Beethoven: String Quartet no. 11 "Serioso" - 1st movement
Iceberg String Quartet – Russell Iceberg (violin), Chris Stork (violin), Chung-Han Hsiao (viola), Jacob Efthimiou (cello)
“Beethoven is asking you to teach us something about life that we will never recover from. That’s what he’s asking us to do.”
— Benjamin Zander
Ben Zander: Bravo. Bravo. Well, firsts of all I want to say thank you for coming. It’s a long way from there to here. Thank you for joining this setup.
Ben Zander: Let me tell you what this class is. It’s not a masterclass, and it’s not a performance class. Those are two traditional formats. A performance class allows young musicians to get experience performing for an audience. That’s a very useful thing and a very good thing to do. The masterclass tradition is you play for somebody who you consider to be a master in your field, so you would play for the leader of the Julliard Quartet, and they would tell you, or the Cleveland Quartet, one of the great quartets, and they would pass on their expertise, their experience, and their ideas, which you then take on or not, as the case may be.
Ben Zander: This isn’t that at all. This is an interpretation class. That means we explore interpretation. You just saw a rather dramatic example of that with Mozart because we were looking at the piece and saying, “What did he mean?” In this case, there isn’t anything as dramatic as that, but there is a very big issue, which I want to share with you. Not to tell you to do it, but to share it with you and see what happens to you as a result.
Ben Zander: Remember when I started off, I came up on stage and talked to them about Mozart. I talked about Mozart’s character and life, attitude. When you think of Beethoven, it couldn’t be more different, could it? Beethoven was basically angry with the world, and he had good reason. His anger was directed at a lack of integrity in leaders. He was very profoundly angry with Napoleon, who had been his hero because he was a person of the people. He wanted people to be brought into their strength. Then Napoleon not only declared himself emperor; he actually attacked Vienna just before he wrote this piece. While he was writing it, the bombs were going off in Vienna. He was livid. All the aristocrats had left town, as they always do when there’s trouble. And Beethoven was sitting there, trying to write this piece, and he could hardly hear. That’s another thing. He was deaf. He squeezed into this piece. Have you ever timed this first movement?
Student 1: It’s about four minutes and three seconds.
Ben Zander: Four minutes and nine seconds, essentially, if you do it… In four minutes, he packed more anger, protest, intensity, and fire than any composer has done before or since. I think you know it, but you don’t be it because you’re still in the performance class mentality. I saw it on your faces. You wanted to impress these people, and you wanted to look good, and you wanted to play together, and you wanted to put on a good show. Beethoven is asking you to teach us something about life that we will never recover from. That’s what he’s asking us to do.
Ben Zander: He has a completely different aim in life than Mozart. Mozart was spreading joy and love. Beethoven actually managed to do that in a strange way through his Ode to Joy. But think of the suffering that it’s caused and that he had in his life. He’s by this time stone deaf. He really couldn’t hear anything. He was cut off from everybody. He had no connection with anybody. He had no female companionship. He was ill. This is the last gasp before the late quartets, right at the end of his life. Not the last three years, but the last period. He squeezed everything into that.
Ben Zander: Now, here’s the issue to address. I said to the trio, “you cannot play the piece at that tempo because you can’t play the notes accurately at the tempo which you’re playing it.” It’s self-evident. I could prove it. I can’t prove that what Beethoven intended is what he meant. No, that what he said was what he meant. But what he said was 92 and what you’re playing is 74. I’m not saying… This is a discussion about interpretation. I’m not saying, “Do what I do.” I’m saying, let’s look at what happens when you ask the question, “What did Beethoven really mean?”
Ben Zander: So just do that. Do the first phrase and do it at 92. Maybe you’ll find you can’t do it at the tempo, but you realize this instrument, this metronome, had just been invented by his friend. Just like Hummel was a friend of Mozart, Maelzel was a friend of Beethoven. And they were all living in Vienna. My God, what was going on in Vienna. Isn’t that amazing? It’s incredible. It was an explosion. It was one of the greatest explosion of human talent in the history of the world was happening right there. And he was angry. Mozart wore a wig and buckles on his shoe and he walked in the… You know that Mozart entered the door through the servants’ quarters? Do you think Beethoven went through the servants’ quarters?
Ben Zander: There’s a famous story, Goethe and Beethoven were standing together in a park and Prince Razumovsky passed by. Goethe bowed deep like that. Goethe was around too. He bowed like that. Beethoven stood there like this. And Goethe said, “Beethoven, you didn’t bow to the prince.” He said, “The prince? When he’s long forgotten, everybody will remember Beethoven.”
