Charles Petzold

Exquisitely Slow Music

November 22, 2013
New York, N.Y.

When I was a teenager, I read a lot of Aldous Huxley, an English novelist and essayist who died 50 years ago today. One of my favorite novels of his was Point Counter Point, published in 1928. As the title suggests, the themes and characters seem to interact in “musical” ways, and the whole novel is framed by two extended descriptions of music that combine the aesthetic with the scientific.

The first musical description begins in Chapter 2 with an ensemble playing at an upper-crust dinner party:

Meanwhile the music played on — Bach’s Suite in B minor, for flute and strings. Young Tolley conducted with his usual inimitable grace, bending in swan-like undulations from the loins and tracing luscious arabesques on the air with his waving arms, as though he were dancing to the music. A dozen anonymous fiddlers and cellists scraped at his bidding. And the great Pongileoni glueily kissed his flute. He blew across the mouth hole and a cylindrical air column vibrated; Bach’s meditations filled the Roman quadrangle. In the opening largo John Sebastian had, with the help of Pongileoni’s snout and the air column, made a statement: There are grand things in the world, noble things; there are men born kingly; there are real conquerors, intrinsic lords of the earth. But of an earth that is, oh! complex and multitudinous, he had gone on to reflect in the fugal allegro. You seem to have found the truth; clear definite, unmistakable, it is announced by the violins; you have it, you triumphantly hold it. But it slips out of your grasp to present itself in a new aspect among the cellos and yet again in terms of Pongileoni’s vibrating air column. The parts live their separate lives; they touch, their paths cross, they combine for a moment to create a seemingly final and perfected harmony, only to break apart again. Each is always alone and separate and individual. “I am I,” asserts the violin; “the world revolves around me.” “Round me,” calls the cello. “Round me,” the flute insists. And all are equally right and equally wrong; and none of them will listen to the others.

And so forth, until (concluding in Chapter 4):

Pongileoni surpassed himself in the final Badinerie. Euclidean axioms made holiday with the formulæ of elementary statics. Arithmetic held a wild saturnalian kermess; algebra cut capers. The music came to an end in an orgy of mathematical merry-making. There was applause. Tolley bowed, with all his usual grace; Pongileoni bowed, even the anonymous fiddlers bowed. The audience pushed back its chairs and got up. Torrents of pent-up chatter broke loose.

In the final chapter of Point Counter Point, the music is not performed live, but instead comes from a phonograph recording:

Spandrell was very insistent that they should come without delay. The heilige Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit, in der lydischen Tonart simply must be heard.

“You can’t understand anything until you have heard it,” he declared. “It proves all kinds of things — God, the soul, goodness — unescapably. It’s the only real proof that exists; the only one, because Beethoven was the only man who could get his knowledge over into expression. You must come.”

“Most willingly,” said Rampion, “But . . .”

Spandrell interrupted him. “I heard quite by accident yesterday that the A minor Quartet had been recorded for the gramophone. I rushed out and bought a machine and the records specially for you.”

What Beethoven titled the “Heiliger Dankgesang” — the full title translates as “holy song of thanksgiving from a convalescent to the divinity, in the Lydian key” — is the famous middle movement of his String Quartet No. 15, and it commemorates a recovery from an illness that Beethoven thought might kill him.

[Spandrell] wound up the clockwork; the disc revolved; he lowered the needle of the sound box onto its grooved surface. A single violin gave out a long note, then another a sixth above, dropped to the fifth (while the second violin began where the first had started), then leapt to the octave, and hung there suspended through two long beats.

More than a hundred years before Beethoven, stone deaf, had heard the imaginary music of stringed instruments expressing his inmost thoughts and feelings. He had made signs with ink on ruled paper. A century later four Hungarians had reproduced from the printed reproduction of Beethoven’s scribbles that music which Beethoven had never heard except in his imagination. Spiral grooves on a surface of shellac remembered their playing. The artificial memory revolved, a needle travelled in its grooves, and through a faint scratching and roaring that mimicked the noise of Beethoven’s own deafness, the audible symbols of Beethoven’s convictions and emotions quivered into the air. Slowly, slowly, the melody unfolded itself. The archaic Lydian harmonies hung on the air. It was an unimpassioned music, transparent, pure, and crystalline, like a tropical sea, an Alpine lake. Water on water, calm sliding over calm; the according of level horizons and waveless expanses, a counterpoint of serenities. And everything clear and bright; no mists, no vague twilights. It was the calm of still and rapturous contemplation, not of drowsiness or sleep. It was the serenity of the convalescent who wakes from fever and finds himself born again into a realm of beauty. But the fever was “the fever called living” and the rebirth was not into this world; the beauty was unearthly, the convalescent serenity was the peace of God. The interweaving of Lydian harmonies was heaven.

And so forth. You can read the rest at your leisure.

