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Beethoven's String Quartet Of Transcendence

The Emerson Quartet play Beethoven at the Savannah Music Festival. From left: Philip Setzer, Eugene Drucker, David Finckel and Lawrence Dutton
Frank Stewart
Savannah Music Festival
The Emerson Quartet play Beethoven at the Savannah Music Festival. From left: Philip Setzer, Eugene Drucker, David Finckel and Lawrence Dutton

Beethoven's String Quartet Of Transcendence

In the spring of 1825, when Beethoven was 54, he became terribly sick. He was in bed for a month and he wrote to his doctor, "I am not feeling well ... I am in great pain." The doctor put Beethoven on a strict regimen, warning, "No wine, no coffee, no spices of any kind." The doctor also advised Beethoven to get away from the city to where he could find fresh air and "natural milk."

Beethoven followed his doctor's orders and moved to the Baden region in May. He eventually recovered, but his illness scared him — at one point, he thought he would die.

Throughout his sickness, Beethoven worked on a new string quartet, his Op. 132 in A minor. It would last almost twice as long as his First Symphony. The music begins ominously with four dark, uncertain notes, then travels through paths of pain and suffering, eventually triumphing in sunlight.

At the heart of the quartet lies a slow movement with a subtitle that explains much about the music: "Hymn of Thanksgiving to God of an invalid on his convalescence. Feeling of new strength and reawakened feeling." When the hymn-like opening material returns at the end of the movement, Beethoven instructs the musicians to play "with the most intimate emotions." It amounts to 17 minutes of grateful meditation on being alive, and is arguably the most profoundly soulful music Beethoven ever wrote.

The Emerson Quartet:

The Emerson String Quartet has been labeled "America's greatest quartet," and it's hard to argue with that assessment. After more than 35 years of music making, the group has earned nine Grammy Awards over a span of nearly three dozen recordings.

But a few changes are taking members of the quartet in new directions. Last year the group severed ties with its longtime record label Deutsche Grammophon and signed with Sony Classical. And in February the Emersons announced the departure of cellist David Finkel, who joined the group in 1979, three years after it formed. Finckel will leave at the end of the 2012-13 season and will be replaced by Welsh cellist Paul Watkins. The plan, Finckel told my colleague Anastasia Tsioulcas, had been brewing for quite some time. He will be concentrating more on his activities as co-director of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center and the Silicon Valley festival Music@Menlo. He also said he wants to "broaden the amount of music I know and understand."

Alterations aside, the Emersons still play with their own brand of robust sensitivity. And nowhere is it more evident that in this moving and thoughtful performance of Beethoven's Op. 132 quartet at the Savannah Music Festival earlier this week.


Eugene Drucker, violin

Philip Setzer, violin

Lawrence Dutton, viola

David Finckel, cello

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