Beethoven: 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 in the fall of 1973, (see my earlier 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

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Gioachino Rossini: Overture to Semiramide

In 1973, even though I had changed my major from computer science to English literature, Purdue University still required me to take a course in the hard sciences. To make it easier on us liberal arts “thickies” they offered a number of science courses designed with a humanistic slant.


I had done pretty well in high school biology–getting an A by doing a meticulous insect collection–so at Purdue I signed up for the biology course, entitled “Man and The Biological World.” The course was taught by an enthusiastic professor of genetics by the name of Alfred Chiscon, who was one of the most broad minded and galvanizing speakers I’ve ever seen. He constantly challenged our beliefs and assumptions from a scientific stand point. In this class I learned that there was no such scientific term as “race,” since all humans had the same number of chromosomes and could interbreed and produce fertile offspring. That painted more clearly than anything else for me why racism was purely a political construct, used by the powerful (by whatever accident of fate made them so) to oppress others. One book we read said that if people were forced to interbreed, in just one or two generations everyone on the planet would have the same skin color, which would do away with racism. Of course, we’d probably find something else to use as a basis of discrimination–eye color for example.

In another class, he told the story of a young man who went blind for some mysterious reason. It turned out that he was overly reactive to cyanide. Cyanide, for some reason, concentrates in and destroys the optic nerve. Seems like no problem, since we don’t normally come in contact with cyanide. However, the young man had a roommate who smoked, and since cigarette smoke has large concentrations of cyanide in it, there was the cause of the blindness. After that, I had no objection to laws trying to outlaw smoking in public.

I was absolutely riveted by his classes and I sat in the first row of the lecture hall which sat about 500 students. One day after class, the teacher singled me out and asked me to come to his office to talk with him. I was a bit hesitant, but he was very friendly. He listened to me as I explained my dreams, ideas, and dissatisfaction with Purdue. Then he told me that I had to look really hard into myself to find my true desires and then follow them. “You’ve got to stand bare-assed naked in front of a mirror and just look at yourself.”

As we neared the end of the semester, I got a card in the mail from him inviting me to a party at his house. I arrive and he greeted me at the door and welcomed me and introduced me to his wife and gave me a tour. He and his wife had just adopted an African-American child, who was just learning to walk. I was so amazed at what a wonderfully nurturing and open-minded person he was, and I’ve put him into my personal Pantheon of role models, who have had an impact on and even changed my life. For I did look deep into myself and realize I had to leave Purdue. I applied to Indiana University and got accepted.

To remember Al today, I chose a fun overture to Rossini’s opera, Semiramide. This opera is a tale of intrigue about the Queen of Babylon, who is conflicted by her duty to choose a successor and the desires of her heart. What I particularly like about this piece is how Rossini manages to tell an entire story through different instruments, melodies, and rhythms. As in many of his overtures he starts out with an explosive blast, full of pomp and pageantry. The piece then stops and starts off in an entirely different vein, playing a slow beautiful melody in the horns. He soon abruptly changes again, bringing in one of his trademark “storm” interludes, which really gets your blood pumping. After the storm subside, Rossini slows it down again, using oboes and pizzicato violins to lull us into complacency. He alternates several more times between the storm and slow movements, before introducing, after eight stylistic changes, a wonderfully happy, Italian melody. That is the melody that I really love the best among all of Rossini’s uplifting works. Before finishing the nearly 12-minute overture, he changes to a tumultuous section and back to the happy melody several more times.

This is a good piece to represent Al Chiscon. If anyone was full of gusto for life it was Al. He advocated embracing life full-on: looking at the good and the bad, with a focused intellect, while at the same time never losing sight of the passion of what it means to be a human being. Knowing a bit about Rossini’s gusto for life, and the supreme intellect required to bring such a work into the light of day, the choice of Semiramide seems fitting for Al.

Thanks Al, wherever you are.

Rossini Biography

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Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov: Russian Easter Overture

In the fall of 1973, I left for college. Like my three older brothers, I entered Purdue University, in West Lafayette, Indiana. Looking back on it now, it seems like I didn’t have a choice in the matter. My father just expected it and I don’t remember applying to any other school. I believe I might have suggested Indiana University, which had a better liberal arts program, but it was also known as a “party” school and my parents wouldn’t entertain the idea of me going there.

My major also seems to have been predetermined for me–computer science. My best friend, Gary Endicott, was transferring from the local community college to Purdue and that was what he chose. Plus my father kept saying to me that “computers are the wave of the future.” I felt a bit like Benjamin in the movie The Graduate when Mrs. Robinson’s husband says to him: “I’ve got just one word to say to you: Plastics. ”

To compound matters, it was also decided that I would live in a place called Gemini House. Purdue had dormitories, fraternities, and then this third category called co-op houses, of which Gemini was one. Fraternities were where the rich kids went. Co-op houses were kind of a low-cost alternative. Most of the guys in the house were the sons of farmers and majored in veterinary science, agriculture, chemistry or biology. You can image we had a lot to talk about!

