Beauty and the beast (and the joker)

The San Francisco Examiner
September 8, 2009
by Stephen Smoliar

For too much of the 20th century, it seemed as if the study of how one both performs and listens to music was hijacked by an academic intellectualism that tried to reduce all questions to objective terms to be resolved through the analytic machinery of either syntactic structures or formal mechanisms developed for the proof of logical propositions. Arnold Schoenberg's quest for "the emancipation of the dissonance" was cast as a logical (if not algebraic, if one considers the theoretical work of Milton Babbitt) challenge that transcended the need to raise any questions of an aesthetic nature. Indeed, for those most preoccupied with emancipating the dissonance, there seemed to be an unwritten law (which would probably have both amused and distressed George Orwell) that the word "beauty" should be excised from the working vocabulary.

I was a student back in those days, and I remember that the very mention of the name of Samuel Barber was guaranteed to invoke derisive laughter. Those who mocked him could quickly rattle off a laundry list of sins; but that list would inevitably begin with the second (Adagio) movement from his Opus 11 string quartet, which Barber subsequently rearranged for string orchestra as the "Adagio for Strings." There seemed to be too much sentimentality in a structure that involved little more than a generously extended melodic line over a homophonic accompaniment that kept dissonance under lock and key.

Needless to say, those who mocked Barber were so obsessed with the sound of their own cant that they had lost the ability to listen (in Igor Stravinsky's sense of the word) to what Barber was saying. Had they listened, they would have realized that Barber had not enslaved dissonance but had reserved it for limited but special occasions, the most important of which was the climax of the entire movement. Fortunately, the 21st century seems to have put most of that 20th-century objectivity in its place (recognizing that it has a place without dispensing with it entirely); and, by virtue of a new generation of performers willing to take him seriously, we can appreciate Barber as offering more than surface-level sentimentality to appeal to a lowest-commondenominator audience. In today's Noontime Concerts™ recital at Old St. Mary's Cathedral, the Cypress String Quartet demonstrated that they are seriously committed to being part of this new generation. Their performance of Barber's Adagio was the shortest work on the program, separating Joseph Haydn's C major (Opus 33, Number 3) string quartet from Ludwig van Beethoven's Opus 133 "Grosse Fuge;" but they made it clear that this was music that deserved polished eloquence, rather than mere sentimentality. They also made a convincing case that Barber's composition benefits from the clarity of its voices in the string quartet setting, however dramatic the full dynamic range of a string orchestra may be.

Ironically, 20th-century intellectualism seemed to have few problems with either Haydn or Beethoven. Haydn tended to be viewed as a paragon of syntactic inventiveness, while Beethoven was a pioneer of dissonance. Indeed, Beethoven figures significantly in Schoenberg's Structural Functions of Harmony, whose focus on the treatment of dissonances was explored on this site during the San Francisco Symphony's Schubert/Berg Journey last spring; and any attempt to study his later Fundamentals of Musical Composition demands an intimate understanding of the full canon of Beethoven piano sonatas. Consequently, a work like the Opus 133 fugue achieved an iconic status in academe, almost as if all of those intellectuals had summoned "the Beast" to drive Barber's "Beauty" out his garden.

One sad consequence of this intellectual arrogance is that Opus 133 became, itself, an object of derision by those who rebelled against the high priests of the objective. Composers as radically different as Alfred Schnittke and John Zorn have quoted Beethoven's fugue subject, leaving the listener to wonder whether their tongues were lodged in their respective cheeks or tipped with acid (where that noun "acid" comes with at least two connotations, which may well be divided between Schnittke and Zorn). Nevertheless, the work is one of those compositions for which "awesome" is not a trivialization of sloppy speech. To this day it is a model of composition that accounts for the low-level intricacies of contrapuntal voice relations embedded in the high-level framework of an architecture on a scale that had really not yet been explored.

On today's program both its size and its detail threatened to overshadow Barber's more modest effort. Yet the Cypress Quartet recognized the difference in priorities between these two works. By performing the Barber first with attention to its composer's conceptions of significant moments and how they were achieved, they assisted the audience in attending similarly to Beethoven's sense of significant moments, which I have felt is the key to listening to Opus 133 with equal attention to its counterpoint and its sense of architecture. I am reminded that, at his "Schubertiad" event at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music last spring, Paul Hersh mentioned that Beethoven had transcribed only one of his string quartets for four-hand "drawingroom" performance. That quartet was the Opus 133 fugue, and Hersh declared that it was impossible to play. I can believe that it would be harder for four hands at a piano to do justice to Opus 133 than to any of Beethoven's symphonies, but there was no sense of impossibility in the way in which the Cypress Quartet approached this work with the proper resources. If the composition was iconic, then it was for being exemplary in providing one with the experience of learning how to listen.

A program this intense clearly needed a light touch, and that touch was provided by beginning with the Haydn quartet. This one has been assigned the name "The Bird" (not to be confused with "The Lark"); and the first violin is given a fair amount of chirping to do in the first movement. However, Haydn rarely confines himself to a single joke. The chirping returns in the trio portion of the second (Scherzo) movement; and, to rub things in a bit more, this "trio" is performed by only two instruments, the first and second violins! If the four instruments sounded a bit less balanced than they did during the rest of the recital, that may have just been a matter of adjusting to the acoustics of the space, even if the Cypress Quartet had given a recital in this space last June. Ultimately, it was the sense of touch that would make or break the performance; and it provided just the right way to raise the curtain on the more serious explorations offered by the remainder of the program.