week, according to the website Menorca, the death took place of the
American cellist Miriam Rader at the age of eighty-six. She played in the
Symphony Orchestra of the Balearic Islands from 1980 to 2004 and also taught
the cello to a generation of students on the islands.
I met her
in Barcelona in 1976. She and some friends had just restored and decorated a
house in the village of Vulpellach in the Ampurdan, near Girona in Catalonia.
When I went to visit, I was amazed by the sheer amount of love and labour that
had gone into the restoration. Every fitting, every colour, every piece of
furniture had been carefully selected, even the ceramics and the curtains. My
instant feeling was: why don’t I just move in here now? And then was
intensified when I saw what books they had transported from the United States.
really took my breath away was the music room, not the room where Miriam
practiced, which was a kind of studio, but a room with sofas and high ceilings
and a very good sound system and a wall of classical LPs, all neatly arranged.
Miriam, seeing how awestruck I was by the range of the material, told me that I
could spend all day there if I wanted and not bother exploring the landscape
nudged me towards the Beethoven string quartets, in the Deutsche Grammaphon
label, played by the Amadeus Quartet. I remember coming down to the airy
kitchen for lunch and saying: ‘There’s something strange about one of those
records.’ When Miriam came back to the music room with me, she smiled. ‘Yes,
it’s one of Beethoven late quartets. That’s all. They might sound strange if
you don’t know them.’
I had started
off, I suppose, by listening to one of the early opus 18 quartets. And, then, I
must have chosen another record from the set at random and it must have been
Beethoven’s opus 130 or opus 131 or opus 132, and the tone and the structure
were new to me. These quartets sounded like music from the twentieth century,
often dissonant and sharp, with many odds shifts, but then there would be
sudden returns to sweetness or dance rhythm or easy melody. And then a stop,
and the music again became challenging, unconsoling, uncompromising.
Barcelona, I found that the British Institute has a good classical record
lending library. I borrowed the late quartets in the same recording as Miriam
had. I probably wore out the first side of Opus 131, and the long slow movement
of opus 132. And then I found a box set for sale in a little kiosk downtown in
Barcelona, a recording by Quartetto Italiano that I now have on cd.
recently I have been listening to the Beethoven Quartets in a new recording by
the Dover Quartet. I have been coming back again and again to the Adagio at the
opening of Opus 131, which reads more like a slow movement in the middle of a
quartet than the opening movement.
if it might ever be possible to capture some of the gravity and plaintive tone
in this opening movement, a tone becoming less calm more ominous, in the
opening of a story or a novel.
important maybe not to use too many words to describe this music. Wagner called
this opening ‘surely the saddest thing ever said in notes.’ He likened it to
‘the awakening on the dawn of a day that in its whole long course shall ne’er
fulfill one wish, not one wish.’
But it is
not programme music; it is not going to yield its meaning easily, if indeed it
has any meaning at all, direct or implicit. It has sound, and also, being a
quartet, it has structure. And Beethoven in these last quartets plays and
experiments with structure, opus 131 having seven movements, with two Adagios
and three Allegros. No mood is stable in this music, the most joyous following
the most ominous and harsh.
easy to see this as Late Style, and look at Edward Said’s book on this matter,
and indeed Adorno’s essay on late style in Beethoven. But recently in the Alice
Tully Hall in Lincoln Center in New York I attended a performance of
Beethoven’s Opus 135, the last full quartet he wrote, by the Orion Quartet.
This should have been a quartet filled with dark textures, arching towards
fulfillment and then holding back, resignation in battle with defiance.
