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Markand Thakar, Looking for the “Harp” Quartet, An Investigation into Musical Beauty

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Markand Thakar, Looking for the “Harp” Quartet, An Investigation into Musical Beauty, Eastman Studies in Music, No. 82, University of Rochester Press, 2011

One thing you will not find in this rather brief (210pp.) but concentrated book is a recommendation of what recording of Beethoven’s “Harp” Quartet to buy, or a reminiscence of some outstanding performance of the work. When first perusing the book, I was naive enough to think that some bit of this kind of information might crop up in an appendix or in a footnote. But no, the only performances of the quartet mentioned in the book are nameless ones at the beginning—one great, one mediocre, and one terrible—as well as a performance by music students, which still remains in the future at the conclusion of the narrative part of the book.

The only complete analysis of the quartet as entire movements, in fact, occurs out of order: first the Adagio ma non troppo in the final section of Chapter Eight, and the rest in the appendix, which is a discussion of certain musical forms: dance form, theme and variations, sonata form, and fugue, which means that the Scherzo (third movement), finale, and first movement are discussed in that order, following other examples of their forms. There is no fugue in Op. 74—although there is one in the first movement of Op. 131, which is analyzed. Hence you should not expect to find Tovey-like analyses of the “Harp” Quartet either. You may reasonably conclude that this book is not really about the “Harp” Quartet, but about the “looking for” it—the search musicians and listeners become enmeshed in once they become conscious of a work they believe to be a great one, a classic…or perhaps, less promisingly, a teacher tells a student that it is part of the basic repertory and assigns it to study for performance.

The author of this immensely stimulating and rewarding book, Markand Thakar, gets right to the point in the first few sentences of his Preface:

Music can provide a variety of experiences. Most valuable among them is a magical, spiritual, transcendent experience, one in which the sounds absorb us, take us over, one in which we lose ourselves and become the sounds. This loss of self is the aesthetic experience: it is, in a word, beauty. The ultimate experience of beauty is available from the most sublime performances of masterworks of Western art music. And it exists on many levels; it is available to a lesser degree from a lesser performance, or a lesser composition.

From there he goes on to state that his book “explores how the composer, performer, and listener all contribute to this most magnificent human experience.” I was at first surprised and intrigued that Thakar never defined these terms or attempted to justify why they matter in music: transcendence, aesthetic experience, beauty, the sublime, degree (i.e. relativity in regard to the sublime) are all concepts which some readers might not be able to accept without some definition and support. Yet, as a veteran of many performances of all kinds, I understand what he means, because I have experienced all of them…to a greater or lesser degree. As one progresses through the book, one develops an understanding of why Mr. Thakar decided to present them at face value. He is writing for musicians and music-lovers, and we all know what he means, unless we are extreme, doctrinaire formalists, and precision is all we expect in a performance.

While most music-lovers will accept that Beethoven’s String Quartets are a high manifestation of the genre, superior, say, to Mendelssohn’s or Smetana’s, and even to Shostakovich’s, many will differ about the role of the player—the interpretive artist—and the listener. I have met a few people—long ago—who had no interest at all in performed music. (I wish I could remember who they were, but of course they were all musicologists or musicology students.) They were happiest simply reading the score in silence by themselves, and they regarded performers—instrumentalists and especially singers—as particularly low creatures in the world of music. For them a great composition is only cheapened by a performance with instruments of varying quality, played by musicians of varying degrees of ignorance. Markand Thakar thinks otherwise. His entire thesis is founded on the belief that a score is only a diagram, or map, for a potentially great musical experience, in which the players and the listeners are also essential participants. To the elect few I have just mentioned this will seem like a cliché perpetrated by musicians’ agents to boost their clients’ income, but for other music-lovers the performers will be very important, even central to the experience. There are listeners who are simply moved by what they hear, and of course there are those who are fascinated by virtuosic playing in itself, and for them the executant will be the core of the experience.

