Ludwig van Beethoven: String Quartet in F Major, Opus 135

Something troubles me in how Beethoven–and artists in general–appears in the media. Artists are always portrayed as having an imbalanced personality–being prone to fits of fancy, egotism, and violent outbursts–and they seemingly stumble along until God opens up the top of their head and pours in “inspiration.” From everything I’ve read by artists, you have to work years to master your craft before you have the ability to take that inspiration and package it into a great work of art.

Indeed, Stravinsky said for him, he rarely started with inspiration. Instead, he began with the constraints and rules of music and the creativity came in as he used his tools and talents to discover the work of art. Ravel said it was a matter of mastering the craft so that you knew what to leave out as being extraneous, and spent hours working and reworking over his compositions. The best example is the sculptor who sees the work in the marble and discovers it by removing what is not needed.
There is a story about a rich man who goes to an artist and commissions him to paint a portrait of the man’s pet rooster. He leaves the animal with the artist, pays him a handsome sum and departs. Months pass. The rich man has not heard anything from the artist and so visits the artists studio. He asks whether the portrait is done. The artist tells him to wait a moment. He sets up his easel and canvas, and dashes off an exquisite picture of the animal. The rich man is furious. “You’ve kept me waiting for this long, doing nothing and now you spend five minutes and expect me to pay you all this money?” The artist tells the rich man to follow him into the next room. When he turns on the light, the rich man sees that the room is full of hundreds of sketches of chickens.

I’m also thinking of the Japanese artist who stares at the piece of rice paper before him as he paints the picture in his mind. It becomes a mental discipline. What’s interesting to note is that the medium he uses imposes that rule on him. Rice paper instantly absorbs the ink, so he cannot afford the luxury of making a mistake.

It would have been valuable if someone had explained this to me around the time I discovered Beethoven’s late quartets, in the Fall of 1973. Unfortunately, I shared the popular notion of how artists are supposed to behave. As I have confessed, I thought the way to create was to get drunk–thereby knocking down the barriers to feeling and emotion–and works of beauty would spill out. Fortunately after quite a long time of producing crap, I decided to change my tack. So, over the years, I’ve worked hard to improve my skills as a writer–by taking classes, by reading, and of course by just writing.

What I have learned now, by practicing Tai Chi, by the way, is the need to balance the logical and emotive. Now when I have an idea, I can usually translate it coherently and if I can’t think of anything to write about, if I just sit down and start, usually something pops into my head.

Now what about today’s piece? The Opus 135 was the last piece Beethoven composed. Of it he wrote: “It will be the last and it has given me much trouble.” I find it a fitting capstone to a life devoted to creating works of beauty that are also intellectually satisfying. The first movement reminds me a bit of his sixth symphony. The second, marked Vivace, has a wonderfully syncopated section that he repeats a number of times. To me it has the cheery mood of a person in the full of life, not smug, but just happy to be alive and at having attained a few high spots along the way.

In the last movement, Beethoven alternates between two melodies with almost diametrically opposed feelings. The first is a happy, jaunty, youthfully fresh sounding piece. The second sounds fraught with pain and sorrow–almost like some of the bleak parts of Vivaldi’s Winter from the Four Seasons. Beethoven moves us back and forth between these two extremes and thank heavens as he nears the finish, he returns to the happy sounding one. On the last page, he introduces a pizzicato section and then resolves on a beautiful chord. Most satisfying.

Download MP3 or buy CD of String Quartet Op. 135 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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