Beethoven: String Quartet No. 10 in Eb
In college, Beethoven held little sway. I skipped a century of music between the death of Bach and the ramp up to turn-of-the-century Romanticism. Beethoven was classical to my ear; courtly and refined. I preferred the Romantics in his wake but, in hindsight, I mostly enjoyed the nationalism of that late nineteenth-century romanticism. The drama of Liszt and Chopin dripping with the provincial folk melodies of Hungary and Poland, the bombast of Rimsky-Korsakov, drew my ear more than anything innate about the time period or techniques. But more and more, I appreciate Beethoven for reasons that have to do only tangentially with his music.
The textures of Renaissance and Baroque music worked better for me: the intricate overlapping counterpoint, melodies fighting for supremacy or working in perfect relation to one another. The monolithic texture of the classical period – Alberti bass and slick orchestration – was too predictable sometimes. In hindsight, I don’t think I was wrong, but I also didn’t give it a deep enough listen.
The conventions of my Baroque music were predictable as well. Handel was a genius. Scarlatti and Vivaldi wrote beautifully. Telemann? Take it or leave it. Mozart was a genius. Schubert and Haydn wrote beautifully. Sor, Giuliani, and Carcassi? Pass. Objectively one isn’t better or worse than the other: the beauty of both baroque and classical rests on the achievements of the exceptional. I was particularly attached to Renaissance and Baroque music, in reality, more because I was attached to Giovanni da Palestrina and Johann Sebastian Bach. The obvious nineteenth-century counterpart to both men is Beethoven. Palestrina and Bach exemplify the techniques and sounds of their time at their pinnacle but also their utter exhaustion. Renaissance polyphony can go no further than Palestrina’s Missa Papae Marcelli; Baroque counterpoint can go no further than Bach’s Mass in B minor, Brandenburg Concertos, or suites, partitas, and sonatas for unaccompanied violin and cello. Beethoven contains his own revolution.
Many words sour my mouth and raise the hair on my arms: marketing words like brand, monetize, or content; newfangled or repurposed words like gift (as a verb) or millennial; political drivel like people (preceded by “the”), or oligarch. The list is not exhaustive (not even close) and the reasons for inclusion are widely varied.
Some are just tired; lackluster, worn thin in the heel and toes, impossible to rid of the fetor of old shoes. Applying “oligarch” to a person paints them immediately sinister, much like we intend the word “big,” applied to any industry, to conjure up the great Standard Oil octopus. It does not. An acquaintance from college once commented on a Facebook photo another friend posted of their breakfast, which included a container of yogurt.
“You know that Stonyfield Farm is just another arm of Big Dairy, right?”
Quaking in my boots. I very well might be naive, but I’d rather save my awe and indignation for masters of the universe.
Other words are simply irritating. To use “gift” as a verb implies that “give” is somehow inadequate which, of course, it isn’t. And if it is, wouldn’t it be more satisfying to find another word entirely? Obviously it would, but that would require some measure of creativity which is not what we’re after. We bastardize nouns all the time, even occasionally for the better (I’ve heard it called, tongue-in-cheek, an act of “verbing”). That verbified nouns seem to gather in clumps around corporate language – interfacing, dialoguing, onboarding – says a lot about their purpose. They’re coarsely functional but devoid of flavor; a word to use quickly when we haven’t the time to retrieve the proper one.
Still other words begin to feel ominous. Right-wing populism is crashing against Europe’s old post-war order and bringing the term “the People” back into vogue with it. High school history tells of a world plunged into war by dictators in rural estates or imperialists in parliament. That might’ve been true in 1914 but if one were assigning blame for the cataclysm of 1939 it would be more prudent to look to “the people.” Hannah Arendt defines the fervently violent regimes of the interwar period in particular by their reliance on the “mass man” and “mass movements” – the people. Well-meaning populists have taken the tool in their hands as well. When Bernie Sanders invokes “the People” I hear Tom Hardy in a Bain mask before Blackgate Prison. Better Bain than Lenin. Even in its most benign form – We the People of the United States – the term was monolithic and exclusionary, spoken by a handful of wealthy, white, often slave-driving landowners in a major city on behalf of a new, largely agrarian country.
