Penn State College of Arts and Architecture
Center for the Performing Arts at Penn State

Finding the inspiration to take Beethoven in new directions

Finding the inspiration to take Beethoven in new directions

Our Penn State program on October 9 consists entirely of brilliant, iconic, and beloved quartets by Beethoven — truly great music by one of history’s most creative and groundbreaking geniuses. But in order to fully understand and properly absorb oneself in Beethoven’s quartets, we must devote a great deal of time to the study and performance of the quartets by Haydn. Franz Joseph Haydn literally invented the form of the string quartet — four-voiced chamber music for two violins, a viola, and a cello — and his seventy or so pieces for quartet remain the standard-setting works for all string quartet writing that has followed.

Famously, Beethoven and Mozart were impressed, excited, and inspired by Haydn’s witty, perfectly crafted, and freshly conceived works for quartet. In the course of his life, Beethoven, a pupil of Haydn, developed his approach to quartet composition as a direct extension of the work of Haydn and took the quartet form to new levels of creativity and genius. To this day, composers look up to Haydn as the true quartet master composer and inventor; in fact, composers young and old continue to be impressed and inspired — and ultimately intimidated — by the poignant, perfect quartets of Haydn and Beethoven.

Speaking of composers, we in the St. Lawrence String Quartet devote a good deal of our quartet life to the works of Haydn, Beethoven, and other great, well-known composers from past eras. But we believe strongly in the study and performance of new works, pieces that are frequently commissioned and created specifically for us. Recent examples of works written for the SLSQ include two tremendous works by John Adams, an inspired quartet by Ellen Taafe Zwilich, and Qohelet by Osvaldo Golijov, a much-anticipated work that has been in great demand since its premiere.

Great composers throughout history have been encouraged and supported by committed musicians and commissioners, and we must continue to inspire the creative process through direct work with composers. We have no way of knowing which of these composers will be the next Bach, Beethoven, or Haydn, but the only possible course of action is to continue to entice composers to compose.

In the SLSQ, we’re always excited and energized when we receive a newly created work, and we develop a measure of artistic insight through our direct work with composers. Audiences gain much from hearing new pieces. In the case of a premiere, they’re literally hearing the first public performance of a new creation, and they have a chance to experience sounds, textures, and musical shapes without any sort of bias. Whether they end up liking the piece or not, audience members are moved by the sounds they hear, giving them a new and adventurous perspective on music created by a living, breathing human who has chosen to forge ahead in life as a composer.

Because our upcoming performance at Penn State focuses solely on three Beethoven quartets, the audience will not be treated to a world premiere of a newly commissioned piece. But, both through our devotion to the Haydn quartets that inspired Beethoven and our continuing work with living composers, we as performers are inspired to take Beethoven in new interpretive directions. As we stay in touch with composers and their compositional approaches, more and more frequently we see works of the past as fresh and inspired, recognizing Beethoven and Haydn as fellow humans, not simply as iconic symbols of another era.

We hope our State College audience will hear spontaneity and innovation in our approach to Beethoven. We aim to keep Beethoven alive and fresh, and we hope our audiences can walk away from SLSQ performances as though they’ve heard great new music for the first time.

The Center for the Performing Arts is part of the College of Arts and Architecture at Penn State.
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