Ben Zander: All of that is in this music. All the anger, the fury, the terror, the frustration, the storming at God, all of it is there. And also the other side of it is the tenderness, fear, longing, and yearning. Everything is crammed into these four minutes. No piece lasts four minutes except the pop songs. Isn’t that incredible? There’s nothing in classical music that lasts four minutes.
Ben Zander: I remember when I was at the Grammy’s, I got a Grammy nomination, and one of the pop singers said, “How long is your song?” I said, “It’s about an hour and a half.” He said, “Oh, mine’s three minutes.” This is almost… Do you see what I mean? It should affect everything about you. It’s nothing to do with impressing them. They’ll be impressed, but for a different reason.
Ben Zander: Shall we try it? Just as I consulted Nepomuk Hummel, can we just look and see… That’s 92. I know it well. No, look, I’ve struggled as a conductor to get orchestras to play Beethoven’s tempi. I have a recording of the Ninth Symphony, the Philharmonic Orchestra realizes every single tempo in there. But it was an incredible strain to get them to do it because it’s unreasonable, the march in the last movement, at 84. It’s unreasonable. Okay. Let’s try it. Here… One, two, one and two and…
Ben Zander: Wow, wow. Just that. My God. And then the rest. Right? I would… And then let’s see what happens next. Shall we try? One, two, three and… One, two, three and…
Ben Zander: Oh, oh, oh, isn’t that amazing? The relief there. I call that one-buttock playing, when you’re… This is one-buttock music. I had a violinist in my orchestra… They all knew about one-buttock playing. He was a no-buttock playing, he’d get up… No, you may not do this. That’s why I was very glad to hear you’re not playing the piece tonight. But when you pay it the next time, you may not play it this way, but you wouldn’t need to impress them if you could get that kind of intensity. Do you get that? It’s actually not even about you at all. It’s about Beethoven speaking to human beings with this incredible power and clarity.
Ben Zander: So shall we do it again? One, two, three… Yeah. Don’t come early. Don’t come early. If anything, you’re allowed to spread it a little bit. The rest is… fill that rest with power. One, two, three, four… You know, I’m just going to give you two bars because you need two bars. Brilliant. One, two, three…
Ben Zander: You know, that G-flat is amazing, isn’t it? Isn’t that weird? Because it’s in F-minor. What’s the G-flat doing? So don’t rush that note because it’s really… You should at least raise your eyebrows. And maybe you could lengthen it a little bit. And they say, “Really? You mean that?” But that was great. The beginning was fantastic.
Ben Zander: One more time? One, two, three, four, one, two…
Ben Zander: This is great playing. A little applause, please, because it’s fantastic. I knew you could play that way. I knew it. I knew it. It was just under the surface. Your arpeggios were like the eruption of a volcano, which is exactly what he meant. You’re doing something that many musicians do. I just want to warn you about it. You’re doing… instead of… It’s constant triplets. It’s a habit that most musicians… or a lot of musicians, sorry, I shouldn’t say most, a lot of musicians fall into. It spoils something very… the constant triplets. But you know that that was very by the way when it suddenly came away and it was so tender and so loving and so beautiful. Bravo. Really fantastic. And the G-flat was great.
Student 2: Thanks.
Ben Zander: Yeah, it was great.
Ben Zander: This music is about things shooting up and collapsing down, up and down… That’s like… And then other things being trapped in a cage that can’t get out, can’t get out, can’t get… That kind of feeling of being trapped. That’s why it makes such an impact, this piece, whether or not you do it at 92. I don’t care whether you do it. It’s not about the metronome, it’s about the gesture. Maybe he went a little too far. There are quartets who do it, the Kolisch Quartet did it, the Klieben Quartet, they do it. You don’t have to, but you have to get that character. You know, it’s that feeling of throwing yourself on the side of a cage, against the… throwing yourself against the bars, which is what it seems to be doing. That’s what those eruptions are.
Ben Zander: I want to tell you something that Beethoven said. Don’t misunderstand this, because he came from a world in which men did one thing and women did another thing. You have to get that it was a different society. Now, women and men do the same things, but there were certain things… To be a woman was a certain… He said, “Sentiment is only for females. Music must ignite a man’s spirit.” He would never say that now, because we’ve grown, we’ve evolved as human beings. Now we understand that women have just as much power. But what he’s saying is that this Beethovian idea of a dangerous tension, a dangerous tension, which he believed in… Because part of it is just the frustration of being deaf. I have no doubt that that was part of it now. You’re getting it. But the changes of mood are almost bipolar. Have you ever had experiences of bipolar nature? Do you know anybody who’s had that experience? If you have, you’re better off because the extremes are sudden and shocking, and that’s what this is about.
