The Borromeo String Quartet Plays Beethoven

Last night we were treated to a spectacular chamber music concert at Monadnock Music in Peterborough, N.H.: as the highlight, the Borromeo String Quartet presented Beethoven’s String Quartet in E-flat, Op. 127 with a combination of precision and passion that took one’s breath away.

In a previous post, I suggested that great art has some sort of claim to “immortality,” somehow brings one into contact with “the eternal.” This late Beethoven string quartet, especially as realized by the Borromeo, surely rises to that standard of greatness. But my language was (and is) vague, begging a multitude of questions about the nature of man and his art. So I’ll try to be a little more precise and also to articulate some to the questions that I puzzle over in this matter.

There seems to be little disagreement that there’s such a thing as “Beethoven’s String Quartet in E-flat, Op. 127,” yet that’s where the first question lies. What of the work itself?

It was one thing to Beethoven — or perhaps several things: something that arose in his creative imagination, perhaps over a long period of time, before he ever wrote down a single note; something he brought into being through the labors of composition, with dead-ends, blockages, frustrations, distractions, revisions, as the work progressed from idea to reality; and something, once complete, that he experienced in relation to a set of intentions that no one else could ever be privy to. (That he never actually heard his creation performed adds poignancy to this sense of what the opus 127 was to him.)

And then there is the work as realized by the performers, who delve ever more deeply to understand as well as possible the composer’s creation — and whose interpretation in performance constitutes in effect another stage of composition. “The work” has been performed many thousands of times since it was completed in 1825; one could argue that each performance remade the work anew.

Finally, there’s the audience. The work was written to be performed, which means to be be performed for an audience. The experience of the audience completes the realization of the work. The audience for opus 127 comprises many hundreds of thousands of individuals over the years, and each of us gives the experience of “the work” a specific shape and character. For one thing, each of us brings his or her musical tastes to the concert. Some of us may be young and musically naive, even quite new to classical music, others deeply knowledgeable. We may be hearing the work for the first time, or it may have become quite familiar over the years. On a given night any of us may be tired or distracted, or else we may feel cheerful or be newly in love. One could go on and on: each audience member brings him- or herself to the experience of the work, and so in each case the work is brought to realization in specific way.

The composer left behind the score of a single work. Thereafter, each performance brings that work into objective realization in a different way, depending on interpretive decisions, the skill of the performers, the quality of the instruments, and so forth, and so the one work becomes many. And then each audience member completes the realization of the work by meeting it out of his or her own background, emotional state, and musical receptivity. The work multiplies again.

Yet even in its multiplicity few would deny that it remains one. I wish I were enough of an ontologist to present a cogent analysis of this paradoxical situation. One approach that suggests itself is to see this movement from score to performance to experience in terms of dynamis and energeia (Aristotle), i.e., potentiality and actuality. But I’ll dodge those questions for now, since it was the question of “immortality” we started with.

Where is the immortality of this Beethoven string quartet? Is it in the score? Is it in the performances? Is it in the experience of members of the audience?

My hypothesis at this point is that the immortality of the piece, if there is such a thing at all, appears in the encounter of the performance and the listener. Much depends on the quality of the performance, but even with a great performance, an experience of the immortal quality of the music will not be available to every listener, for only some will bring to the performance the required sensibility and openness. In other words, the work in its depth and truth comes to be fully realized only when the “right” listener is there to hear it. It’s in the transaction between the performers and the properly attuned listener that the work manifests its “immortality.”

So, the “immortality” that’s sometimes ascribed to a piece of music like the one we heard in concert last night is also very much about the capacity for immortality of those of us who have the opportunity to experience it in performance. The work, as written a few centuries ago and as realized brilliantly by contemporary musicians, speaks to us precisely insofar as we are able to hear it — and it is in that moment of experiencing it that the possibility of “contact with the eternal” can be realized.

This, then, is a start at clarifying this state of affairs. But I suspect this attempt at clarification leaves ever more questions hanging. First and foremost is this: what sort of creature is man that he has a capacity that could plausibly be characterized as “immortal”? A secondary question is this: what is this “immortality” anyway? What does it mean to have “contact with the eternal”? Finally, we want to ask what it is about “art” that evokes the kind of experience that gave rise to these reflections in the first place?

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