Weight of Sound, Ep. 5: Beethoven’s Late Quartets

In moments of collective crisis, music can be a means for solace, expression and memorial—a few bars can enliven years-old experiences and emotions. Weight of Sound is a music archive-based series that retells formative memories from musicians in the Midwest paired with the masterpieces that elicit them. Cindy Sang was a participant in Midstory's 2020 High School ThinkLab program.

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In episode 5 of Weight of Sound, Toledo Symphony Principal Second Violin and Artistic Administrator Merwin Siu discusses the power of chamber music.


I love the chance to be able to play something that’s unusual or different and have somebody in the audience go up to me and say, “Yeah, I really hated that. That was just awful. I didn’t understand what that meant at all” or then have somebody go, “I love that. And why did that part in the middle happen which seemed so different from the rest?” and for me to be able to kind of engage with them on that level, just makes me really happy. I missed that. But I feel like that type of music is the closest to coming back, you know, in this time and you know I think people miss that. And I think that it’s never going to go away.

I grew up never playing normal string quartets. I played four violin quartets when I was younger, like violin-viola-cello-bass, all these weird instrumentations. And then when I got to undergraduate, it was really the first time I got to immerse myself in quartets. And the very first CD I bought was a recording of the Guarneri String Quartet playing the Beethoven late quartets. And I fell in love with them immediately. I think for Beethoven in the late quartets, this is the music he wrote because he needed to write it. It was an expression of everything he was thinking about in music at the time, and it wasn’t necessarily for a public: it was for a group of listeners hundreds of years later, and it’s so forward thinking and so powerful and moving.

My favorite quartet is definitely the last one Beethoven wrote, it’s his Opus 135, it’s his F major Quartet. There’s something about it that is just absolutely amazing. 

The second movement has the wildest moment in any of the quartets, where the first violin is jumping from string to string all over the place. And the second violin, viola, and cello take these five notes they hear and repeat 47 times. It’s like this massive headbanger moment. It’s really, really amazing and so much fun to play. 

To me, the third movement is absolutely the ideal of what music should be. It’s the music I listen to when I’m feeling incredibly sad or incredibly happy. You could not take away a note, you could not add a note. It’s so beautiful and so perfect.

The last movement is really amazing because he wrote these kinds of question figure. It just goes upward like [Music], and he wrote “Muss es sein? (Must it be)” with a question mark. And then he inverts it in the later part of the movement [Music], and it says “Es muss sein! (it must be).” So what probably happened was he was making fun of the fact that he needed to write this commission. “Do I actually have to write this music? I guess I have to write this music.” But this was actually the last quartet, really the last piece Beethoven ever wrote. And it’s just so amazing to think about the 1% chance that maybe Beethoven was confronting his mortality and just choose to end it with his glorious quartet. So, you know, that probably is not true, but I will still partially believe it’s true. 

With the Piano Sonatas, he wrote them almost every year, a year and a half or two years. The quartet is like he had like quartet years where what he wrote were the most important things would be quartets. But then he waited five or six years and then he waited seven or eight years. So it’s a little bit different. It’s not like this linear progression. It’s more like his highlights of his output.

Beethoven was both somebody who was very much of his time and timeless, and I’m going to kind of talk a bit about both of those things. Of his time, I think he was living through a really interesting historical moment where an individual was- going to like to use a Hamilton quote for a second: to be able to rise above their station. That was something that was possible. Really, maybe not for the very first time, but it was something that societally became something that people wrote about and talked about, and Beethoven was able to write about this sense of the individual, triumphing against obstacles, whether they were societal obstacles or otherwise. And his whole life story, you know, very much echoes that, you know, being able to surmount deafness. And I think that as in 2020 when we’re kind of really grappling with what an individual can do, what’s an individual’s role, what’s our responsibility to a society at large, what is our responsibility to ourselves, I think Beethoven speaks very, very strongly to that. And I think that’s something that doesn’t go away. I also think that just on a purely musical level, Beethoven was perfectly imperfect. It’s not like Mozart or Bach where it feels like it’s necessarily just like a divine gift that just flowed through them and the music you, like, you look at Mozart’s music and just like no mistakes that can never make some corrections. You look at Beethoven- mistakes all over the place scrawls cross out. And so you know he was changing things constantly, you know, and the handwriting is horrible. It just seems very human. 

It’s one of the things that’s crazy about being a musician: as the longer you work in music, the more time you spend in a room by yourself. And like, you know, and pianists more than anybody. It’s just a very normal thing for music students to spend the significant majority of their waking hours in a relatively soundproof room by themselves. And yet the greatest joy in music and one reason why chamber music is so important is the sharing of music. It’s wonderful to share with a large group of people, but it’s like the difference between cooking for friends [and] cooking as a chef in a restaurant. You know when you’re cooking for friends, you get to appreciate all the feedback that they give you and it’s something really wonderful. Whereas cooking in the restaurant, you know, like you’re sending so many people, you generally hold everybody likes it. But you don’t get the same individual feedback.

When you have listeners so close to you, you feed off that energy, and I actually love the actual conversations before and after the music as well. I think that’s something that you can do like the Toledo Club or in that those are really kind of intimate chamber music experiences that you sometimes miss with other types of musical performance. 

We’re so lucky to have an audience that appreciates what we do because it’s one of the greatest joys that we have as musicians, to be able to enter with like-minded people and work together on a goal. It’s wonderful because it’s part of a team, but you have a very individual voice. It’s just perfect. Sometimes with an orchestra your individual voice has to be subjugated a little bit to achieve a larger dramatic effect. And I mean there’s something a little bit as a soloist, there’s something that’s almost a little bit — it’s a combination of vulnerable and performative at the same time, like you’re very vulnerable. But there’s also something that’s a little self-aggrandizing, “I need to convince myself that what I am saying personally is so important for everybody.” But I never get that feeling with chamber music. Chamber music is something that you work together and it just feels absolutely right to be sharing with other people. And I’m so grateful to the audiences that want to hear.

Featured excerpts of live performance from:

Beethoven String Quartet No. 16 in F Major, Op. 135

April 29, 2007

Toledo Club

Cristina Muresan, violin; Merwin Siu, violin; Ellen Craig Archambeau, viola; Damon Coleman, cello

Recordings courtesy of the Toledo Symphony Orchestra. Special thanks to Keith McWatters (Orchestra Manager) and Rachel Schultz (Director of Education & Community Engagement) for access, permission, and support.


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