Relatively few listeners, I believe, are aware of themselves as a part of the triangle. Some writers are well-aware that listening to music is not a passive experience, although, if we are polite folk, we do not show signs of activity at a concert, making sounds or fidgeting about. We may show all the appearances of being in a passive state as we sit in our seats, but in fact we are not passive at all. If we are hearing a piece for the first time, perhaps we are lucky. Otherwise, unless we are wise, we come to the concert with a host of irrational preconceptions—necessarily irrational, because the experience of music is only partly rational. If we are deeply moved, it most  likely comes from some part of our being that is difficult, if not impossible, to explain. As a citizen of the musical world, I hear many strong opinions about performances, but few people are willing to talk about themselves in relation to the musical experience. Some, not many, will admit that they were tired, or in a bad mood, or had a row with their significant other that day, but it seems to be much easier to say that you don’t like soandso’s playing, or that you find soandso’s mannerisms repellant, that Germans can’t play French music properly, or some other brilliant observation. As a critic, who attends a great many concerts, I find it essential to be aware of my own state of mind, as I hear a performance. Like any other person, I may be in of those aforementioned states, but in fairness to the musicians who have worked so hard to prepare the program and my readers, I have to put my personal feelings in their place, even though these feelings may be relevant and right, in a way.

For example, early this summer I heard an exceptional performance of Brahms’ G Minor Piano Quartet at the Tannery Pond Concerts, played by the Amerigo Trio, a group aptly named after a great explorer, and Alon Goldstein, a great musical explorer. In this I had the transcendent experience Mr Thakar posits as the summum bonum in music, probably for reasons I can’t explain, but the reasons I can explain include the homogeneous tuning and ensemble of the string players, the elegance and intelligence of their phrasing, as well as the strong temperament and originality of the pianist. The dynamic of difference and harmony, so critical in chamber music, was in a rare balance, and the performance was unlike others I had heard. I was thrilled to hear a piece I had heard many times played in a new, entirely convincing way. About a month later I heard the same piece again in a rather fine performance which elicited a tidal wave of applause from the audience, but the violist was having problems with her tuning, most likely because of the humid weather, and the performance, while full of superb, energetic playing, which was entirely suited to the score and to the ethos of the ensemble, had no new insights for me. At end, as the audience clapped and shouted with abandon, I felt anger and frustration. This was most likely due to the fact that the performance remained within an established pattern, and if I had not heard the previous, truly fresh performance only a few weeks previously, I’d probably have been happy enough with it, although the out-of-tune viola was a stinging annoyance.Technical factors like intonation are as important in Mr. Thakar’s argument as are the subtleties of motoric interaction among the musicians or the depth of their analysis of the score. To a degree, my judgement was perfectly correct, based on my experience with Brahms’ G Minor Piano Quartet over the years, but I was relieved not to review that second performance. Although it had many fine qualities, it was a repetition of an approach I had heard years before, and more maturely realized, and that was what angered me. Dr. Thakar’s third chapter, “Let’s be Mookie,” will shed some light on my experience.

In other words, Thakar’s argument cuts to the core of the work we do here at the Review. I feel a significant debt to him in the way his book helped me to clarify my criteria in critical work, and the book should prove invaluable for musicians and educated listeners alike. If you don’t read music or have some rudiments of musical theory, it’s probably not for you. Otherwise you should buy a copy and read it twice, not necessarily in rapid succession, and keep it around for the time you may want to reach for it again. It is above all interesting that Mr. Thakar should choose Beethoven Op. 74, undeniably a great work and one I love dearly. However, I don’t think I’ve ever heard a really transcendent performance of it—ever. Of course it’s not performed as often as some of the others, and my memory relies largely on recordings, and string quartets suffer especially, I think, under studio constraints. As I began the book, I perused the Naxos Music Library for a performance that was new to me. I chose the early Végh Quartet recording, which very nearly lived up to Thakar’s standards in the first and second movements, to fall flat in the Scherzo and Finale, a common occurrence in studio recordings, especially of the early LP era. I haven’t found that sublime experience yet, although I especially enjoyed the recording by the Vermeer Quartet, who followed a substantial, analytical approach, not unlike Otto Klemperer’s symphonies. (I’ll wager they’ve achieved greatness in concert, though.) We live in an age of many outstanding string quartets, and that surpassing experience may well come soon. If not, my personal search for a really great Op. 74 may amount to nothing more than a memoir.

Markand Thakar, music director of the Duluth Superior Symphony Orchestra and the Baltimore Chamber Orchestra, and principal conductor of the Duluth Festival Opera, has earned a wide reputation for orchestra building and innovative programming. He also shares the position of Co-Director of Graduate Conducting at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore with Gustav Meier.