The worst thing about the house is that it pretended it was a fraternity, and you had to pledge it. That meant being rousted out of bed in the middle of the night and being forced to do humiliating things like stand at attention, shine people’s shoes, and clean toilets. My brother, Ken, was a senior in the house, and I felt a bit estranged from him. How could he have gone through this and not told me about it, I thought.

Let’s see, what were some of the other charms of Gemini House? Everyone, had to sleep in a “dorm,” which was the a large room with bunk beds. Because of state fire laws, the windows had to remain open at all times-rain or snow, hot or cold, fall, spring, or winter. This is really the way to sleep-in a sub-arctic room full of snoring men.

This was the early 1970s remember, and some of the guys were busy burning their minds out on drugs. One aeronautical engineering student named Scott, who had long hair and talked like a Hippie, often used to fall into bed in a stupor. His bed was right under one of the windows, and I remember waking up one morning to find that it had snowed, because about an inch of snow had massed on his chest over night.

We “pledges” also had the honor of taking it in turn to wake the upper classmen in the morning. That meant we had to get up before everyone else, read the list of who wanted to get up when, then sneak in, and wake those people without disturbing anyone else. Most of the time, that wasn’t too bad, but there was one guy, who slept like the dead. It was bad enough that you had to yell in his ear, shake him vigorously, and throw off his blankets. But the worst thing was that when he finally did regain consciousness, he would leap up screaming, arms a-flailing!  Nowadays and having learned about things like PTSD caused by child sexual abuse, I wonder if his violence arose out of some horrible incident in his childhood.

The one bit of privacy we had–sorry the toilets were communal troughs–was our study room.  You couldn’t sleep in it, but you could put your own stamp on it. There I hung my Picasso and Renoir posters, carefully arranged my classical music collection on my book case, and tinkered with my stereo. To ensure that my time in Gemini house was even more pleasant, the powers that be gave me a roommate who was in ROTC. He was one of the most narrowly focused, emotionally shut-down, conservative geeks I’d ever met, and he drove me to desperation. Once his family visited and I was horrified to see he had a twin brother!

The computer science program had a set course of studies that emphasized the hard sciences. I had to take calculus, chemistry, biology, and of course a programming class. The day I went to chemistry, it became apparent I didn’t belong there. The room was an amphitheater-style lecture hall that seated about 700 students. You needed binoculars just to see the instructor. The first homework assignment saw us trying to calculate the surface area of a one centimeter cube that had been broken down into one Angstrom cubes! I was so disheartened that I went to the guidance counselor and switched my major from Computer Science to English. I took psychology, speech, English composition, ethics, biology, and French–a total of about 22 hours! It was wonderful–I felt my mind opening up and expanding into new directions. I especially liked the ethics course since we read Plato’s Symposium and Kant’s Introduction to the Critique of Pure Reason. That was where I wanted to be.

And of course, classical music also helped me cope with what I perceived as a hostile environment. I had bought a copy of a collection of famous Russian pieces to have a copy of The 1812 Overture. The same album also had a recording of Borodin’s Polvetsian Dances, Moussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain, and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Russian Easter Overture. This was a great album, and I particularly liked the Russian Easter Overture. It is one of those pieces that takes you on a roller coaster ride and just when you think it’s over, it launches off into the melody again, maybe this time in a different key. It starts out in with a huge majestic blast of brass, which states the theme. A violin comes in, so light and angelic by comparison and weaves a beautiful melody out of the them, embellishing it. It’s almost spiritual. Then the piece takes off sounding so Russian, with that characteristic hint of orientalism, sleigh bells and the driving rhythm of a troika. Perhaps a bit of a cliché, but mind you this was the model for what someone else later turned into clichés.

It always puzzled me why someone would write an overture to Easter. But I think I read somewhere that Rimsky-Korsakov was trying to capture the pomp and ceremony of the Easter celebration in the Russian Orthodox Church. Having been to an Orthodox wedding years later, I could see what all the fuss was about. Unlike the Catholics, which I was raised as, who after Vatican II let many of the mysterious traditions fall by the way side, the Orthodox held onto and focused on the magic and wonder of Christ’s coming back from the dead. And since I was spending a fair amount of time in Purgatory at this time of my life, the cliché of The Russian Easter Overture must have just resonated with me.

Rimsky-Korsakov Biography

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