Instead, I found that some of this music was light in its tone, almost sweet,
written just a few months before Beethoven’s death. Since his health was
declining and he was staying with a nephew recovering from a suicide attempt,
then it must have been tempting to write a quartet that is filled with dark
expression. But Opus 135 has at its core a sort of light-heartedness, a lack of
changes, however, in a short sequence at the very opening of the last movement
whose foreboding nature is emphasized by Beethoven with a note in words that
says Der schwer gefasste Entschluss (meaning: The Difficult
thought this note was about endings, late work, even death. But in a programme
note for the Chamber Music Society, Jack Slevin asks: ‘Was this a morose
reference to his own looming death or a quip aimed at his publisher, to whom he
admitted that he was reluctant to write this quartet?'
wrote other cryptic annotations on the pages of the sheet music, including: Muss
es sein? (‘Must it be?’) and Es muss sein! (‘It must be!’). I
have been living under the illusion since some time in 1976 that this referred
to his encroaching and inevitable death. But Jack Slevin writes: ‘These too
have a range of plausible explanations from the profound to the petty (the
latter referring to a spat with a friend who owed him money and for whom
Beethoven wrote a canon with Es muss sein! in the lyrics).’
explanation for the general tone of this final quartet could be that artists
cannot be expected to ponder on first things, last things and essential matters
every day of the week. Even in the worst day of the nastiest winter in the draftiest
house, it should be possible to begin to write a comedy because a comic image
came to you from nowhere much. Or write a lyric poem or a love story. And, so,
too, a sudden legacy, the return of a loved-one and a glorious summer’s day
could put you thinking about the sheer awfulness of things, how there’s no hope
much for any of us really. (Plenty of hope, none for us, as Kafka said.)
York in the spring of 1995, I attended a performance by the Tokyo Quartet of
Beethoven’s quartet opus 74, known as one of the middle quartets. As the music
played, a thought came to me, a banal thought enough, one that everyone must
have had at some point or other in their lives.
me that there would come a time when I would not be alive to hear this music.
It would be played nonetheless. Others would come to hear it. In halls like
this there would be an audience, but I would not just be outside or at home. I
would not be at all. And I would never hear this music again. I would not even
remember it. It would be nothing to me. Because I would be nothing. What had
once been would be over. As the music played on, these thoughts came to me with
a clarity, an intensity and a finality that I have never had before or since.
writers do at the dying of the light? What about one big final statement about
life and death? Or a fragment, full of possibility, such as that which was
found in the pocket of the poet Antonio Machado when he died: ‘Those blue days.
This childhood sun.’ Or the prayers that come at the end of Czeslaw Milosz’s
‘New and Collected Poems (1931-2001), the very last one reading:
each and every one
the earth is given.
was always hidden
it all our lives
the hunt would end,
what had been rent
at last made whole:
and the soul.
Yeats, as he lay dying, saw no reason to pray, nor any reason to produce a
final fragment. Instead, he wrote ‘Cuchulain Comforted’, his second last poem –
the final poem was ‘The Black Tower’ - in which he seemed to repudiate much
that had come before in his own work, not least a sense of the heroic. The poem
is written in terza rima, the form associated with Dante, a new form for Yeats.
Instead of Cuchulain as implacable, lone, male hero, Yeats has him vulnerable,
close to death. All around him are Shrouds who are busy sewing. They are, they
tell him ‘convicted cowards’ and they encourage the dying warrior to join them,
as they transform:
changed their throats and had the throats of birds.’
poem, written in a set of clear statements, exalts gentleness, the unheroic,
communality, ease and acceptance in the face of death. It is as though, as he
faced death himself, Yeats wanted to write a poem in which all thought was
fresh and new, ready to start again.
end of his life when Thomas Mann moved from California to Switzerland, he had
one more novel to write. Since he was fascinated by magic and alchemy, as well
as by illness and sexuality and death, and indeed by Germany and its history,
it might have been tempting for him to produce one last dark book, brooding on
what had happened to his country in his lifetime or a novel interrogating his
own secret sexuality.
he went back to a light piece he had written forty years earlier called Felix
Krull, a story about a chancer, a charmer, a shape-changer. And an expanded version
of this would be Mann’s last novel. The book, known as ‘The Confessions of
Felix Krull’ has a lightness, a throw-away air. Mann reverts to an old European
picaresque tradition in which one piece of chicanery follows another, pockets
are picked, the good are not rewarded and our clever, untrustworthy hero
changes shape and survives. Mann made Krull’s sexuality an aspect of his
trickery, just another thing.
approached his eightieth birthday – he would die in 1955 at the age of eighty –
Thomas Mann produced a comedy, as though offering a lesson to us all, or those
of us willing to understand how serious the joke is.
Colm Tóibín (February 2023)