Violinist Ritchie Zah Reflects on Playing String Quartet Opus 18 No. 6
Music historians credit Haydn as the “father” of the string quartet. Mozart took the genre to new heights, but Beethoven completely transformed it through his skillful use of florid ornamentation, harmonic adventure, and richness of texture.
Beethoven’s early string quartets, Opus 18 No. 1-6, were written between 1797-1800 (age 27-30). At this stage, the writing of string quartets was new to Beethoven and often he was not impressed with his own works. In fact, he frequently re-wrote them. After sending off the first quartet of Opus 18 to a friend he wrote, “Be sure not to pass on your quartet to anyone else.” He expressed difficulty achieving balance between technique and expressiveness.
I have chosen String Quartet in B flat Major, Opus 18 No. 6 as an example of Beethoven’s transformation of the genre. The first movement of the quartet is like a musical tennis match between the four string voices with motives being tossed back and forth like a ball over the net. In the Adagio ma non troppo, Beethoven uses florid ornamentation resembling Bach. The character of the Scherzo is like a playful game between the four instruments. For contrast, the Trio gives the first violin the spotlight with the other three parts providing accompaniment. The last movement is entitled “La Malinconia”. In his book entitled Classical Music, author Philip Downs describes the movement as a musical parable of introspection being overcome by innocent joy. It opens with an adagio followed by Allegretto quasi Allegro. There is alternation of tempos throughout the movement; these changes of tempo and mood form a climatic movement new to the string quartet model.
To give you deeper insight into the preparation and performance of this composition, I asked Ritchie Zah, violinist and detective with the Aspen Police Department, to share his thoughts and experiences connected to Opus 18 No. 6. Here are his reflections:
Notes from Ritchie Zah
During my career as a violinist I had the pleasure of studying and performing all different kinds of music. One of my favorite genres was the string quartet—small enough to fit into an SUV but sophisticated enough to paint an unlimited array of sound. My fondest string quartet memories date back to my Juilliard days where I was asked to play second violin in a newly formed group with high aspirations.
We began our studies together with the Beethoven String Quartet Opus 18 No 6. As we studied together, we quickly found what I believe to be the greatest challenge in Beethoven’s early works, the blend of voices. Beethoven’s writing was so naturally beautiful that anything short of a perfect blend of sound greatly distracted the listener from being immersed in pure joy. This led to many long rehearsals where we would go note by note to match vibratos, bow strokes, and bow pressures to create a perfect blend of sound. To give you an idea of how precise we needed to be, our coach, Samuel Rhodes of the Juilliard String Quartet, constantly told us to imagine our left hand finger pads touching each other’s finger pads as they landed on the fingerboard. This initially made for an odd goal to aspire to but gave us goals to strive for as we matured.
While learning this work, I remember working on the fourth movement’s chorale-like opening where we began experimenting with our vibratos. After many hours of rehearsing, we could not find a frequency or width of vibrato that we could all agree upon. To further my unofficial position as the odd man out—literally, since the rest of the group was all girls—I suggested that we get rid of vibrato all together. Once the questioning looks and eye rolls were over, we proceeded to try it. The eeriness and rawness of a non vibrato chorale was suspiciously satisfying. Here we were, Master of Music candidates at the Juilliard School, realizing that vibrato was not always necessary! It just goes to show you are never too old or too experienced to learn something new!
Ultimately, our group performed the Beethoven String Quartet Opus 18 No 6 amongst many other pieces during our time together. The studying and performing of each piece brought us closer together and by the time graduation rolled around, I found myself sad to see the group disband due to everyone pursuing different post Master of Music degrees. We had grown close from the hours we spent together rehearsing. The girls had started to include me in a few gossip sessions to the point where I felt like I had become one of “the girls.” I even managed to get some good gift ideas vetted for my now wife! In reflecting back on the good times I shared with my quartet, I feel that the world could be a better place if everyone had a string quartet of their own. Thanks for the memories ladies!
