Saint Paul Sunday from American Public Media Beethoven: The Emerson Expedition 

Quartets for the Non-Connoisseur

RealAudio 3.0 28.8
Bill McGlaughlin's narrative
Beethoven quartets are an antidote
Necessary and sufficient

Music to browse by: B flat major, Op. 18, No. 6 - La Malinconia: Adagio-Allegretto quasi Allegro (1800)

FOR SOME REASON the string quartet has the reputation of music for the connoisseur, not for most of us. Some people who enjoy Beethoven piano sonatas and love the symphonies shy away from the string quartets. This is unfortunate because the quartets provide some of the most vivid and exalted music that Beethoven ever wrote. I suppose the problem may be, curiously enough, in the simplicity and lack of bombast of the quartets.

Here, you get no trumpets blaring, no timpani rolling to announce the end of the section. But wait a minute. Isn't there too much noise in the world today? Too much traffic noise, MTV, meaningless, political rhetoric?

Well, the Beethoven quartets are an antidote. They're all message. They're about life and love and loss and triumph and all you need to do is sit down and listen to them. These are very great works of art and they're for everyone.

Necessary and Sufficient

"The string quartet is the medium in which the greatest composers have written their greatest music." You know, I've heard so many people solemnly reciting that line that I'm starting to believe it. For one thing, like most truisms, there actually is something to it. But why? Why is it the composers regard the string quartet so highly? I think we can borrow a page from the scientists. They sometimes speak of "necessary and sufficient," whether they have elements necessary and sufficient to be the cause of the reaction they want.

Let's look at this. Why four parts? I think four parts actually is necessary and sufficient. Two's company in music. Unlike romance, three actually gets more interesting. And four, far from being a crowd, is about the most interesting conversation you can have where the composers can actually manipulate the parts successfully and we, as listeners, can follow all the parts independently without getting lost. More than four parts, and either we get lost, or the composer starts to double it up. They start to harmonize parts so they're no longer independent. So four parts: necessary and sufficient.

Now, why strings? In the short answer, great range. Great range of pitch from high to low, of dynamic range from loud to soft, enormous expressive range when you add vibrato and all that tonal color that string instruments can make.

But, and this is the most important part about a string quartet, all of this range is presented in a homogenous sound. These four instruments all create sound in an identical way - by drawing the bow over the string - it always blends. As a result, the sound is very clear and the music transparent; lines don't get blurred or buried. In orchestral music, by contrast, sometimes you get a great wave of sound which wells up from the winds and brass and percussion, and harp, and piano, and who knows what. This can get in the way of the musical line.

In string quartets, you can always find Waldo. Which is to say that the thematic material is almost always very clear. And this leads to a very concentrated form. And that, I think, is the answer to our big question. This concentrated form means that those composers who excel in putting their music in the most clear language - starting with Haydn and Mozart, and leading from Beethoven through Bartok - have chosen again and again to put some of their most exquisite music into the string quartet.


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