He earned a bachelor’s degree in composition and violin performance from The Juilliard School, a master’s degree in music theory from Columbia University, and a doctorate in orchestral conducting from the Cincinnati College-Conservatory, and he undertook special studies in orchestral conducting at the Curtis Institute and the Ciprian Porumbescu Conservatory in Bucharest, Romania. Other conducting studies were with Gustav Meier, Max Rudolf and Peter Perret.

Most significant was his work conducting the Munich Philharmonic under the mentorship of Sergiu Celibidache. Thakar says,

From Celibidache I came to understand that the ‘magic moments’ that we all experience from time to time can extend—even possibly from the very first sound of a movement through the very last. In such an extended ‘magic moment’ we experience a remarkable transcendence: we accept the sound, we absorb the sound, we become the sound, and in so doing we transcend everyday consciousness of time and space; we touch our conscious soul in a most remarkable way. My driving interest has been an exploration of the conditions – from the composer, from us performers, and from the listener – that allow this most profoundly exquisite, life-affirming experience.

Hence his noble faith in the transcendent musical experience should not surprise us.

Thakar’s previous book, Counterpoint: Fundamentals of Music Making, uses species counterpoint to promote an understanding of how both composer and performer contribute to this experience of musical beauty. He has made some very beautiful recordings together with his wife, violinist/violist, Victoria Chiang, of concerti by Stamitz, Hoffmeister, and Pleyel with the Baltimore Chamber Orchestra for Naxos.

Looking for the “Harp” Quartet, An Investigation into Musical Beauty, as its title states, follows the same direction. Beauty is the core concept, to the point that the author, as I have said, never finds it necessary to define it. On the other hand, his exposition tells us a lot about it, enough to make such a definition almost superfluous. The first part of the book is a dialogue between a conservatory professor and a final year student, named, transparently enough, Daedalus and Icarus. The Greek names accord with the dialogue’s model in Plato, but, if the student is doomed to suffering a fate like Icarus’, we never learn of it, unless that performance of the “Harp” Quartet turns out to be a flight too near the sun—with a consequent dissolution of his violin, but we never read about the outcome. Neither does the author attempt to imitate Plato’s esoteric technique—a transcendent and inimitable thing itself—in his treatment of the dialogue form. He uses it primarily as a means to enliven his arguments about the nature of music as a co-creation of composer, performer, and listener, and to present them in a concrete context in the midst of musical life—a rich one, which includes teaching, learning, performance, life with professors, administrators, and one’s fellow students. The student also subs in the city’s principal orchestra, a frustrating experience for him, in which a “maestra” elicits an on-again-off-again, basically mediocre performance from a great orchestra. Daedalus uses a Socratic method to stimulate Icarus to break through his received ideas, which are more limited and stale than wrong-headed, to gain a concept of beauty, which he attains through experience, not a musical experience, but a visual one, taking in a painting by Renoir, La Yole (The Skiff). At first he finds it difficult to grasp the unity, but a comparison with an unnamed inferior work, he learns to grasp its unity, through which he is able to experience its sublimity. Why is Icarus able to make this discovery in a picture gallery rather than a concert hall? According to Daedalus, the visual arts involve bipartite creations between the artist and the viewer. The performer is left out, perhaps making things simpler, perhaps freeing Icarus from the tensions of his own situation as a performer in training. Some conservators and curators may protest, but their role is nothing like that of a musician.

The dialogues also enable the reader to appreciate the relationships of the three creators to music through analogies. Just as Athenian youth enthused over horses and fighting cocks, Icarus and Daedalus appreciate the qualities of a fine motor vehicle, and cars become a running metaphor through the dialogues. Poor Icarus has to sell his, because he talked back to a dean, who cut his stipend in revenge. Daedalus and Icarus reach out to the ideals of music from a position very much in the real world.

As I read the book for the first time, I took the first part as a warm-up for the second, which consists of three articles of a more academic nature: 1. Remembrance of Things Future: On the Listener’s Contribution; 2. Patterns of Energy: On the Composer’s Contribution; 3. Dynamic Analysis: On the Performer’s Contribution. However, on perusing the book a second time, I realized that I was wrong. The dialogues are substance of the book, and the articles are expansions of concepts discussed in the dialogues, in more detailed technical terms, which will be more efficient for specialists and complete the picture for others. One should, as I have said, read the book twice. Dr. Thakar adds a further layer of specificity in his Appendix of formal analyses, and there is even more, a section of his Web site, which includes longer excerpts from scores, audio examples, and a gracious and well-informed discussion group.