Ritchie Zah divides his time between his work as a detective with the Aspen Police Department and his teaching and performing as a versatile and top-notch violinist. He has held concertmaster positions with the Juilliard Orchestra and Shepherd Symphony at Rice University and has served as assistant concertmaster of the Aspen Chamber Symphony. He holds bachelor's and master's degrees in violin performance from the Juilliard School and is an avid musician pursuing solo and chamber music performance. He also teaches private students in the Roaring Fork Valley and has taught in the Aspen Music Festival's summer PALS program and the Beginning Strings Program.
I leave you with this recommendation for your listening pleasure.
Until next time!
David Dyer Interviews Vocalist Jeanette Thompson
The music world affords performers the opportunity of making friends far and wide. David Dyer, featured in last week’s blog post, was privileged to befriend Jeanette Thompson during her years as a student at Aspen Music Festival and School, and he has maintained that friendship for thirty-two years.
Presently, Jeanette is a full-time lecturer in Vocal Performance at the Frost School of Music, University of Miami. She received her Bachelors of Music from Florida State University, a Masters of Music from Rice University, and is an alumna of Aspen Music Festival and School.
Professor Thompson has been lauded throughout the world as a singer with great depth, warmth, beauty, style, and heart. She is known as an outstanding vocal pedagogue. Her career has taken her to concert halls and opera houses too numerous to mention here. Just to give you a glimpse of her accomplishments, her Carnegie Hall debut was singing Verdi’s Missa da Requiem.
David arranged an interview with Professor Thompson concerning her performances of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, Op. 125 Here is David’s interview:
Notes from David Dyer, Aspen's Piano Man
Hello Valley Music Lovers,
The phenomenon of “late Beethoven works” staggers the imagination of most of us. In this blog post, we offer some observations concerning Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125. This symphony represents Beethoven taking his greatest creative risk in symphonic writing. The first movement depicts a journey from chaos to order, almost like the birth of music itself. The second movement brings delight to the ears with its scherzo-like movement. All this energy is followed by an adagio with a melody that is unsurpassed in beauty. The immense finale, including vocal soloists (soprano, alto, tenor, and bass), chorus and orchestra, is a symphony within a symphony.
To give you some insightful reflections on this monumental composition, I called upon my friend, David Dyer, known as Aspen’s Piano Man, a man with ubiquitous presence in the music world of this area, to share some of his thoughts concerning this symphony. He is known as pianist, organist, conductor and director in the field of musical theater and cabaret since 1980. Given David’s experience conducting vocalists and instrumentalists combined, he is the perfect choice to offer his personal reflections on Beethoven’s masterpiece. Here are his thoughts:
Personal Reflection on Symphony No. 9
When I received a request from Charlotte McLain to participate in the Beethoven blog series, I didn’t give it much credence, as her email arrived on April Fools’ Day, and I assumed it was a little joke. She later set me straight! The idea seemed a little daunting, as I have not made my living in the classical realm, yet she assured me I likely had the proper credentials to participate. So here I am!!! And I get to tackle Beethoven Symphony No. 9 in Dm, Opus 125!
I set about the task by revisiting and listening to several recordings. My first thought was OMG!!! This music is massive and overwhelming! It’s beyond me! I’ve had the good fortune to hear it live several times, and each time I’ve come away with different thoughts and ideas. It is serious music and it speaks to my soul on the deepest of levels. I’ve had a lengthy association with Beethoven as both a player and consumer of his work. I played Minuet in G in my first piano recital. I studied many of his sonatas throughout university, and as a theory student I orchestrated a few of them. As I’ve gotten older and widened my listening tastes, there have been times when I’ve questioned if his work still resonates in me in the same ways. We as listeners are now used to such a wider palette of sounds, rhythms, harmonies, moods, meters and the like, that I have sometimes been guilty of thinking that I’ve outgrown my taste for Beethoven. And then I hear the music and I am once again mesmerized, moved and impressed by his genius. I still believe he is a master of great brilliance.
On my most recent visit to the whole work, I was struck by the seriousness of the first two movements. The imaginative development of the rich themes leaves us with deeply stirring music. I was particularly struck by the emotional release I felt at the start of the third movement, with such a stark contrast of the previous two movements. For me, the vibrant fourth movement always inspires.
