Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time”
If Bach is God, Beethoven is Man. Where Bach speaks of eternal truths and the mysteries of the universe. Beethoven defines the essence of what it is to be human. I’ll show you in 40 seconds of music.
In 2018 we played Beethoven’s string quartet, Opus 130. The fifth movement, titled “Cavatina” by the composer (a cavatina is a type of song) begins and ends with a slow melody that sandwiches six extraordinary measures. Over those measures he writes “beklemmt.”
“Beklemmt” is difficult to translate. I’d define it a little like the feeling of being overwhelmed with emotion. My friend and colleague Mark Steinberg of the Brentano String Quartet expresses it perfectly:
Beethoven marks the passage beklemmt: oppressed, anguished, stifled. Along with a viscerally disorienting shift to a distant tonality the lower voices pulsate in a sort of primal vibration. The first violin is somehow overcome, no longer singing, no longer even able to connect one note to another, voiceless yet desperate to give voice. The line cannot find tears with which to cry, it gropes for language where there is none. Within the world of Op. 130 and its investigation of the limits of musical language and form this is the moment of revelation. The movement which is to sing loses its capacity to do so, or cannot find the inspiration to support it. Exquisite paradox: Music is inadequate to express what pleads to be expressed; this failure is flawlessly expressed by music.
At measure 40 (the first measure of the excerpt in the score above) you hear the three lower voices (second violin, viola, and cello) lay down a soft blanket of sound (this starts at 4:29 in the YouTube link below). Then in the next measure the cello drops from an Eb to a Db (highlighted in yellow) while the other two voices stay where they are. This change of one note (it happens at 4:36 on the video) – it blows my mind. Listen! Listen to that one change. And then when the violin enters on the second beat of measure 41 it feels like time itself slows down.
This sets up the next measure for the beginning of the gasping and uncertain beklemmt melody in the first violin (highlighted in red). At the end of this section (5:23) Beethoven turns a corner and we’re back in the light, even if it is a decidedly late-afternoon-setting-sun kind of glow. Beethoven’s transition is so perfect it barely registers.
Here is the whole movement, all seven minutes of it. At the bottom of the email is an invitation from the NCMF Board to join them in an informal online "salon" later this week for anyone who would like to discuss this in person (via Zoom) with others.
The feelings expressed here are so direct, so real, so human. The music speaks of immense sorrow yet somehow manages to be hopeful at the same time.
I feel that is exactly what I need these days.
David Yang, Artistic Director
When: Wednesday, April 8th at 7:00pm
Meeting ID: 644 119 103
For NCMF's first Zoom presentation, we plan to listen to the 7 minute Cavatina movement which David has described so well. Then we'll open it up for your reactions and discussion. Perhaps we might reflect on how it makes you feel. What if anything it evokes for you? The moods you might sense while listening. You might be wondering why Beethoven decided to follow it with the challenging last movement. No right answers here. Simply a wonderful way to enhance our community in this difficult time.
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We hope to see you Wednesday evening at 7:00!
As we all hunker down indoors, “socially distanced” and grimly tracking the progress of COVID-19 across our communities, I thought some kind of distraction might be welcome. In particular, I’ve been thinking about revisiting favorite works from the last nineteen (!) seasons of NCMF. Of course, any such list of favorites will be highly subjective. One friend recently provided me with his personal ranking system: