Monday, October 13, 2014


Ludwig van Beethoven                                        Joseph Karl Stiener, ca 1817

I received one gift from my parents when I turned eleven in 1957. It was a bulky but portable Sears transistor radio. Nifty red and white plastic case, nice matte aluminum speaker grill and a fold-out handle. During daylight hours my friends and I enjoyed rock and pop: Purple People Eater, Bird Dog, At The Hop, Poor Little Fool, The Chipmunk Song, etc. At night, the stations in Baltimore and Washington grew stronger and brought me the classical music from Mrs. Bodkin's music appreciation class. Two greats, the conductor, Arturo Toscanini, and composer, Jan Sibelius, had died earlier that year. The beloved English composer, Ralph Vaughan Williams would pass away the following year. Many tributes were broadcast over those rather drab and dry classical music stations and the full complement of the three "B's", Bach, Beethoven and Brahms, remained in force. Being a good Lutheran, I've always enjoyed Johann Sebastian Bach but of the three "B's" Beethoven was somehow lost to my ears for almost fifty years. Only recently have I begun listening to his work again, particularly his later compositions, including the quartets. There's magic at work here.

Here are the first, second, and fifth of the six late quartets, the first two completed in 1825, the fifth in 1826. By that time the composer had been stone deaf  for decades and would soon die (1827). Here is a critically acclaimed recording of the fifth quartet, Opus 133, by the Takacs Quartet. The Grosse Fuge, Opus 133, was the original finale to Opus 130 - see next video - but was so radical the composer elected to make it a separate piece. It is a century ahead of its time:

For the musical backstory, here are the first and second quartets in another highly acclaimed recording by the Borodin Quartet. If you have only a limited time to listen, I suggest you choose Opus 130 beginning at 37:39. 

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