are all assholes. They’re not teaching me anything.”

“But you’re a good writer.”

“Thanks but it’s no good.”

The next week he didn’t show up in class. I called his number but the phone had been disconnected. I called directory assistance for Kokomo, where he told me his mother had lived but had no luck. It was as if he had fallen off the face of the earth.

Though he never volunteered anything about his war experiences, I don’t believe I ever asked. Despite Mai Lai and the fact that by 1973 the war was pretty much lost, we hadn’t started hating the Viet Nam vets yet. I felt naïve and green compared to him and thought that because he wrote so well that he should have been able to run with his talent. No one spoke about post-traumatic shock back then, and we didn’t have Prozac to reset people’s Seratonin levels back to a pristine state. I just hope he was able to exorcise whatever demons he had before the pot and gin did him in.

Thank god I never had to experience that kind of suffering. Years later, I met a former Viet Nam vet, who told me that being in war is like being on heroin-it feels as if every nerve in your body is plugged into about 1000 volts of pure electricity as your mind tries to cope with the realization that in the next moment you might be dead. It “focuses the mind terrifically,” as Samuel Johnson said. I imagine one could become addicted to that feeling, that sense of almost enlightenment. How dull it must have been to come back to a dull college in the dull Midwest and to sit in a class listening to some bozo with a deferment try to write about his existential angst. So I remained alone listening to my Beethoven quartets, trying in my own way to experience genius vicariously through works of art. Hoping by that route to turn myself into a genius, or at least an intellectual.

Beethoven’s Quartet in E flat Major, Op.127 is a good piece for that. It starts with a beautiful statement that is so majestic, it really could be the finale. But then it launches into a very lyrical passage, built on the notes in the opening, played almost like a waltz that you might imagine hearing played at a 19th century soiree. The movement returns to the opening then comes back to the lyrical part a second time before moving into a tense emotive section. The first movement alternates a few more times before ending on a great flourish. The third movement, marked scherzando (playful) is a delight as it starts with a pizzicato and then launches off into series of jaunty passages. I believe Beethoven brings in a serious part from time to time, like a parent scolding a child, but then he laughs and joins in the fun as he brings back the quick, upbeat part again. Stravinsky said he preferred the finale to any of the others in all the quartets, and it changes meter and melody several times, but always conveying a sense of joy and renewal.

I do hope that Steve was able to find a sense of joy and renewal in his life.

Wikipedia entry on Quartet Opus 127

Download MP3 or Buy CD of Beethoven: Late String Quartets on 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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