Friday, March 19, 2010

Thinking about the 1790s

The Takacs quartet came to Oberlin last night -- well, actually only three of them. They played two duos and a trio, and though I'd been hoping for string quartets, the concert was pretty great. The duos were a Mozart for violin and viola (a chance to hear string music without the cello, an airier listening) and a Kodaly for violin and cello (the cello was essential, inspired, and characteristically celloistic).

The trio was the first in Beethoven's Opus 9 set, written, according to Peter Laki's notes, between 1796 and 1798, in Vienna. This piece, even though it was no quartet, was a next-best thing. It's virtuosic, demanding, exciting. Especially live, especially with these players -- lots of horsehair on the floor of the stage; lots of rhythm; the bows sometimes soothing, sometimes pounding on the double-stops that Beethoven wrote in to make the trio sound closer to a quartet (thanks to first violinist Edward Dusinberre for demonstrating).

Afterwards, I was thinking about two aspects of that decade, the 1790s, since I have just finished a draft of a chapter of my book about paintings and poems that focuses on London in that period:
  1. Beethoven started writing and publishing his chamber music then, and as far as I can see it instantly raised the bar for performance standards. These trios are HARD to play! The piano trios that he labeled "Opus 1" are, as well. And while some of us amateurs can manage facsimiles of performances of his first set of string quartets (Op. 18), they are pretty demanding, too, even if there are fewer double stops than in the trios. It seems to me a watershed moment in dividing amateurs from professionals. Haydn can be played by amateurs, though there are tough parts and the first violinist has to manage a lot of notes. But Beethoven... can be played, but it's a different ball game. Last week a friend came over to play with us, and I pulled out some trios by someone named Crémont from a few years later, helpfully labelled "leichte" -- "easy"! They weren't easy, but I'm guessing he was intending them for the amateurs who had been left high and dry by Beethoven. Is it a good thing that Beethoven raised the bar? Sure, it gives us great music to listen to now, by great quartets like the Takacs. But it also meant the end of the intimate connection with the top music of the day that comes when music lovers are also performers of the music they love.
  2. When I saw the date of the trio in the program notes, I was excited. These same years in London saw the work of the great early Romantic writers - Coleridge, Wordsworth, Wollstonecraft and Blake in particular. In England, these radical poets were responding to an incredibly tense moment in history, as the English government simultaneously declared war on the new French Republic (the revolution only a few years old and immediately seen as a threat) and clamped down on liberal/radical thought at home. Comically, the government's spy who followed Coleridge on his walks reported that he kept talking about someone called "Spy-Nosy" (Spinoza); more seriously, critics of the government or of the existing patriarchal order were in danger of being silenced or jailed. As a result, the work they were writing was tense, fraught with the contradictions of their situations, not unlike the US in the Vietnam war era. So, back to the concert and Beethoven: here was this trio, from the same period, the 1790s, and it was -- exciting, flamboyant, showy -- but for my ears at least, not tense the way I feel tension in, say, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. It's a complex issue, I know, but I'm interested in how we might explore that difference: How was Vienna different from London? how was Beethoven different from Blake or Coleridge? How is music different from poetry? 
One of the great poems I've been reading from the 1790s -- and short enough to fit in a blog -- is Blake's "London," from Songs of Experience. Here's the text and also Blake's engraving itself, which if anything manages to increase the tension in this already tight-strung little "song."

I wander thro' each charter'd street,
Near where the charter'd Thames does flow,
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

In every cry of every Man,
In every Infant's cry of fear,
In every voice, in every ban,
The mind-forg'd manacles I hear.

How the Chimney-sweeper's cry
Every black'ning Church appalls;
And the hapless Soldier's sigh
Runs in blood down Palace walls.

But most thro' midnight streets I hear
How the youthful Harlot's curse
Blasts the new born Infant's tear,
And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse.

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