By Ryan Meehan | From the May-June 2020 issue of Strings magazine
It will soon be ten years since my friends Jeffrey Myers, Jeremy Berry, Estelle Choi, and I formed the Calidore String Quartet. To celebrate our decade together and the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth, we will perform the complete cycle of the composer’s 16 string quartets in Los Angeles, Toronto, Buffalo, and at the University of Delaware. Performing the Beethoven cycle is the musical equivalent of scaling Mount Everest—it is a grueling nine hours of music comprising some of the most technically intricate and emotionally demanding material ever conceived. We have dedicated much of our time together studying and performing it over the past decade.
My own relationship with the quartets began at age 17, and affected the course of my musical life. One overcast evening, after a full day of rehearsals at the Aspen Music Festival, I resigned to my bed and pressed the shuffle button on my iPod. As rain pattered on the window, I beheld for the first time Quartet No. 15, Op. 132. Especially affecting was the work’s third movement, “Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit, in der Lydischen Tonart” (Holy Song of Thanksgiving to the Deity from a Convalescent in the Lydian mode). The richness of the sound and emotion caused me to forget my own exhaustion.
Beethoven composed Op. 132 at the end of his life. He was completely deaf and bedridden, at a time when he was trying to reconcile deep conflicts within himself and the world around him. His deafness and health conditions had brought him to the edge of despair on numerous occasions, as he wrote in a letter from 1802—now known as the Heiligenstadt Testament, “Only art it was that withheld me. Ah, it seemed impossible to leave the world until I had produced all that I felt called upon to produce, and so I endured this wretched existence . . .”
Despite his anguish, the “Heiliger Dankgesang” from Op. 132 opens with a simple undulating tune. The sound of a lone violin whispers two notes before the voices of a second violin, viola, and cello enter and unite the four as one. The quartet journeys together in a solemn chorale before giving way to a faster section brimming with energy and optimism. The musical flourishes and the escalating mood took my breath away. Eventually, the faster section returns to an embellished version of the work’s opening. The final whispering chord left me in a profoundly peaceful state of mind. After being swept away by Op. 132, I listened to all 16 of the quartets from start to finish, and discovered this quartet was not alone in its communicative power.
Flushed with elation over these newfound treasures, I felt a thought begin to form, directing me as clearly as a voice whispering in my ear. All the years of studying the violin led me to this musical epiphany. I wanted to dedicate the rest of my life to the art of the string quartet. Perhaps by channeling Beethoven’s voice through my own instrument and those of three other hopelessly obsessed musicians, I could come closer to the magic of the master’s creations.
In the Calidore Quartet, my aspirations found a voice.
The unique challenges of performing Beethoven’s string quartets announced themselves in our quartet’s first rehearsals. Beethoven was notoriously moody—cheerful one moment, hysterical or brooding the next. These fickle emotions play out clearly and extensively in his compositions. As a listener or performer there is a sensation of traveling airborne through a storm. One moment all is calm and the next, one is suddenly rocked by violent, unexpected turbulence.
Consequently, one miscalculated entrance by any quartet member in Op. 133, “Grosse Fuge,” and it’s unlikely he or she will ever find a way back through the cacophonous thicket of notes. (In this situation, our quartet has agreed it is probably best to accidentally kick over one’s music stand, feign surprise, and start the piece together once more, at the beginning.)
We have been refining our approach to the quartets for years, waiting for the right time to perform the complete cycle. Doing so is practically a rite of passage for a string quartet. Everyone, from the Emerson to the Guarneri to the Alban Berg quartets, has recorded the Beethoven cycle for posterity—some more than once. We knew we were setting an ambitious goal. Not only would we play in the looming shadow of Beethoven’s wild-haired, scowling bust, but our quartet would also contend with the inevitable comparisons to performances by some of the greatest string quartets of all time.
Instead of cowering under the weight of those expectations, we sought out legendary ensembles and musicians who, for decades, set the highest standards of interpretation. One of our formative experiences was with celebrated pianist (and octogenarian) Alfred Brendel. Performing the Op. 59, No. 2, “Razumovsky” quartet for him in a master class at the Verbier Festival felt like playing for Herr Beethoven himself.
