Back to the future

Image of Harry Eyres

The idea of the avant-garde relies on faith in the future. Many of the artists from Beethoven onwards who gathered under this banner hoped that society would eventually catch up with their work, which seemed incomprehensible or unpleasant to their contemporaries. As far as Beethoven was concerned that didn’t just mean the ignorant philistines, but such enlightened spirits as Carl Maria von Weber, who considered the late quartets to be “the ravings of a lunatic”, and the Russian writer Alexandre Oulibicheff, who called Beethoven’s late style “the negation of music itself”.

What becomes of the notion of the avant-garde when faith in the future has been eroded almost to the point of non-existence? This question was buzzing in my head as I listened to Helmut Lachenmann’s Third String Quartet (Grido), brilliantly performed recently at the Lucerne Festival by the young American Jack Quartet. Appropriately, or not so appropriately, the theme of this year’s Lucerne Festival is Faith (shouldn’t it have been Faithlessness, or Doubt?).

“Listened to” is perhaps not the right form of words. “Listened out for” might be a better phrase. Lachenmann describes his own procedures as follows: “In what is heard – or not heard – whatever is evoked, defamiliarised, fragmented, depleted, recharged, heated, ordered, organised, dispersed, and released: this, as it penetrates the mind and is expressively defined anew, undergoes that refinement which has always renewed the concept of beauty.” In practice this meant listening out for barely audible textures: the brushing of bow-hair on string rather than the production of tone (let alone note), even the breathing of the performers.

When Lachenmann came up to receive the polite applause that marked the end of the piece (not for the sober-suited culture aficionados of Lucerne the egg- or tomato-throwing or jeering with which earlier generations of well-heeled bourgeois greeted art they did not understand), I liked the cut of his jib. An upright, debonair figure in a white suit, he looked much younger than his 77 years. And when, later on, back at home, I consulted some interviews with him on YouTube, I found myself warming to him even more. Art should be an invitation to “open ears, horizons, hearts”, he said. Art has “a moral imperative; identity has to be opened, changed ... In art there is only the spirit.” Bravo, bravo, I cried. But I could only give lukewarm acceptance to the Third String Quartet as music rather than a manifesto or a theory.

Perhaps this music might help one to listen better, and Lachenmann is right when he says “normally we don’t hear things well”, but it also seems to be depriving us of nearly everything we have, for centuries, expected music to give us. Where is the melody which sings, which releases song in us; where is the rhythm which dances, which animates our dancing limbs; where is the range of emotions you get in a Mozart opera, a Haydn string quartet, a Beethoven symphony?

Maybe I’m one of those reactionaries whom history loves to show up as fools, in the company of those who walked out of the premiere of Bruckner’s Third Symphony, who booed Artur Rubinstein when he gave an early performance of Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales, who disrupted the first performance of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring.

All those works gained acceptance and love in the course of time; the Rite is now one of the most performed pieces in the repertoire. So is Lachenmann’s Third Quartet the music of the future, as Beethoven’s late quartets turned out to be?” That idea seems unlikely or even hollow in a variety of ways. First, the future as envisaged by such writers as Cormac McCarthy won’t have room for string quartets: the Strads will long ago have been smashed for firewood and the viola-player will have been eaten by the others. And second, if a viable future does somehow emerge through the wreckage of the planet, surely its denizens will want more substantial fare than the etiolated fragments provided by Lachenmann.

Also at Lucerne was Maurizio Pollini, looking rather stooped, but playing Beethoven with intermittently marvellous insight and beauty (he rushed some fast movements, I thought). Beethoven, the first avant-garde artist, at least in my mind, achieved a miracle in composing music which if performed with the right depth and humility sounds always new, always fresh, always challenging. The late string quartets are still not easy, either for audiences or performers; the masterful performance of opus 132 by the Tokyo Quartet at Norfolk, Connecticut, made me think how strange and wild this music must have sounded in 1825. I felt the ever-renewing freshness when Pollini played the slow movement of the early opus 7 sonata, an astonishing, hushed creation, as full of silence as sound, communicating something as simple and profound as the wonder of being

And I felt it even more when Pollini finished his recital with a couple of late Beethoven Bagatelles. The E flat bagatelle opus 126 made time stand still; you don’t need to be made to suffer to be drawn to listen more attentively.

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