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Book Review: Inside Beethoven’s Quartets

Inside Beethoven’s Quartets: History, Performance, Interpretation
By Lewis Lockwood and the Juilliard String Quartet
Harvard University Press, 2008

Every field of study has its coursework that everyone hates. For the musician, it’s Music Theory. The reading material is painfully detailed, highly specialized, and seems to bear little relationship to what we love – playing music. This book addresses the question asked by so many frustrated freshmen: “what is this for?” Without getting bogged down in specialized details, the conversations with the Juilliard String Quartet illuminate the uses of analysis to inform performance. From their perspective as performers and teachers:

[The goal] reminds me a little of what you would expect a great actor to do with a Shakespearean speech, who sees ways of suddenly shifting the emphasis and the intensity unexpectedly, in a kind of counterpoint to the normal discourse.

How do you slow [the students] down and say: “Hey! Listen to the words you’re saying – you’re not hearing anything you’re saying.”

The solution? Be informed. In discussing their own practice of interpretation, rather than lecturing on the principles of that art, the quartet demonstrates the value of formal, harmonic, and motivic analysis.

The introductory lectures by Harvard musicologist Lewis Lockwood make the same point, again by demonstration. He puts the works in context, discussing Beethoven’s indebtedness to Haydn & Mozart, the information gleaned from studying sketches of the works in progress, and parallels to social and psychological states of Beethoven’s era. This is historically informed performance, as it should apply to all performers of historical classical music, not only those involved in period instrument practice.

This book originated in a series of lecture-discussions given by the authors, and does exhibit a certain longing for its origins. An overhead projector and audio examples would ease the explanations of the three movements followed in detail. That being said, a copy of this book should be sent to every conservatory of music in the country. The subject may be very specific, but the insights are valuable to every classical musician. They are presented in a way to be accessible to anyone with enough interest to pick up a book devoted specifically to Beethoven String Quartets.