After an introductory chapter, “Looking for the ‘Harp’ Quartet,” the dialogues first touch on the listener’s contribution, in the encounter with the Renoir (Chapter 2: “Renoir and the Survival of Classical Music”). Chapter 3, “Let’s be Mookie,” deals with the composer’s contribution, and Chapter 4, “Gurus,” with the performer’s work. Then it is all summed up in Chapter 5: “First, Last, and Always,” just before that performance of the “Harp.”

The book begins with Icarus’ bad mood: he is frustrated, because he wants to find out how to play the “Harp” Quartet as well as he can, and he’s not having much success. “What makes that great performance better than the mediocre one, and much better than the lousy one?” From there Daedalus sets to work in encouraging Icarus’ way to understanding. Having established that the piece is different from the score or the performance, they touch on the historical circumstances of a composition—the nature of the Viennese reception room where the “Harp” was first performed—and rule that out as well. Even long-dead Beethoven himself doesn’t matter: the piece has its own existence. It is “something entire in and of itself.” This leads to an aporia, in which D urges I to “go after your experiences.” After that, they eliminate the score as a repository of the composer’s intentions…and the chapter ends with plans to go to a lecture on the listener’s consciousness. We can find out what they heard by reading Dr. Thakar’s Chapter 6, the first chapter of Part II.

The second chapter, after a lament about sparse audiences and the failure of American-style marketing to grow them (performances have to be better), unfolds in I’s experience with Renoir’s The Skiff, his first breakthrough, after he understands that the aesthetic experience is different from intellectual experience, that is, technical and historic knowledge, from brushwork to post-Commune Paris. They also establish the correct distance to view the painting and perceive it as a unity. They conclude that I’s aesthetic experience is something in the viewer’s (or listener’s) consciousness, like meditation, which exists nowhere else. The consciousness in experience of everyday life is linked to random points of time and random duration. An aesthetic experience transcends time in consciousness and achieves a kind of timeless simultaneity. For the details of this synergy between experience, memory, and anticipation, we must read Chapter 6 and its Husserlian scheme. If one reads Chapter 6 on its own, one may feel that it falls short of a complete discussion of the topic, which, of course, is not its aim, but if read in close association with Chapter 2, it provides a valuable supplement to the conversation. In fact, as Daedalus asserts, the aesthetic experience is open to anyone, regardless of preparation. Hence exercises like Chapter 6 are unnecessary for the art or music lover himself, who only needs open eyes or open ears. The money you spend on that acoustiguide when you visit an exhibition is basically wasted.

In “Let’s Be Mookie” we learn about a second-generation caveman who makes the astonishing discovery that the world is round and how difficult life becomes afterwards. Changing the beliefs of one’s fellow man can lead to ostracism. While I thought of this chapter in reflecting on that Brahms I heard this summer, the conversation refers specifically to the work of the composer, nicely illustrated by the Fuchs trio I heard at the Bard Music Festival and its relation to Sibelius’ wild and thrilling piano quintet.

They return to the subject of musical unity, much to the detriment of more than one musical trend of recent years, e.g. minimalism, which Daedalus calls “fence post music.” To understand what he means by this you have either get in a car and drive along a Texas highway, listen to the music of Glass or Reich, or read pp. 49ff. Consciousness is different from the physical world of Texan fence posts: it is indivisible. Again a visual analogy helps our understanding, this time a design of Rudolf Arnheim. What we get out of a drawing of two circles in a square—the dynamic of the whole, its tension and release (or Arnheim’s “activating and balancing forces”—is not on the surface of the paper but in our consciousness, and the result is unity. This leads to a discussion of forces in music. The interrelationships of tones within the scale of a particular key create a system of energy, its building up and release. Sound itself is energy, and when it is active, its work is like that of a pendulum. This has a physical nature in the densification or rarification of sound waves in air. Furthermore, the pitches and their interrelationships are connected to the activity of the player, i.e. rhythm and dynamics. The behavior of energy can be explained by the analogy of a car in neutral, set into motion by an exterior force, or one under its own power. This leads into a discussion of passages from the “Harp” Quartet in which D and I consider the interaction of harmony, rhythm, and dynamics—music which leads to and requires resolution—as a sine qua non of unification…and hierarchy, “the key to Western art music,” in which “the end is in the beginning and the beginning is in the end.”

