Ludwig van Beethoven
Ludwig van Beethoven c1754 © UniversalImagesGroup

John Adams, the American composer whose mash-up of material borrowed from Beethoven, Absolute Jest, is performed at the Southbank Centre this evening, knew what he was doing when he opted to score his composition for string quartet and orchestra. A string quartet on stage in the embrace of a vast orchestral metropolis symbolises the perimeters of Beethoven’s musical world: the intimate four-way communion of the quartet against the ever-expanding cosmology of his writing for orchestra which, in 1825, reached its apogee in his five-movement Ninth Symphony, complete with choral finale.

This work is performed by the St Lawrence String Quartet and San Francisco Symphony Orchestra under conductor Michael Tilson Thomas – the same line-up that gave the work’s premiere in March 2012. A few months later, in December, a thoroughly revised version was conducted by the composer in Miami Beach, after Adams declared that, “the original opening never satisfied me” and wrote 400 new bars to begin the work.

Adams, now 66, is America’s most performed living composer, whose early works such as “Shaker Loops” (1978) and “Harmonielehre” (1985) were inspired by the classic-period 1960s minimalism of Steve Reich, Terry Riley and Philip Glass while remaining infused with old-school European Romanticism.

He has drawn on Beethoven before. In “Grand Pianola Music” (1982) Adams introduced us to a cartoon caricature – the ornate figurations of the great man’s Emperor Concerto sped up and souped up until they morph into pure Liberace.

Despite its title, though, Absolute Jest is no laughing matter. This is Adams’ attempt to grapple with the composer who, received opinion tells us, will forever be the composer’s composer: it is “jest”, he tells us, in the sense of “exercising one’s wit by means of imagination and invention”. Adams launches his work with a rhythmic stampede. Nervy, pulsating motor rhythms that fuel Beethoven’s Hammerklavier piano sonata and his Ninth Symphony’s Scherzo reach out to shake hands. Later, fragments of the harmonically inscrutable Grosse Fuge, some of the last music he wrote before his death in 1827, spook Adams’ play on Beethoven like Banquo’s ghost.

But is Beethoven really the composer that all others most revere? A century ago, composers piecing together new musical languages for the modern age tended to consider Beethoven as part of the problem, not the solution. Claude Debussy, whose fleeting, soft-focus 1894 orchestral “Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune” was as allusive as Beethoven’s music was demonstrative, rudely dubbed the older musician the “geriatric deaf one”. In his view, Beethoven browbeat sounds into submission and his material inevitably buckled under the strain.

Composer John Adams attends the Los Angeles Philharmonic Opening Night Gala
John Adams in Los Angeles in 2010 © Wireimage

Igor Stravinsky, whose 1913 ballet The Rite of Spring had comprehensively rewritten the compositional rule book, once snapped to Marcel Proust, “I detest Beethoven!” And Arnold Schoenberg believed that Brahms, not Beethoven, would be the source of a new musical future, a path that would eventually lead Schoenberg towards his atonal revolution.

If Debussy, Stravinsky and to a lesser extent Schoenberg – the three names synonymous with ideas of progressive composition during the 20th century – showed such a degree of hostility towards Beethoven, it may have been because there wasn’t only his music to contend with. Beethoven’s popular image as a superhuman composer left eager young composers boxed in and with no place to call their own.

Stravinsky would, at the end of his long life, reconcile himself to Beethoven as he came to admire the deft harmonic chess-moves of the late-period string quartets. But the innards of early Stravinsky scores like The Rite of Spring tell us why he had little time for Beethoven. Stravinsky’s forms were mosaics shaped from abruptly juxtaposed episodes which undercut the very idea of through-written organic symphonic unity that Beethoven had doggedly pursued. And Stravinsky wanted music to be more than emotional box-ticking: “When people have learnt to love music for itself, their enjoyment will be of a far higher and more potent order,” he said.

Subsequent generations of composers might have sidestepped Beethoven more easily had not the extent to which he changed the vocabulary of music made him an utterly immovable presence – even if his stretching of form and his conjuring up of endlessly fresh harmonic possibilities struck some not as the start of something, but as the end of a line that began in the early 18th century with the father of the symphony, Joseph Haydn.

In the face of this immutability, Adams is not the only recent composer who has felt the urge to crack through into Beethoven’s world and reclaim his material from the weight of its own history. In 2004, the Norwegian electronic sound artist Leif Inge digitally stretched a recording of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony over 24 hours and called the resulting work 9 Beet Stretch. Inge’s aim was to recapture the danger and the sense of disorientation that audiences in Beethoven’s own era might have felt. Isolated timpani notes, which in Beethoven’s original pass in a flash, are captured in slow motion, the initial point of attack, timpani stick hitting drum, spraying sound forth with lazy urgency.

Beethoven’s Adagio pivots around a piquant sequence of consonant-turning-dissonant chords which now unfold at a glacial pace to become like a sonic sculpture that our ears have the time and space to take in.

The message of Inge’s piece is that Beethoven-inspired compositions need to be bold and uncompromising. Old certainties need to be shaken and something fresh must happen in sound. Adams wrote Absolute Jest, he says, because “composers are drawn to another’s music to the point where they want to live in it”, yet he described the process of its composition as “the most extended experience in pure ‘invention’ that I’ve ever undertaken”.

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