Friday, December 4, 2009

Beethoven, Eliot, and Time

I have to be very careful about how many reviews I read through my New York Times RSS feeds (lest I end up spending the whole day with them); but this morning there was one by Anthony Tommasini that was impossible to resist. It involved a performance on Wednesday night at the Baryshnikov Arts Center under the auspices of Lincoln Center's New Visions series. In this case the "novelty of vision" had less to do with the content itself than with the approach to presenting that content, which was made clear by the headline for Tommasini's review:

Eliot’s and Beethoven’s Voices Yoked

My immediate reaction to this headline was that I would finally work out just what the relationship was between the Four Quartets of T. S. Eliot and the late string quartets of Ludwig van Beethoven, including the question of specifically which quartets inspired which poems and how.

Tommasini's review began by establishing the current state of play over resolving that question:

In 1931, while listening to a gramophone recording of Beethoven’s String Quartet in A minor (Op. 132), T. S. Eliot wrote a letter to his friend Stephen Spender, the English poet and novelist. Eliot found the Beethoven piece “quite inexhaustible to study,” he wrote.

“There is a sort of heavenly, or at least more than human, gaiety about some of his later things,” Eliot continued, “which one imagines might come to oneself as the fruits of reconciliation and relief after immense suffering; I should like to get something of that into verse before I die.”

Eliot did so in “Four Quartets,” his series of four lengthy, connected poems written over six years and first published together in New York in 1943. Among Eliot scholars, it seems, there is debate about how, precisely, this effort was inspired by the Quartet in A minor, one of Beethoven’s astonishing late works.

Thus, it appears that all four of Eliot's poems were inspired by a single quartet; and, reviewing the texts I realized that each of those poems has the same "five-movement" structure, which Opus 132 does not share with any of the other late quartets. So the idea that one quartet served as the inspiring force behind four poems is certainly a plausible one, plausible enough to provide the foundation for the concert Tommasini was reviewing:

Staged in the 130-seat Howard Gilman Performance Space, the piece began [the actor] with Mr. [Stephen] Dillane reciting the Eliot poems from memory in a continuous, soft-spoken and mesmerizing monologue lasting 75 minutes. After a short intermission, members of the Miró Quartet, facing one another like four players in a card game, performed the Beethoven, giving a vibrant, probing and personal account of this mystical 45-minute work.

At this point I realized that this was very much a you-had-to-be-there event. If the heart of Eliot's "response" to (interpretation of?) Beethoven took the form of four poems, each with a five-movement structure, was that structure at all evident in Dillane's "continuous" delivery; and how important was the relationship between the formal structure of both the poems and the music and the "content" (whatever that might mean) of each?

Tommasini made it clear that he was not going to delve into such profound questions in the column space allotted to a music review:

I hesitate to try to summarize the themes of the Eliot poems, which deal with issues regarding man’s relationship with time. Time is described as claiming man, holding him to the material world and preventing him from knowing spiritual transcendence. The past cannot be changed, and the future is unknowable, Eliot argues.

For my part I know better than to dig too deep without spending more time with both Beethoven's score and Eliot's texts; but I have a personal history with Opus 132 that definitely resonates with Tommasini's surface-level impressions. It had to do with that period last spring when I was receiving radiation therapy from a technical staff that appreciated how listening to the right music would help me keep still while getting my dosage every day. My initial candidates for listening were both the third and fourth movements of Beethoven's Opus 106 (the "Hammerklavier" piano sonata); but one of the technicians had the box of the complete Beethoven string quartets performed by the Lindsay Quartet. I realized that there were any number of opportunities for my dealing with the "relationship with time" (as Tommasini put it) that would see me through each treatment.

Even before I had gone into this therapy, I had written about the Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit, in der lydischen Tonart movement of Opus 132, whose temporal scale is practically that of an entire composition, rather than a single movement. There is no question that this movement stands out in the time-flow of the entire quartet. Just in terms of the numbering, it is the central of the five movements, its duration is approximately that of the two movements that precede it combined, and the two movements that follow it when combined take less time than either of those preceding movements. However, in terms of duration, that centrality does not translate into the third "movement" of any of Eliot's four texts; so it is unclear whether or not this particular structural feature registered with Eliot.

On the other hand there is that Lydian mode, which I last wrote about when I prepared my own obituary for George Russell. It might be unfair to say that Russell was the man who brought the Lydian mode to jazz. However, he certainly gave it a lot of attention; and, if it was only coincidence that some of his attempts to put a "Lydian twist" on jazz classics by Milt Jackson, Charlie Parker, and Thelonious Monk took place in a concert that he gave at the Beethoven Hall in Stuttgart, then the coincidence is a happy one. The power of the Lydian mode lies in the prominent position of the tritone, and the power of the tritone resides in its harmonic ambiguity. That ambiguity is critical to any understanding of Beethoven's Opus 132, and it is equally important in understanding why the Lydian mode was so important to Russell.

What, if anything, does that ambiguity have to do with "man's relationship with time?" One answer is that ambiguity can only be resolved through an investment of time. The Heiliger Dankgesang occupies such an imposing duration because that duration is necessary to tease out and ultimately resolve the ambiguities that are inherent when one tries to compose in the Lydian mode; and it is clear from the overall architecture that this movement is one that is "about" seeking and finding resolution. That resolution cannot be found in any of Eliot's "third movement sections;" if anything those sections lead us into, rather than out of, the maze of ambiguity. However, the coda of the Heiliger Dankgesang does make an excellent setting for the words that begin the final stanza of "Little Gidding," the last of the Four Quartets poems:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

I would be so bold as to suggest that these words resonate far more with the Heiliger Dankgesang than with the final measures of the fifth movement of Opus 132.

All these observations must now be subject to the obvious disclaimer. This is, after all, my "rehearsal studio." Whether or not these thoughts will hold up to further listenings to Opus 132 or subsequent readings of Four Quartets (or, for that matter, further listenings of the George Russell Sextet at the Stuttgart Beethoven Hall) can never be anything but unclear. Perhaps, however, the real "relationship with time" that Eliot was pursuing has to do with the extent to which all of our thoughts are as ambiguous as that Lydian tritone and that what we call "knowledge" has less to do with how we can account (to use Plato's language) for what we know (or believe) and more to do with how we invest our time in "exploring" (shifting from Plato to Eliot) paths to resolve those ambiguities. Put another way, our time in rehearsal is when we explore; and the performance that emerges from rehearsal is when we "arrive where we started/And know the place for the first time."

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