They discuss in passing a notion that came up this summer in connection with moderately cut performances of two great operas, which happen to be a bit lengthy: Steffani’s Niobe and Rossini’s Guillaume Tell. Icarus erroneously supposes musical pulse to be a unit of time—that is, clock time, not musical time—and Daedalus, exasperated, shouts “Not time!! Time has no relevance to music!! Time is an aspect of the physical world…in the world of music we are not concerned with time…we are not concerned with stopwatches; it is of no relevance to us how long something takes to play!!!” Just as I was saying a few months ago!

Daedalus, finally, equates the discovery of musical unity in the consciousness to Mookie’s discovery that the world is round. Dr. Thakar supports this in Chapter 7, an explanation of musical form through the energies of harmony and rhythm, amply illustrated in musical examples in both the dialogue and the article, many of which are audible on his Web site. His analyses are based on Schenkerian tonicalization rather than traditional formulae, not that Schenker is not traditional these days, over a century after the publication of the Harmonielehre.

In Chapter Four, “Gurus,” Icarus and Daedalus talk about the role of the performer, beginning with that spotty orchestral performance under the maestra. Performance should be unified as well, beginning with tuning, ensemble tuning above all, and the mechanics of deeper and higher ranges, as they affect performance in a string quartet or an orchestra. Much of this is quite down to earth, as in the disposition of the players in a string quartet or orchestra. Interesting paradoxes emerge, as in the role of the conductor as a follower of the orchestra more than as a controller of the orchestra. The composer gives the musicians no more than a landscape of his intentions, and it is up to the players’ discretion to place the notes in frequency, in time, and in dynamics. These are all interrelated of course…and a huge factor in the music experienced by the listener. In the course of this Daedalus takes aim at musical form as recorded in the score—repeats in particular, which he regards a hangover from gestation of classical form in the eighteenth century, as dancing entertainments required longer and longer movements. The development section would also have arisen from this. As we move from the classical period into the nineteenth century repeats became increasingly superfluous, until composers stopped notating them by double dots. It is thought that repeats might help in the scherzo/minuet and finale, but in the case of the development section of the opening sonata forms, it only impairs the unity of the work. I found this among the more difficult notions to accept, because in practice the exposition repeat, often involving specifically written transitional passages, can be a satisfying thing, reinforcing the tonic with a return to it as well as the architectural shape of the movement and often the work as a whole.

An excessively slow tempo is another factor that can compromise the unity of music, inasmuch as it can impair our ability to grasp the notes as part of a unity. Another kind of compromise, rather a violation, of harmonic structure occurs in the last movement of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, which begins in G major and ends in E minor, creating a feeling of indecisiveness. For Daedalus this suffices in keeping the work out of the top class of compositions. And there are other things too, I’d say.

So, the musician as guru is not an authority but a seeker, who is constantly trying to grasp and to materialize the essence of great art music in its unity. The analysis of the Adagio ma non troppo of Op. 74  in Chapter 6, “On Dynamic Analysis,” is especially interesting as plan of a potential performance of the movement. One reads it with something of the feeling of a performance in progress, but one which has never actually taken place. Once people, with brains, nervous systems, and muscles—not to mention consciousness—things get unpredictable. On the other hand, Dr. Thakar’s account of the less than stellar history of dynamic analysis in conservatories and universities is so compelling, that his own application of it doesn’t quite succeed restoring our enthusiasm for the method.

Dr. Thakar brings the dialogues to a conclusion and valediction in “First, Last, and Always,” in which the interlocutors have a chance to review their conversations and to bring contradictions into harmony, as well as to make disparaging remarks about a few more composers who are excluded from the fold: Schoenberg, Stockhausen, and aleatoric composers. It is well to bear in mind that Thakar’s system is not universal. A discussion of Schoenberg, and above all Berg, for example, might put the idea of beauty into question. There is some resolution in their world as well, as Icarus approaches his graduation and the playing of the “Harp.” Icarus has a spiffy new car, and his engaging conversations with Daedalus come to an end, as they take it for a spin.

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