Ludwig van Beethoven: String Quartet in A Minor, Opus 132

Purdue University was based in West Lafayette, Indiana. It sat on a perfectly flat plateau that rose up above the town of Lafayette, which I cannot remember ever visiting. The place where I lived during the fall semester of my freshman year, Gemini House, was perched at the edge of the plateau, its rear looking out and down over a huge slope to the town below. The highest building in Lafayette was an office building about 10 or 15 stories high, which just about reached the level of Gemini House on its promontory.

Living in Gemini taught me at least one lesson about gullibility. Since Purdue had good science and engineering programs, our house had its share of guys fascinated by airplanes, rockets, and other things that go “boom.” As the weather turned cold, someone suggest we make hot air balloons. One of the guys went to a dry cleaner and came back with a number of plastic bags used to cover the clean garments. Someone else went to the local hobby shop and bought a number of thin shafts of balsa wood. They made a cross with two pieces of wood and affixed them at the mouth of the bag to hold it open. We took these outside and used hair dryers to inflate them and up they went. They didn’t stay up long, because they would cool off too quickly. So I hit upon the idea of gluing birthday candles along the frame, to keep the air inside hot while they remained aloft. Not only did the candles work like a charm, they made the balloons visible at long distances, and we could track them at night on foot.

One night we set a balloon off and watched it drift out over the town of Lafayette. It wafted along on the breeze and floated right over to the large office building downtown. When it reached the building, an updraft caught it and sent it even higher into the sky. We watched it for a good half hour, before the candles finally burned out.

Around this time, we started hearing reports about UFO sightings. One night we sent a balloon up while listening to the local radio station. Suddenly the DJ interrupted the broadcast to announce that a UFO had been seen above the campus air port. On another occasion, I followed–on foot–one of my creations float above the tree tops through the neighborhood where we lived. I walked past a house on which a couple sat making out. Suddenly the girl looked up, saw the balloon and screamed. “Oh my god,” she yelled. “Look, it’s one of those UFOs.” They called into the house and some other students ran out. Now I knew how Orson Welles must have felt when he did performed a radio play of the War of the Worlds which many people took seriously. That pretty much put an end to my experiments. It’s awesome when you realize you have that kind of power; you have to wield it responsibly (tee hee).

As I said earlier, I discovered Beethoven’s late quartets during that fall semester of my freshman year. Thinking back on those balloons wafting over the central Indiana countryside, the hymn from the second movement of Beethoven’s Quartet in A Minor, Opus 132 springs to mind. After some incredibly beautiful and lyrical passages in that movement, Beethoven throws all the instruments up into their highest registers, the violins playing harmonics, and it is as ethereal as a glass harmonica or the whisper of angel wings amid cherry blossoms.

Stravinsky had this to say about the late quartets:

“The string quartet was the most lucid conveyor of musical ideas ever fashioned, and the most singing-i.e., hum-of instrumental means; or, rather, if it was not that, natively and necessarily, Beethoven made it so. As for inborn powers, it could register a faster rate of harmonic change than the not yet fully chromatic orchestra of Beethoven’s time, which was further impeded by a weight problem and balance problem. It is a more intimate medium, furthermore, partly by the same tokens; and a more pleasing one, long -term, as colour: to me at any rate, and in my case partly because I am least conscious of the colour element in it. Its sustaining powers are greater than those of wind instrument ensembles, and its ranges of speeds, and of degrees of soft volumes, are wider. Compared with the piano, its advantages are in polyphonic delineation and in the greater variety of dynamic articulation and nuance.” (From “A Realm of Truth” in Themes and Conclusions

The amazing thing about these late quartets is that they were ill received in their time. The critics and the public did not embrace them. Beethoven was stone deaf at this time and that was used as an excuse for not giving these pieces their due. What he heard, divorced from all traditional convention of the time was, well visionary.

Particularly moving is the last movement, which alternates between joyous sections, lyrical passages, a funny interjected melody right with a gypsy feel, and then more of those eerily beautiful high passages.

When I was a kid, I thought that writers were able to repeat from memory every word they wrote during their life time. Now that I am a writer, I know the fallacy of that, but I still wonder about composers. Beethoven didn’t have the ability to sit down at a piano to test out a chord. So I wonder what it must have sounded like inside his head. And what kind of dreams did he have? Did he dream of hot air balloons?

Buy CDs or Download MP3s of the Quartets

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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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