January 04, 2003
On recovering from illness

Recently I have been ill, and am not yet fully recovered, and this is an experience that does interesting things to one's aesthetic responses. Music is sometimes said to have curative powers. (I seem to remember a passage in King Lear, when the King is recovering from his little episode, to this effect.)

Music doesn't cure. This is to get it the wrong way around. But when one does recover (for all the usual dull medical reasons), one also recovers one's ability to respond to music. Chemicals, hormones, brain patterns, or things in the brain/mind/body now unkown, having been temporarily deficient or dormant, return with renewed strength, all the more wondrous for having been assumed permanently dead.

It so happens that one of my favourite pieces of music is one that was actually written to celebrate this same sense of renewed response and of renewed life, the Adagio - "Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit in der lydischen Tonart" – A restored one's holy song of thanksgiving to God, in Lydian Mode – from Beethoven's String Quartet in A minor op. 132. I'm not a godist myself, but I can entirely understand that desire to thank someone, rather than just one's own mere bodily functions, for that extraordinary feeling of wellbeing that recovery from illness bestows.

Beethoven's last few string quartets are delightful. Highly trained classical musicians, having spent several decades learning that proper music can't be composed this way, find them immensely difficult. They are deranged, yet they are late Beethoven and so must be great and cannot be dismissed as mere eccentricities. Therefore they must be brain-splittingly profound. Also, Beethoven was by then totally deaf, the ultimate personal disability in the whole of human history, and so God forbid that he might simply have been enjoying himself.

To the lucky hedonist like me, who loves classical music on the same basis that, and with no more profundity than, others love American Multiple Choice Icecream, the late quartets are no more difficult to understand or enjoy than the singing of a loved one in the shower. Delightful tunes come and go. Gorgeous harmonies (like that adagio) simply announce themselves without introduction. Movements merge into each other. Some movements are far too short. Others oscillate between pop song and academic mind-gaming. Busking in heaven.

Beethoven's sense of fun is under-represented in the official image of the man. Yes he stole fire from the Gods, but having done so he proceeded to juggle with sparklers as well as to forge ferocious pieces of tempered musical steel like the Fifth Symphony. The Ninth Symphony, remember, ends with an Ode to Joy.

I first listened to those late quartets in the recordings of them for Philips done by the Quartetto Italiano in the nineteen sixties, and I still particularly love and admire those performances, now available in two mid-price double-CD sets.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:17 PM
Category: Classical music