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The greatest composer

By Robert S. Sargent, Jr.
web posted October 4, 2004

Billie Holiday

When I say, stopping the tape,
"The next one, coming up, a vintage Billie,
Surpasses all the vocals ever sung,"

And frowning you demur,
Say you should hear it first before commitment,
I grant the surface plausibility

Of what you say: surely
It would apply to questions of judgment, taste.
But what I say is merely a statement of fact.

If Ludwig van Beethoven had written his symphonies, his piano sonatas, his one opera, his one violin concerto, his Missa Solemnis, he would arguably be considered the world's greatest composer. Surely everyone would agree that he would be in the top three? But Beethoven did something else: he wrote 17 string quartets (I'm including his "Grosse Fugue").

Beethoven completed his first 6 quartets, opus 18, in 1800. All of these are great compositions and are included in the standard repertoire. I consider these to be great music in the "classical" mainstream with Haydn and Mozart. Any one of these is a fine place to start if one hasn't listened to his quartets. To those who have shied away from listening to the quartets because of their reputation for complexity, the first 6 are as accessible as any of his more popular symphonies or sonatas.

Ludwig van BeethovenIn 1806, Beethoven completed his second set of quartets. Numbers 7, 8, and 9 comprise what are known as the "Rasoumovsky" quartets, named after Beethoven's patron, Count Andrei Kirillowitsch Rasoumovsky. There are hints of what's to come in these quartets: stranger melodies, more gorgeous orchestration, and different techniques such as the use of pizzicato and pedal tones, and unusual rhythms. There is also more expression of emotions.

After Beethoven finished number 11 in 1810, it was 14 years before he wrote number 12. Number 12 begins a period of unbelievable masterpieces. Up to 12, we have a legacy of greater and greater classical music. Beginning with 12, to me, we have two things: the essence of Beethoven and a sense of place. What I mean by "essence" is what we know as "soul" when we hear Ray Charles sing "Drown in My Own Tears." These quartets are full of every emotion that music can express, and the emotions are Beethoven's alone: from sweetness and gaiety, to sadness and longing, to a kind of madness not heard in any of his other music.

As for a sense of place, it "sounds" old world, Vienna. This music could not have been written by a man from the country of fur traders, ever expanding railroads, infinite plains with herds of millions of bison. Nor, I submit, from a man from London or Paris. It simply "sounds" like Vienna.

Let me talk about one of these quartets: number 16, finished in 1826, one year before Beethoven's death. The 1st movement begins simple enough. As it becomes more complex, it introduces loud unisons with soft blends and some unusual harmonies. But all this is setting you up for the incredible 2nd movement.

The second movement is anything but simple. The opening phrases end in very strange unisons. This melts into a staccato like passage which then melts into sheer madness. The violins are playing a melody that can only be described as screeching and underneath, the cello, (and viola, I think) play a 4 note rising theme on every beat over and over, I counted at least 50 times. This is not the kind of annoying repetition heard in the 6th Symphony where you ask, "Why are you doing this?" There is logic in its madness, somehow. It is grabbing you by the throat and grunting, and belching; sneering and shaking you until you get it. Over and over until it finally softens and lets go. You give in, exhausted, lying back.

And then a completely remarkable thing happens. Beethoven presents you with what is arguably the most beautiful music ever written. This isn't beautiful melody, it's color and textures; layers of sound surrounding you with its sweetness. And with its bitter-sweetness and longing. This, written by a man too deaf to ever hear it.

These last quartets cannot be heard; they must be listened to. But what a reward! (As for the Grosse Fugue, it's like reading James Joyce: I'm still working on it.)

Now, why the Billie Holiday poem (reprinted with the permission of the author, Robert S. Sargent, Sr.)? When you add the quartets to Beethoven's life work, he is no longer arguably the best composer who ever lived. Like Billie, he is the best and that's a fact!

Robert S. Sargent, Jr. is a senior writer for Enter Stage Right and can be reached at rssjr@citcom.net.

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