Radically innovative – now and then

Aggregate state unknown. © Charles Thibo

Sturm und Drang – this is Sturm und Drang cast in music. The expression denotes a German proto-Romantic literary style en vogue during the late 18th century. Young poets embued by what they called “innate genius” emphasized instant inspiration instead over a formalized way of writing. Emotions mattered over rational ideas in terms of content, creativity mattered over established rules in terms of form.

Ludwig van Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 4, Op. 18 perfectly fits into this mindset. It was written in 1799/1800 and it testifies of the young composer’s wish to break the rules without wrecking the overall laws of harmony. I have listened uncounted times to the Vermeer Quartet’s recording, but hearing the live performance yesterday by the Spanish Cuarteto Casals really plunged me deep into the period of Sturm und Drang. Such ferocity, such tension – a radical, at times ironic piece of rough beauty, an unpolished diamond. What a delightful experience at the Philharmonie de Luxembourg!

The vitality of youth

Beethoven was less than 30 years old when he started to compose a first cycle of quartets, Op. 18. The shadows of Mozart and Haydn were looming large in Vienna, but Beethoven did not have to fear – he was a master already. Whether he obliged to the fashion of the day, now that was another matter. Just as those young poets did not necessarily want to please, Beethoven was mainly concerned about communicating his state of mind, his emotions. Ironically the piece became more popular than the composer had expected, a fact that frustrated Beethoven as the musicologist Bernard Fournier writes.

But my journey into the realm of Sturm und Rang did not come to an end with this first piece, far from it. Last year the Casals Quartet celebrated its 20th anniversary and six European concert halls had commissioned from different composers pieces relating to Beethoven’s quartets and to be performed by the said Casals Quartet. The four musicians presented yesterday evening a piece written by the Spanish composer Mauricio Sotelo (born in 1961) called “Quasals vB-313”, a contraction of the words “quasar” and “Casals”, a quasar being a stellar radio source in space.

A source of energy and inspiration

Sotelo considers Beethoven’s works as his source of energy and “vB-131” refers to Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 14, Op. 131, performed by the Casals Quartet right after Sotelo’s piece. The two pieces are linked by “one particularly notable element of Beethoven’s Op. 131 […] the use of the Neapolitan note (D natural) in the fugal answer of the opening movement – the Neapolitan key area then plays a significant role in the quartet’s structure as a whole”, Sotelo explains. “It is this element […] that I took as the basis for my own work and which governs its harmonic (and rhythmic) development. I also transform the material using what we might call a more Mediterranean palette, of almost flamenco-style iridescence and luminosity.”

From fugue to sound space…

The contemporary homage to Beethoven has two parts. The first is slower than the second, actually the piece starts in extreme slow-motion and evolves into the creation of sound spaces similar to one of the key elements of the works of György Ligeti and Luigi Nono, Nono having been one of Sotelo’s teachers. The second part is much faster, and the composer uses a number of different techniques like pizzicati* to create a very dynamic sound. Now, contemporary pieces require some study time, and since it is a brand new work, no recordings are available. The first overall impression was interesting, but I did not identify the Beethovian fugue in the piece. It must have been very cleverly hidden!

This said, Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 14 obviously has been recorded before, and though it is part of the Vermeer Quartet’s repertoire, I never got around to listen to it consciously. 40 minutes of dense, mature, accomplished Beethoven without interruption – tough. For all involved, audience and musicians alike, especially at the end of an already rather sophisticated concert. I suspect that in a few days I will adore it! Beethoven himself considered the quartet one of his best, if not the best. It came into being in 1825/26, around the time the expression “Sturm und Drang” was coined, and again the composer uses elements from the past – the fugue was a key element of Johann Sebastian Bach’s music – and avant-garde techniques.

…and traditional sonata

The innovations start with the quartets formal structure: four, five, six, seven or 14 movements? The debate goes on, almost 200 years after the piece was written. If we divide the piece in seven sections, section 6 is derived from the very traditional sonata form, something you would expect at the beginning of the piece, not at the end of it. More radical breaks with musical conventions follow and show that Beethoven has kept his revolutionary spirit alive throughout his career without loosing his sense for aesthetics. Being a revolutionary is not a matter of age, it’s a mind-set.

© Charles Thibo

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de Chareli

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