Brendel urged us to go beyond a literal interpretation of Beethoven’s markings. “Where he writes ‘crescendo,’ you must already be playing stronger,” he told us in a clipped Austrian accent. He reminded us that Beethoven rarely used a dynamic lower than pianissimo, “like a whisper,” whereas we should interpret his piano notation as closer to a normal speaking voice. Little by little, the composer’s tenderness, fiery anger, and even his humor became more palpable.
Arnold Steinhardt of the Guarneri Quartet focused more on our playing than the composer’s rules—a faster tempo here, a change in fingering there to bring out an intrinsic warmth in the melodic line. Though if prompted for the finger pattern he preferred, he would often reply with a sly grin: “That’ll cost you $25 bucks. My rate has gone up!” We absorbed all of his advice, no suggestion too small. The devil is, after all, in the details, and it is the sum of these details that ultimately captures the hearts and minds of an audience.
Several years later, we decided to tackle Beethoven’s Op. 132, complete with its “Heiliger Dankgesang.” We took turns rehearsing this immortal music in our cramped apartments in New York’s Washington Heights neighborhood, as pulsating Bachata beats reverberated through the walls and the blasting of truck horns filtered in from Broadway.
To perform successfully, a quartet requires a shared vision of the music among its members. We worked diligently in our first rehearsals of Op. 132 to balance our four voices, to analyze the harmony, drill through problematic intonation, and search for appropriate tempos. Errant notes and conflicting viewpoints abounded, making each of us aware of the complicated technicalities inherent in Beethoven’s construction of the piece.
In the “Heiliger Dankgesang” I argued for a slower tempo to highlight the timeless quality of the music, while others advocated a more flowing pulse to achieve a longer phrase. Measure by measure, more challenges announced themselves and the magic that I experienced in Aspen began to evaporate. In an effort to come closer to understanding the music, it seemed I had never been further from it. We decided to seek out another mentor.
During a coaching session, former Emerson Quartet cellist David Finckel referred us to the detailed title and markings of Op. 132’s third movement. Besides the opening “Heiliger Dankgesang” title, Beethoven denotes the two faster middle sections with an inscription: “neue Kraft fühlend” or “with new strength.”
What kind of new strength? Perhaps the fortitude Beethoven relied upon to continue his work. “It was impossible for me to say to others: speak louder, shout! For I am deaf,” he wrote in the Heiligenstadt Testament. “Ah! Was it possible for me to proclaim a deficiency in that one sense which in my case ought to have been more perfect than in all the others, which I had once possessed in greatest perfection, to a degree of perfection, indeed, which few of my profession have ever enjoyed?”
Perhaps that “neue Kraft fühlend” instruction is the key to bringing the magic of this movement to life, Finckel proposed. “With new strength” may not reference a full recovery from Beethoven’s long struggle. Instead, the inscription evoked his gratitude for being able to get out of bed, if only for a moment.
Finckel’s wisdom came just in time. Our first performance of the Op. 132 was a few days later. For our trial run, we arranged a small public performance at the Westhampton Public Library on Long Island. The first two movements transpired in a flash. Perhaps it was the adrenaline? Was the tempo faster than we had planned? I banished these thoughts from my mind, as I turned the page and found myself at the head of the “Heiliger Dankgesang.”
Taking a couple of deep breaths, I steadied my mind and muscles from the kinetic playing of the preceding movements. I imagined Beethoven. The angry musical deity from that iconic bust melted away. In its place emerged the image of a physically weak man, ill in his bed. Despite his pain, he summons the strength to move, finally rising with renewed will.
Jeff, our first violinist, opened the movement with an ascending sixth. The rest of us joined in, uniting our voices for the opening chorale. From the first chord of our four-part harmony, it was clear our intention transcended the music’s challenges that we worked so hard to perfect in rehearsal.
I looked across the quartet and saw a unique stillness in the faces of my colleagues. Next to me, Jeff’s undulating vibrato caressed each note with a tenderness unlike any heard in rehearsal, while my lines and that of our violist, Jeremy, fused together as one instrument. Estelle, our cellist, guided the rhythmic pulse reverently with her bass line, collecting our four voices in a warm, unifying embrace.
Beethoven’s quartets were not about us, the performers. Rather, our years of dedication to and passion for his music transformed us into a vessel of Beethoven’s emotional intent. And I could finally hear that voice I first heard as a 17-year-old flowing through my instrument as well as those of Jeff, Jeremy, and Estelle. Beethoven’s neue Kraft in his darkest hour was echoing across the ages.