by pieces of moments
Hey, kids. It’s a cold, cold world out there. I wears you out, you know? And of course, what’s more fun at 10:30 PM than your bus running 20 minutes late so that all that refreshing air can re-freeze you? Nice. After the transportation tribulation I finally made it into the warmth of my apartment to put the kettle on for tea. So here I am, thawing, and enjoying the apricot tea that Rachel so kindly purchased for the care and keeping of my soul while she’s back in NYC philosophizing too far away from me.
So what was I doing out there in the cold, cruel, world? After a full day in our lovely From the Top home office, I went to our jam-packed New England Conservatory alumni council meeting which was great, I always very much enjoy those, and then dashed over to Jordan Hall to catch the Borromeo String Quartet (whose second violinist, Kris Tong, is a friend, fellow NEC alum, and all around awesome person in addition to being one of the best-dressed in the business) in their “Beethoven Triptych” concert of three Beethoven string quartets op. 132, op. 131, and op. 130. I sadly I missed the first half of the program due to our meeting (got there just as they started the second quartet on the program), so I jaunted upstairs for a bit and worked through some Bach (Partita No. 6) until intermission time.
Okay, so you need some background information. For those of you who don’t know, the String Quartet no. 13, op. 130 has two different versions – one with the original ending, “Grosse Fugue” (“Great Fugue”) and one with an “Finale: Allegro” ending. Basically the “Grosse Fugue” is insane. To the ears of someone in the audience at its premiere in 1825 it would have sounded pretty much like mildly drunken chaos. The harmonies are all wonky, the fugue forms are alternately strict and unraveling, the mood changes drastically, in short it is musical multiple personality disorder. And you know, money talked then as much as it does now, so Beethoven’s publisher Matthias Artaria was like, “uh…so…um…maybe a new ending would appeal more to the public…they kinda didn’t dig what you were putting down out there and, uh, I think you need to write a more traditional ending or we’re never gonna sell a single copy of this and I need to publish hits, you read?” Even though Beethoven thought the audience was made of “cattle” and “asses” for not lovin’ his crazy baby he – totally surprisingly – agreed and canned the fugue for the much more people pleasing “Finale: Allegro” (which, incidentally is the last piece he ever wrote before passing away in 1827). The “Grosse Fugue” was eventually published on its own with its own opus number (133), the equivelent of “let’s just put that over here…waaaaaaaay over here”. So most of the time if you hear the “Grosse Fugue” you hear it as a free standing piece. But not tonight! Bless the sweet, sweet Borromeo String Quartet for posthumously canning Artaria’s money smelling ways and performing the “Grosse Fugue” as the original ending to the quartet op. 130. Ahhhhh. All is right with the world…well, at least for 45 minutes.
I was introduced to the “Grosse Fugue” my sophomore year of college. Dr. John Lane, one of my theory professors (and just one of those professors who kinda changes your life in general because they really challenge your intellect to the core) encouraged me to take the counterpoint class usually taken by juniors and seniors. To this day that class was one of my favorite classes of my education, period. One day Dr. Lane pulled out some scented markers, you know, blueberry, raspberry, etc., you had them or envied someone who did – I know you must have. Anyway, we choose our flavors and proceeded to analyze the “Grosse Fugue” keeping track of the double fugue subjects and counter subjects with our assigned flavors. This proves that you can totally have a rockin’ time analyzing double fugues. We picked that baby apart but man did we have fun. I was hooked on the piece. Something about it had dug its fingers into me and I ended up writing a paper and presenting on the piece in one of my music history courses. Later at NEC it came up again in another paper on Bach and Beethoven (I’d tell you more about that, but with its intellectual property potential I’d have to tell you and then hurt you…I’m terribly sorry, but you understand, don’t you?). So, you can see why I was so terribly excited to hear it live tonight restored to its proper context as the ending of the quartet. The mere thought of going to hear op. 130 with the original ending just kinda makes me weep inside from overwhelming elation. I know, I’m a nerd.
Also, the quality of photo you get from a Blackberry is pretty pathetic, but somewhere in the brownish beige-y blur perhaps you can see the other interest of the evening: the Borromeos are rockin’ it new school with their scores electronically scanned into their MacBooks (you “turn” the page by tapping a foot pedal hooked up to the laptop). Our host, Christopher O’Riley (NEC alum…see a pattern?), uses a similar type of device. You never know about those things though. I was on call for emergency page turner duty at Carnegie Hall last year for him during our first season of tv taping, and then last year in Texas I had to step in to turn pages in rehearsal because the foot pedal got lost. That aside, convenient? totally. Aesthetically pleasing (esp. when on a music stand and not on a piano’s music stand)? uh no, not really. But I’m cool with it, and all the more so when the score scanned into the laptop is Beethoven’s op. 130 – the whole original thing.
By the way, you can actually watch the Borromeo String Quartet in a past performance of this quartet (complete with “Grosse Fugue”) on the Living Archive site. Enjoy!