In Beethoven’s Footsteps: Elias violinist on upcoming concert

Sara Bitlloch, first violinist of the Elias String Quartet, muses over the program to be performed on Tuesday, Jan. 31, at The Menil Collection.

It may be said that Brahms and Bartok followed in Beethoven’s footsteps in their approach to writing music. Our program brings the three composers side-by-side, so that we can easily trace some of the compositional devices that they have in common, and also how they broke away to find their own unique and extraordinary languages, and how these affect us as players.

There is something eminently physical about playing Bartok’s music. He was fascinated by folk music and used to travel through Hungary and the neighbouring countries to collect popular tunes and melodies. We have him to thank for so much of what we know today about the folk music of that part of the world. This influence is felt strongly in his music. So it is not surprising that one often wants to sing or dance his music or just move some part of the body to it!

Although some of it is fiendishly difficult, playing his 4th quartet is always intensely enjoyable and satisfying. There is a real sense that we are not only using our brains, emotions and fingers, but also connecting with our physical bodies and the energy of movement.

One of the obvious similarities between this quartet and Beethoven’s op.95 is a kind of a obsession with short motifs. In fact, the main idea of both first movements is a similar, quick, up and down arch that starts and ends on the same note. In the Beethoven, this angry first gesture keeps recurring over and over in the form of violent outbursts, or under the surface to give the music a kind of restlessness. In the Bartok, the rhythmic and insistant main motif, which appears seven bars in, is used to punctuate or underpin the musical discourse, almost as human speech.

Bartok further unifies the quartet by having motifs appear in more than one movement, and by developing and transforming them throughout the piece so that the listener, without necessarily recognising all of them, feels a kind of growing familiarity with the music as it develops. A striking example is the subdued lyrical theme of the first movement which becomes a fortissimo fierce rhythmic folk tune in the last movement. Another one of Bartok’s trademark features is his almost systematic use of canons (where all players play the same thing starting at different times), to highlight the various themes. This is a wonderful effect, as if every voice was giving its own point of view of a particular idea.

Brahms had an absolute veneration for Beethoven. Of his own admission, he was very intimidated by Beethoven’s legacy as a string quartet writer, as were many composers of his generation.“You do no know what it means for people like us to hear his giant steps behind us,” Brahms said.

As a result, he destroyed over 20 earlier string quartets before liking one enough to publish it — not until he was in his forties.

In his A minor quartet, we again find writing techniques that can also be found in Beethoven’s op.95 such as motivic development and counterpoint. There is also a wonderful parallel between the two slow movements. Both have a gentle movement of running eighth notes through their main sections, allowing time to unfold calmly and undisturbed. Both also have a middle section that introduces unrest, but here the similarities end. While Beethoven darkens the mood seamlessly through harmony and only gradually heightens the sense of fear and uncertainty by adding sixteenth notes, always with a feeling of restraint and never breaking away from the regular ongoing motion, Brahms launches without warning into a kind of epic battle between violin and cello, with tumultuous tremolo in the second violin and viola, in total contrast to what preceded.

Interestingly, this is almost the only moment in the Brahms quartet that is truly unpredictable. Elsewhere, the music proceeds organically. Everything that happens is in some way a logical continuation of what came before, even — and this is a paradox — when it is surprising, in which case there is a kind of realisation in retrospect of its coherence. It is miraculous. Somehow, Brahms makes everything make sense. His way of conveying emotions is to organise them so masterfully that they all fit perfectly within the structure of the music. Beethoven, on the contrary, is always destabilising, abrupt, striving, never content with being logical. He is constantly stretching the boundaries of what is possible, adapting the shape and structure of the music to its emotional needs. Playing Brahms feels like emotional fulfilment, playing Beethoven is like being stretched and challenged in every direction far beyond one’s comfort zone. Brahms gives all our emotions a musical outlet, Beethoven makes us discover emotions we didn’t know we had.

It is interesting to compare the endings of the 3threequartets on the program, as they all heighten the excitement dramatically at the very end, but using completely different means.

Although op.95 is the more intense and harrowing of the three works, it has by far the most light-hearted ending. In fact, Beethoven chooses to end it with a joke! Peter Cropper (leader of the Lindsay Quartet) used to call it one of Beethoven’s “what the hell!” endings. Often in his most tormented and anguished works, Beethoven will change gear at the last minute and finish with a light, sometimes funny gesture that can be hard to reconcile with the rest of the work, as if saying “despite all this suffering, what the hell, life goes on!” It is a testimony of his genius that with a wink, he still manages to convey something incredibly important and profound.

As a player, it can be challenging to sustain the absolutely relentless intensity of the pain and anger that pervade this quartet. There is literally no rest from the tension apart from the outer parts of the slow movement, and even then, the recurring semi-tones are a constant uneasy reminder. But even more challenging, is the radical change of face, less than a minute before the end of the piece, into this quick, fun, cheeky coda. Physically, it’s hard to shake off the tension accumulated in the intense playing of the last 25 minutes. But, just like actors, the more we can feel the huge emotional relief of this coda, and be as surprised by it as if we had never heard it before, the easier it is to make it come off the ground. When it works, there’s a sense that this terrible painful weight is suddenly lifted off our shoulders and nothing can stop us any more, we’re flying!

Brahms’s last movement, marked Allegro non assai, opens with a resolute theme held upright by the pull between the different rhythmic metres in the first violin and the lower three voices. The movement has some intensely lyrical and abandoned moments as well as drama, there is a continual sense that a lot is at stake, but it never loses its rhythmic backbone. Shortly before the end, Brahms transfigures the opening theme which becomes more and more tender and dreamy, until time becomes suspended over a faint memory of the first movement. And then, for the first time in the movement, the music finally lets loose and launches into a breathless violent race towards the end with unexpected fire and impetus.

One of the hardest things for a string player is having to play extremely slowly and quietly right after some very intense music. Although there is a short transition here, this nevertheless applies to Brahms’s coda, and if there is ever any place where you might hear bow shakes, this is it! And to make matters even more difficult, it has to sound heavenly and effortless…

For the ending of his 4th quartet, at first Bartok seems to be heading towards something similar to Brahms. There is a momentary stop in the flow of the music, with long held 5ths in the cello keeping the listener in suspense while the violins play some short questioning gestures. The music then starts bubbling underneath the surface, accelerating in an upward crescendo, but at its peak it abruptly turns back on itself, back to the slower tempo, in an almost exact replica of the ending of the first movement. This incredibly powerful conclusion somehow gives a sense that the whole piece is encompassed and recapitulated in just a few bars.

Every time we play it I am in awe of the genius that created this illusion, and I still cannot completely understand how he did it!

It is difficult not to feel dwarfed by the sheer magnitude of this ending and the limitations of the instruments can be frustrating- we’d basically like to be an orchestra at this point. György Kurtag (hungarian composer and pianist) once suggested to us to imagine we have a whole section of strings behind us. This makes us produce a sound that is both broader and more “universal,” but it is hard to describe why. Although one could talk about the pressure of the bow and the point of contact on the instrument, I think there is something more fundamental.

All music means something, all music has a character, an emotion, and if we as players don’t know what it is that we are trying to convey, we can never hope that the audience will feel it. Our own imagination is the first and most important element in bringing a piece of music to life.