I share a final personal impression of the piece. I have listened to several renditions of the work, and I must say the Bernstein Berlin performance has raised every hair on my body more than a few times. I believe he was such a powerful and expressive conductor, and I could not help but be in awe of his prowess on the podium in this performance, especially under the circumstances that inspired and informed this particular rendition. I was alternately blown away by him and the music, but in the end, I realize it’s about the music. It’s always all about the music.
Beyond anything I share here, I urge you to discover and rediscover the amazing beauty and majesty of this great work on your own. I believe it remains timeless and fresh.
David's recommendation for listening:
Next week’s blog will feature David’s interview with his friend Jessica Thompson, who has sung the soprano solo part in Symphony No.9 several times. The interview will give us a peek into the vocal challenges of this work as she experienced performing it under different conductors.
Notes from Cellist & Conductor Wendy Larson
Hello Music Lovers of the Valley,
This Bits of Beethoven blog post will examine the symphonic writings of Beethoven during the middle period of his life, sometimes referred to as the “heroic period”. I have chosen to focus on Symphony No. 5 in C minor Op. 67. This symphony reflects Beethoven’s resolution quote, “I will grapple with Fate; it shall not overcome me.” Victory is symbolized by passing from C minor in the opening movement to the brilliance of C major in the last movement.
To help us more clearly understand the magnitude of this symphony, I have asked Wendy Larson, cellist and former conductor of the Symphony of the Valley, to share with you her challenges and rewards in conducting this work. Here are her reflections.
Conducting Beethoven's 5th Symphony
Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 in C minor Op. 67 was written between 1804 and 1808. The symphony’s four-note opening motif, in particular, is known worldwide. It appears frequently in popular culture, from disco versions and rock and roll covers, to uses in film and television. Even school children who know nothing about this work can hum them with ease.
When I was pondering the performance of this symphony with my amateur community orchestra, I took many things into consideration; the ability of the players, their playing experience and music maturity. Could this little orchestra really do justice to this monumental piece? I came to the conclusion that it was accessible and playable by them.
I saw the player’s eyes light up with excitement when I made the performance announcement and passed out the scores at the first rehearsal. They embraced this incredible opportunity with enthusiasm and motivation. They practiced more on their own, took their parts to their private music lessons for instruction, and listened to different orchestral recordings to absorb the appropriate performance style.
Notes from Roaring Fork Valley Musician Nancy Thomas
Hello Music Lovers of the Valley,
In earlier blogs, I discussed some of the most familiar and monumental piano sonatas of the early, middle and late periods of Beethoven’s life. Now we will move on to a discussion of his symphonic writings, starting with the early period. Beethoven had moved to Vienna to establish himself as a virtuoso performer and composer. He seemed to quickly grasp the wave of the future in symphonic writing as seen in the strength of his writing for winds, brass and strings, and the overall expansion of the form through clever manipulation of harmony, texture and varied melodies. We will start with a look at Symphonies No.1 and No. 2.
To explore these compositions, I thought nothing could be more informative than to ask an orchestral performer to discuss the subject with us. I chose Nancy Thomas, violist/violinist, teacher and former Festival Orchestra member and editor for AMFS to do the honors. Nancy, a longtime Aspen resident, has contributed much to the cultural life of this valley. She will share with you her various stages of developing an appreciation and love for Beethoven, an appreciation that continues to grow even now. Enjoy!
Beethoven and Love in the Time of Coronavirus
Ever since Charlotte McLain first proposed her Basalt Library project dedicated to the works of Ludwig van Beethoven, I’ve been revisiting my sense of this giant musician and his music. My assignment is to discuss the First and Second Symphonies, and the Coronavirus has forced upon me the time to think. If I seem to ramble, perhaps it’s the quarantine.
I confess I haven’t always loved Beethoven. An appreciation of the power and beauty of his music came on only gradually. I was raised in a musical household. My mother taught piano and was an accomplished early music performer. And my father, a scientist in his working life, was a good amateur violinist and pianist. So it’s not the case that I didn’t hear Beethoven, I did. I just wasn’t drawn to his music.
