Monday, February 14, 2011

Troping through Music History

The biggest problem I had with writing about yesterday’s recital of the Borodin Quartet for was that I could not stop coming up with things to say about it.  Thus, I tried to stick to the basics, trying as best as I could to address features of the music that disclosed the talents of the Quartet.  However, there was at least one topic that I could only mention in passing and wished I had done otherwise.  That was my observation that Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 59, Number 2 string quartet in E minor drew “heavily on rhetorical devices and tropes to maximum effect.”

My guess is that most of my readers are used to my taking this rhetorical stance;  but I do not always dive down to the layer of frequently-used figures, even though this layer figures significantly in just about every composition.  Thus, one can examine those figures in this particular quartet, trace some of them back to earlier Beethoven compositions and others to Beethoven’s familiarity with works by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Joseph Haydn (not to mention others).  However, the nice thing about this game is that you can play it in both directions along the time line, which is what I caught myself doing during the performance.

The Molto Adagio second movement of this concerto is one of those gentle reminders that Robert Schumann’s concept of “heavenly length” did not originate (as Schumann had suggested) with Franz Schubert.  That sense of prolongation did not spring full-born from Schubert’s brow;  and, if we are to assume that he learned it from another source, then the best bet is that the source was Beethoven.  One of the more fascinating figures in this bold effort to make time stand still is a somewhat wistful use of horn fifths, perhaps the mother of all stock-in-trade tropes.  What struck me in this particular performance was that the way in which Beethoven shaped that trope bore an uncanny resemblance to how Johannes Brahms handled the same trope in the Andante con moto movement of his Opus 25 piano quartet in G minor (which just happened to be another minor key work).  It is hard to imagine Brahms not being familiar with Beethoven’s quartet, so the question is whether this is an example of imitation as the greatest form of flattery.

I suspect that scholars could argue forever over this point.  However, what may be relevant is that Beethoven often used horn fifths in the interest of establishing a nostalgic effect.  Brahms may have been going for the same effect in his piano quartet.  Whether the effect emerge from a “common cause” is still debatable;  but I figure it is a hypothesis worth considering!

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