By Miranda Wilson | From the September-October 2023 issue of Strings Magazine
Few works of classical music have been the subject of as many books as Beethoven’s 16 string quartets (17, if you count the Grosse Fuge as a piece in its own right). For professional performers and scholars, Joseph Kerman’s The Beethoven Quartets (1967) has long been the go-to resource for scholarly analysis, and subsequent decades have seen the publication of dozens more musicological and theoretical studies. For the lay reader, Robert Winter and Robert Martin’s The Beethoven Quartet Companion (1994), a compilation of essays by eminent Beethoven experts, provides richly detailed yet accessible information. More recently, Beethoven for a Later Age (2016) by Takács Quartet violinist Edward Dusinberre has drawn attention to the journeys of performers who dedicate their lives to this monumental repertoire, from Beethoven’s friend Ignaz Schuppanzigh onward. With so many books to choose from, readers might be forgiven for asking if there is really a need for another commentary on Beethoven’s quartets.
British writer David Vernon, driven by deep love and an infectious sense of wonder, has set out to produce a different kind of Beethoven book. A literary scholar by training, Vernon authored monographs on William Shakespeare and Vladimir Nabokov before turning his hand to the classical music canon. With books on Richard Wagner and Gustav Mahler behind him, he turned to his latest subject: Beethoven’s quartets. Wisely, Vernon does not pretend to be a musicologist; rather, this self-described “humble little book” (of 440 pages!) is an introduction for nonspecialist readers to music he manifestly and passionately loves.
Vernon’s version of Beethoven brings to mind the “tortured genius” narratives of late-19th-century biographies. Throughout Beethoven: The String Quartets, Vernon compares his subject variously to Leonardo, Newton, Picasso, Sophocles, Joyce, van Gogh, Beckett, and Rembrandt. By turns noble and obstinate, Vernon’s “Beethoven-as-hero” sublimates and transcends his suffering through the cosmic power of music. His string quartets, Vernon enthuses, are “the music of a man who knows what matters and what doesn’t, what is important and what is trivial. It is the music of a man who has made peace with the world, with his body, with his god, with his heart. And the quartets pass on some of that healing to us, every time we listen, if we allow their magic to work on us.”
Working chronologically, Vernon goes through every movement of every Beethoven quartet, providing adjective- and metaphor-rich explications of each. His excitement about his subject is unflagging: Beethoven’s six quartets of Op. 18 are “a racing car as sleek, elegant, and efficient as those of Haydn and Mozart, not one that could go the fastest or furthest.” The middle-period quartets show us “our own strife and commotions, our own internal battles and external dramas, the tension at the heart of existence, the anguish of our species, as well as the mechanisms we might use to prevail.” The late quartets are “a mountain range, an ocean, a river, a forest, a jungle, a desert.” There is much discussion of the “white heat of [Beethoven’s] inspiration” and his fusion of “the personal and universal.”
Readers who have played Beethoven’s quartets may be taken aback by Vernon’s description of a passage in Op. 18, No. 4, as “a furious general replying to one of his colonels’ mumbling gobbledygook,” or the comparison of thematic materials in Opus 59 to characters in children’s books by Roald Dahl. Frequent references to Wagner and Mahler, Vernon’s previous subjects, become distracting. (Wagner was a schoolboy at the time of Beethoven’s death and Mahler would not be born for another three decades; while Beethoven’s influence over both is indisputable, a description of the Thème russe of Op. 59, No. 1, as “straight out of Die Meistersinger” stretches a point.)
However, professional players are not the intended audience of this book. With a writing style that recalls that of a charismatic preconcert talk, Vernon is at his best as a storyteller of the historical, cultural, and social contexts of Beethoven’s life and work. This is especially true of his reflection on the concept of “lateness” in music, in which he draws a moving comparison between Beethoven’s late works and those of Shakespeare, El Greco, and Turner, among others. It is notoriously difficult for would-be newcomers to classical music to find an entry point, and Vernon’s work offers encouragement and access to a rewarding sound world.