As a teenager I was unfamiliar with these two pieces of music but I very much desired to hear them as a necessary component of the total Point Counter Point experience. After Huxley's descriptions, who could not be so intrigued?

But how? The New Jersey working class neighborhood in which I grew up absolutely forbid anyone to listen to or purchase albums of classical music, and severe punishments awaited those who transgressed.

Fortunately, there was radio and particularly WQXR, at that time owned by the New York Times. Every Sunday I would pour through the weekly radio listings in the Times searching for two items whose names I had memorized and which after 45 years still come easily to mind: “Bach B Minor Suite” and “Beethoven A Minor Quartet.” Sooner or later, I figured, WQXR would simply have to play them.

Of course, along the way I thought it might be useful to listen to other Bach suites and other Beethoven quartets, and other Bach, and other Beethoven, and maybe some other composers as well. (But it wasn’t until I went away to college and had access to the amazing all-classical basement of the Sam Goody’s on 43rd Street and 3rd Avenue in Manhatten that I really could begin building a record collection.)

When I finally heard the Bach Suite in B minor, I took to it right away, but the Beethoven Quartet required much more time to make an impression. Back then, I simply could not quite comprehend the long “Heiliger Dankgesang” movement in the middle of the work.

I know why, of course. It’s slow. It’s very slow. It’s one of the slowest pieces of music ever written. And the simple fact is: Kids and teenagers get bored by slow music, and I was no exception. My favorite pieces of music were the really zippy movements of the Brandenburg Concertos, but I had other favorites too. Everybody knows the first movement of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata but it was the blisteringly fast final movement that really got me going. My favorite Mozart symphony was No. 35, the “Haffner,” with the last movement that Mozart reputedly wanted played “as fast as possible.”

I still love that breathtaking exhilaration of relentless notes flying by, but over the decades I gradually began appreciating the beauty and heartbreak of slow music: The slow movements of the Bach cantatas, the central meditations of Brahms and Schubert and Mahler — this is what appeals more to me now.

The “Heiliger Dankgesang” movement of Beethoven’s A minor String Quartet eventually revealed its moving beauty to me, and I think that it has also caused me to become something of a connoisseur of impossibly slow music — music that seems suspended in time and space with such a fragile existence that it might disappear in a wisp.

These slow and sparse cousins to the "Heiliger Dankgesang" are invariably inner movements of longer works. Obviously these slow movements make more sense in the context of the complete work in their contrast to the faster movements. Some of this music is so slow that it is hard to listen to with any type of distraction around. These pieces work much better in a live concert when the body is trapped in a seat and the mind is focused.

My short list doesn't go beyond the Second World War. Obviously some post-war composers specialized in slow and sparse music (Morton Feldman comes to mind), but it's not quite the same. The compositions containing "Heiliger Dankgesang"-like movements often start and end fairly conventionally, but somewhere along the way, everything seems to stop for a moment, and the music adopts a completely different pace, with a different mindset, in a whole different world.

This is not lulling-to-sleep music. When a composer slows down the music to a tempo that's almost unbearable, there is an accompaniment of tension and uneasiness. Can such a tempo be sustained without everything falling apart? Dare we focus too much on the blindingly beautiful glimpse of the composer's most private thoughts? Can somebody please skip to the fast movement so I don't have to think and feel?

Beethoven: String Quartet in A minor, Op. 132, Third movement

Beethoven's six late string quartets date from the two years prior to his death in 1827, and they are all somewhat different. This one has five movements, but the third movement — the "Heiliger Dankgesang" — is twice as long as any of the others.

On subsequent listenings of the quartet, you can hear some of the “Heiliger Dankgesang” music at the very beginning of the first (mostly allegro) movement, and a few times later in that movement, almost as if the illness is creeping up on Beethoven but he's trying to shake it off. And when it comes, a whole narrative can be constructed of illness and recovery.

The opening of the 3rd movement is marked molto adagio (very slow) and while the movement gives an overall impression of being indeed very slow, the tempo actually varies considerably. There is a definite indication of progress through the movement rather than a rigid static condition.

The opening is a rhythmically simple chorale consisting entirely of quarter notes and half notes for 31 measures. This can't be funeral music because the patient is still alive, and we know that when the movement bursts into a much livelier section in a supple triple meter marked "feeling new strength." This recovery is not permanent, alas. Back down we seep into the dark seductive comforts of illness as the molto adagio tempo and theme returns. Yet, it's not the same. Some dotted quarters and eighth notes are now allowed into the mix. It's certainly a relapse but not as disabling, and the "feeling new strength" section soon returns.

The final return of the molto adagio tempo is the most amazing. The music is still recognizable as the chorale that began the movement, but it's torn loose from the confines of the sick bed and actually opens the window shades and peers out into to the world of the living. A tender happiness suffuses the music, there is almost triumph, and finally, a greater understanding of one's life.

