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Thursday, March 6, 2014

Beethoven and 'The Cursed Cellist'

Today's "Composer's Notebook" from American Public Media, and then the quartet (in performance I attended).
Today in 1825, one of Beethoven’s late chamber works, his String Quartet in E-flat, Op. 127, received its premiere in Vienna by the Schuppanzigh Quartet. The Quartet had only received the music two weeks earlier, which, in those days, would be plenty of time for experienced musicians to work up a normal string quartet of that day. But Beethoven’s new quartet was harmonically and structurally far from the norm for 1825.
Even Beethoven knew as much, and drafted a humorous “contract” for himself and the four musicians to sign. It read: “Each one is herewith given his part and is bound by oath and pledged on his honor to do his best, to distinguish himself and to vie with the other in excellence. Signed: Schuppanzigh, Weiss, Linke, the grand master’s accursed cellist Holtz, and the last, but only in signing, Beethoven.”
Even so, the premiere was under-rehearsed, and the players seemed visibly unhappy with their difficult assignment. Fortunately, Beethoven was not present, but when he learned of the poor performance, he was furious. He immediately contacted another violinist, Joseph Böhm, whose quartet meticulously rehearsed the new piece under the composer’s watchful eye.
Their performance was better received, and in April of 1825, Böhm took the unusual step of programming the difficult new work TWICE on the same program. As a contemporary review put it, this time, “the misty veil disappeared and Beethoven’s splendid work of art radiated its dazzling glory.”

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