Musical Mosaic: A Reflection on Beethoven

On Saturday, May 13th at the Unitarian Society of New Haven (USNH), the Haven String Quartet (HSQ) presented “Musical Mosaic,” their final recital of the 2016-17 season. The first half of the concert featured the Harmony In Action chamber orchestra with soloists, and the HSQ's part consisted of Beethoven’s monumental Quartet in C-sharp minor, op. 131. Annalisa Boerner, Resident Musician Violist and member of the HSQ, talked about what it was like to prepare for the concert and why the piece was so interesting to take on...

Photo Credit: Kathleen Cei

Photo Credit: Kathleen Cei

"As we worked through this massive piece, I’ve been reflecting on what an honor and a privilege it is to work with my colleagues on an almost-daily basis. It’s a unique feature of this job that we get to take on big, exciting pieces like the Beethoven. Why is this Beethoven quartet best as a long-term project? Here are some ideas.

  • The piece is massive. Beethoven breaks the quartet mold with this one and expands from a traditional four-movement quartet into one that is seven (!) continuous movements. Each movement has its own characters, and the joy of rehearsal is in fleshing out those characters.

For example, the fourth movement of the piece is a theme and variations. As we play, deconstruct, and reconstruct a variation, a series of questions arises. Eventually they lead to an interpretation, like we’re making a live-action flowchart. It might go something like this:

  • Is this variation a song or a dance?
  • If it’s a dance, is it a rustic dance or a formal dance?
  • If it’s a rustic dance, is it charming and cute, or rough and angular?
  • If it’s charming and cute, do we generate that character from the bow hand (articulation and note length and bow speed), or from the left hand (extra bursts of vibrato and sparkle), or both?
  • Instead of asking so many questions, should we just play it a few more times and let it figure itself out?
  • Etc.

Some sections of a piece will require more decisions, some fewer. A piece as dense as the Beethoven has room for a wealth of discussions and decisions.

  • Beethoven’s writing is packed with unisons and octaves.  Unison is the musical term for all four members playing the same note at the same time; octave is the term for playing the same note but in a different ranges. These moments where we suddenly come together have huge dramatic impact.

A side effect of those common notes is that it’s particularly obvious when they’re out of tune.

The best way to train our collective ears, brains, and muscles to play perfectly in tune is to temporarily set aside questions of ensemble and interpretation, then practice together extraordinarily slowly. It’s painstaking work. We’ll persist at this style of practice until our brains melt, and then move on. Fortunately for both us and our listeners, the HSQ’s regular rehearsal schedule allows us to engage in this concentrated effort for some time each day, building our pitch skills and centering those unison and octave passages.

  • This Beethoven quartet is a deep, dramatic, twisty, turny piece. When we worked on it over the course of six weeks, we had time to plumb its depths. Any growth endeavor benefits from some time to cook in the brain, whether it’s drafting a novel, drafting a fantasy football draft, or drafting a Beethoven quartet.  

What we get to create during a project like a USNH concert isn’t what one of Gregory’s teachers lovingly referred to as “short-order chamber music.” Instead, we get to prepare the whole feast."