An affinity for Beethoven had to come about slowly, over time, with direct experience. I’m pretty sure I played Beethoven at Interlochen National Music Camp, which I attended for two summers (1951 and ’52). Beethoven, however, couldn’t match Smetana’s Moldau, nor soon after, Britten’s Enigma Variations, with its gorgeous viola-charged variations. I was being drawn into music, to its power to move, but Beethoven still stood on the sidelines.
During my freshman year at the University of Michigan (1955), I encountered for the first time the Ninth Symphony. I sang soprano in the chorus. What can I say? I did not understand the Ninth. Beethoven took the sopranos up into the stratosphere and then just left us there to screech! Painful. What was that about? But there was drama, that’s for sure.
Next, as a music literature major I had an unforgettable yearlong seminar on the Beethoven String Quartets, with Oliver Edel, the cellist of the resident Stanley Quartet. The discussions put meat on the bones. My first two summers in Aspen, (1961 and ’62), our student quartet coached Opus 18, no. 6 and Opus 59, no. 3 with Claus Adam, cellist of the Juilliard Quartet. The detail and refinement that this master musician and inspiring teacher offered us were a revelation. I was hooked!
The Ninth Symphony came up again, with the Nashville Symphony in 1966. In rehearsal the conductor Willis Page, himself a bass player, threw a tantrum with the basses. Blustering that they were playing way too loud at their solo entrance in the last movement, he jumped off the podium and stormed back to the section, grabbed the principal’s instrument, and yelled and demonstrated. Mission accomplished! In the performance the basses played pianiss-issimo at that spot. Was it out of fear or inspiration, who knows? The ethereal effect made for a memorable moment. Beethoven was made indelible.
As for the early Symphonies, I believe I first encountered them in an unusual context. I played them with my dad in an arrangement for 4-hand piano. It was a stretch, what we could muster, with Dad on the bass and me on the treble.
I recently assembled a list of the nearly 60 conductors I’ve played under as a student, as a professional freelancer and orchestra player. I have vivid memories of performances of particular works under particular conductors. What explains then that I don’t recall when, where, or with whom I’ve played Beethoven’s First and Second Symphonies? Nonetheless, the power of Beethoven must have somehow embedded itself in me. Today, I am thrilled by the beauty of these two masterful symphonies.
For two sterling interpretations of Beethoven’s First and Second Symphonies, give a listen to Leonard Bernstein’s performance with Vienna Philharmonic and Roger Norrington’s with Stuttgart Radio Orchestra. From Bernstein, the dramatist, and Norrington, the classicist, you may be surprised to hear how their restraint and expansion play out.
“Don’t only practice your art, but force your way into its secrets, for it and knowledge can raise men to the divine.” -Ludwig van Beethoven
Hello Music Lovers of the Valley,
In our previous Music at the Library post, pianist Amanda Gessler, who had been scheduled to give a performance of Beethoven's late piano sonatas at the library this spring, shared her experience studying the works of Beethoven with noted authority and widely recognized pianist Richard Goode, who encouraged Amanda "to really live the piece while one is playing it."
I think we all would agree that Richard Goode was realizing Beethoven’s advice, "force your way into its secrets, for it and knowledge can raise men to the divine."
As Amanda’s comments suggest, there are infinite layers of expression and understanding in this music. As you listen to the recommended YouTube performances of Op. 109 and Op. 11, here are some elements of music that define compositions of Beethoven’s late style (1800-1828).
In the piano sonatas Beethoven extensively explored the coloristic qualities of the piano, including highest and lowest ranges and applying a wide range of dynamics in both. He worked out themes and motives to their utmost potential with variation technique epitomizing his late style. The extensive use of fugal texture reflects his lifelong reverence for the music of J.S. Bach. His command of new sonorities seems unlimited; some deemed unsuccessful and performability questioned. But whether we approve or condemn, we have no reason to think Beethoven with perfect hearing would have altered a single note.
The unprecedented rhythmic visions, the formal innovations, and the technical demands of these sonatas bid farewell to the sonata form as defined by the early classical period. Beethoven definitely represents the high romantic period with one leg in the past.