But one tiresome, overworked bit of verbiage is special: “revolution.” It’s fashionable for politicians and activists to toss about revolution in reference to their mostly banal policy prescriptions. (Banal is another word that throbs in my ear.) But revolution implies massive upheaval; its invocation either exaggerates the change in question or trivializes a tidal shift that could be extraordinarily painful and difficult. Political and social revolutions are almost invariably destructive in their manner of change. They aren’t exactly the sort one can hope for without considerable insulation from their impact. Those for whom the revolution is designed generally want the increments, the concrete things that make life better. Maybe a revolution is what they need but the decision is rarely left to them.
I wish I knew more about etymology; the lineage and genealogy of words. Then I might know how a word like “revolution” could supply such wildly divergent meanings.
A forcible overthrow of a government or social order, in favor of a new system.
A dramatic and wide-reaching change in the way something works or is organized or in people’s ideas about it.
An instance of revolving: the movement of an object in a circular or elliptical course around another or about an axis or center.
If I knew more about the evolution of words, I might know how a word could describe simultaneously the inevitable and repetitive and the explosive and radical. In his collection of essays on bullfighting, Death in the Afternoon, Ernest Hemingway contemplates the best bullfighters of the twentieth century and how they changed the sport: “The way Belmonte worked was not a heritage, nor a development; it was a revolution.” But I don’t know much about the history of the word and I’m left thinking that perhaps the two meanings aren’t so opposite as they seem. Perhaps Hemingway’s distinction misunderstands the nature of revolution. Revolution is heritage exhausted, development stretched to breaking, a fission unleashing heat at the point of rupture.
Heritage and development are a glass, revolution the water spilling over the sides. The surface has changed - where it was dry and hard, now it glistens - but the act of pouring water remains the same as the glass fills. One drop follows another until the surface tension breaks. Revolution is where the next drop goes when there’s no place left. No one need reimagine the pitcher and vessel. One merely keeps pouring beyond where others stopped.
Beethoven does contain his own revolution, and his revolution – artistic revolution – does better justice to the term. Opera grows more complex in inches. To a modern ear, the changes are minute: one proceeds rather naturally from the next. Only when Richard Wagner produces a magnum opus that tests the mind’s endurance do we realize that the dirt under our soles had been changing as we stood. Haydn, Mozart, then Beethoven; Mendelssohn then Bruckner and Brahms. A modern listener realizes that nothing is as it was only when clubbed in the gut by the Symphony of a Thousand or Salome’s affection for a disembodied head.
But just as I can look back over the centuries and skip forward across radical changes, I also see inches carved from stone with a spoon. I can listen to Palestrina’s polyphony gather force and complexity, Bach’s counterpoint wind ever-tighter spirals. The lines between one style-period and the next aren’t so bright as textbooks imply. Baroque and classical required a minor period – the “Galant” style – to bridge the messy transition, during which Bach and Handel continued to stretch stylistic boundaries to shattering. The overlap between romantic music and classical music is almost as long as the period of time which we consider clearly and distinctly romantic; the romantic period, barely a footnote in the transition to twentieth-century modernism of Strauss and Mahler.
Boundaries lie only where we choose to draw them and they’re lines only, crossed at will, redrawn readily, by those with a will to transgress. Revolution is in the crossing – just a single step more – but we forget that crossing requires the work of approach. Beethoven’s “Late Quartets” – numbers 12-16 – are considered decidedly romantic, complex and expressive, among the greatest compositions of all time. But why start with No. 12? Was there no hint in No. 8 or 9 or 10 or 11 of the cataclysm to come?
Over and over again, I find the work of testing the structure and picking the lock to be as fascinating as the open space that lies on the other side of the wall. The first movement of Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 10 in Eb builds from the elegantly repetitive composure of classical period form to an explosive conclusion. Devices of the time – rapid-fire arpeggios, singable melodies, thuddy and restrained pizzicato – accumulate to a saturation point. Seams tear, boundaries crumble, locks give, hinges snap, and then the force recedes. The third movement begins closer to the wreckage left by the first, the nimble presto of classical technique bouncing into a frenzied sawing of viola and cello that separate entirely from the lightness underneath. Where else is there to go but through the open door, beyond the crumbling walls, out into something different?
We’ve been looking at Hemingway’s revolution. If I might substitute my own judgment for his, we’ve been looking at revolution the wrong way. The straw breaks the camel’s back. One drop, just like the others, overwhelms the glass. The first splash, the initial step, the pebble thrown is as extraordinary and necessary as the cascade, the unknown, the sledgehammer. The heritage and development are not somehow different than the revolution but are its necessary antecedents, inseparable and indispensable. I don’t hate the word, just the way we use it. We’ll get it back one day.