Ben Zander: I would say to you that there’s a difference between strength and strain. Sometimes your playing is veering on the strained rather than strong. So that’s something to develop and to work on very hard. You’re a young quartet, but that’s… You must never sound as though you’re straining. But the power is explosive as a surging flame.
Ben Zander: Shall we try it one more time? And let’s go on and then do the triplets as triplets. The way I think it, as I actually think… When I’m playing the long note, I think triplet. It would be a good idea. Here we go. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight…
Ben Zander: Yes, beautiful.
Ben Zander: Can I just say one thing? You’re doing fantastically well. Just make sure the silence is dead so that the sound doesn’t go through the rest. But it’s fantastic. This is very exciting. I didn’t need to ask them whether they were excited. I can tell that they’re bursting with excitement. No, it’s fantastic. Just do from that scale, the big D-major scale. Do you have bar numbers?
Student 1: Yes.
Ben Zander: 49. No, you’re going through. Which is why it has a dot on the note. And make that silence as deafening as you can. Beethoven’s silences can be deafening. The first movement of the loudest note in the Eroica Symphony is silence. You get louder and… Do you know where I mean, the letter I in the development? It’s so loud you can’t hear it, you can’t stand it. That’s what silence was for Beethoven.
Ben Zander: So shall we do it again? Let’s see if we can cut it dead. One, two, three… Wow. What a difference. You should have seen those three men. They’re usually quite dull people, but they were… really. Am I wrong? I mean, they were just shocked, the three of them. Look at them. Normally they’d be in the bar this time, in the pub, but here they are, being shocked by Beethoven. Isn’t that thrilling? Do it again. And then when… sighing, gasping. One, two, three.
Ben Zander: You know what I’d suggest you do there? This is the end of the exposition. Just that little bit of music. In the Eroica, that lasts for four minutes and then repeats. So here, I would suggest you make the pianissimo almost inaudible, and then the fortissimo arrival is going to be electrifying. Shall we do the same thing one more time? And make that… It’s such a strange idea because it should be… because it’s a long note. But… Shall we try? One, two, three, and…
Ben Zander: Piano, piano. Piano. Now, pianissimo.
Ben Zander: Right. That’s the recapitulation. That’s the shortest development in the entire Beethoven. That’s all it is. It’s a few bars. So make it super explosive. As you were doing, really exciting. Something is going on all the time, thrilling. Shall we just do the development one more time, to just show how compact it is? He squeezed it like into a compressor so it’s unbearable, actually. Right at the beginning of the development.
Student 3: Yeah, sorry.
Ben Zander: He does something amazing. He does… Like that. An additional sforzando, although it’s not loud enough. That’s Beethoven. I mean, he’s a cruel character. Here we go, once again. One, two, three, and… Oh, sorry. One, two, three…
Ben Zander: Here it comes. Now.
Ben Zander: And this is not a masterclass. It’s actually not to do with any others. Beethoven is the only master around here, and he’s telling us something. When I made my recording of the Ninth Symphony, I had a statue of Beethoven on the balcony. It actually wasn’t a statue because he kept on looking over at me. Imagine that and think how close you can get to his vision? I’m not saying… you’ll all play for another person. If you play for a quartet teacher, they would be horrified by what we’re doing because we’re not paying attention to the beauties of quartet sound. Because I don’t actually think that is a primary issue for Beethoven. I think it was a primary issue for some composers, but I don’t think it was for Beethoven.
Ben Zander: I’m just about to do the Violin Concerto with a very great violinist, coming to Boston from Holland. She’s a wonderful example of a great musician and a great violinist who’s entirely about the music. I love that. She’s just only about the music. Ferschtman is her name. Have you ever heard? Liza Ferschtman. She’s coming here to play November 16th, here in Boston, with me. It’s going to be really interesting because it’s always two musicians together, a conductor and a soloist, it’ll be fascinating.
Ben Zander: But anyway, I’m not certain you should play this way, but I’m certainly glad that we had a chance to explore it and see, wow. And then the question is always, “Could he have meant that?” He could have done. He could have done. I think everybody in this room has got their tinkling with it, which is pretty good, pretty good.
Ben Zander: So different from Mozart, isn’t it? It’s another wide world apart, and yet they were friends, and they were teacher and student, and they were… They really weren’t teacher and student. Haydn was Beethoven’s teacher, really, but Mozart was everybody’s God and remained that, which is amazing. There isn’t any musician who doesn’t adore Mozart, isn’t that right? Beethoven is probably the greatest composer who ever lived because of the sheer range of what he did. But it’s not always a pleasant experience. I mean, this is not exactly pleasant. It’s moving. It’s thrilling, stirring.
Ben Zander: Have you done the second movement?
Student 1: Yeah.
Ben Zander: Great. Let’s see the second movement.