By the way, the "four Hungarians" playing the music in Huxley's description in Point Counter Point is probably the Léner Quartet, who recorded Beethoven's String Quartet No. 15 for Columbia Records in 1924, as this British Library blog entry indicates. The British Library site includes the recording itself but it is accessible only to users in the European Union.

Schubert: String Quintet in C major, D. 956, Second movement

Schubert finished this amazing work just two months before his death in 1828 at the age of 31. It is Schubert's only string quintet, but unlike the standard practice of assembling a string quintet by adding a second viola to the string quartet, Schubert added a second cello, producing a distinctive deep rich sound. Indeed, in a performance I saw just last Sunday by members of the New York Philharmonic, the violist introducing the piece referred to it as "Schubert's Cello Quintet."

The slow second movement doesn't quite dominate Schubert's quintet the way the "Heiliger Dankgesang" dominates the Beethoven quartet. The second movement in the Schubert is shorter than the first movement, but it still runs close to 15 minutes and it makes a strong impact.

The opening of the slow movement is just wonderful: A plaintive lilting dotted rhythm melody from the first violin, a pizzicato from the second cello, and a simple accompaniment from everyone else, and then some pizzicato from the first violin, and it could keep going on like that pretty much forever. But almost without warning, the music bursts into an anguished, almost violent passage that has to wear itself out before finally relinquishing control to something akin to the original theme. But there is much agitation left, and there is still a distance to go before the music finally assumes the earlier calm. For a little while, it sounds as if there will be another outburst, but it ends very tranquilly.

In structure and tempo, the third movement of the Schubert String Quintet is almost a mirror image of the second: It's a driving scherzo with a much slower central section that is simply divine.

Brahms: Quintet for Clarinet and Strings in B minor, Op. 115, Second movement

Although Brahms wrote the Op. 115 quintet for a clarinet, the score indicates that a viola could take the clarinet part, turning it into a rather conventional string quintet. I've never heard it played as a string quintet, and while it might almost work for the first movement and third where the clarinet doesn't really stand out, the last movement wouldn't be quite as interesting, and the adagio second movement would suffer enormously.

The second movement is really more a duet for clarinet and strings, and what a wistful clarinet it is. At first it doesn't seem as slow as the Beethoven or Schubert movements, but as the clarinet part gets looser, it achieves that same sense of suspended time. I know it must be an illusion, but I get the sense that it just gets slower and slower as it goes along.

Mahler: Symphony No. 3, Fourth movement

In my first acquaintance with Gustav Mahler's 3rd Symphony some 40 years ago, I thought the opening fanfare (scored for 8 French horns in unison) was the most vulgar thing I had ever heard. I came to love it, of course, perhaps after learning that Mahler at times had entitled this opening movement as "Pan's Awakening" and "Procession of Bacchus," which indicates that he was well aware of the music's ungainly audacity.

Any symphony that begins with 45 minutes of a raucus circus has to end with something slow and sublime, and the 3rd Symphony certainly concludes appropriately. But it is the contrasting 10-minute 4th movement that qualifies it for inclusion in the museum of the exquisitely slow. For the first time in this symphony, a human voice is heard, a contralto singing a setting of a text by Nietzsche from Also Sprach Zarathustra, published about a decade earlier. (Strauss's tone poem is just about contemporaneous with Mahler's symphony.):

O Mensch! Gib acht!
Was spricht die tiefe MItternacht?
Ich schlief!
Aus tiefem Traum bin ich erwacht!
Die Welt ist tief!
Und tiefer als der Tag gedacht!

O Mensch! Gib acht!
Tief ist ihr Weh!
Lust tiefer noch als Herzeleid!
Weh spricht: Vergeh!
Doch alle Lust will Ewigkeit! —
Will tiefe, tiefe, Ewigkeit!

O Man! Take heed!
What does the deep midnight say?
I slept!
I have awakened from a deep dream.
The world is deep,
and deeper than the day remembers.

O Man! Take heed!
Deep is its suffering.
Joy is deeper than heartache!
Suffering speaks: Begone!
All joys want eternity,
want deep, deep eternity.

The accompaniment is very sparse and other worldly, mostly dominated by harp, string harmonics, horn chorales, and an oboe glissando labeled as "hinaufziehen — wie ein Naturlaut" ("pull up like a sound of nature") that is notorious in the oboe-playing world.

The tension in this movement seems to break towards the end as the music briefly wraps its arms around you with a comforting warmth. But it ends just as unsure of final answers as when it began.

Messiaen: Quartet for the End of Time, fifth movement

Olivier Messiaen's Quatuor pour la fin du Temps is undoubtedly the only piece of music with an inscription indicating the place where it was completed as “terminé au Stalag VIII A. Görlitz, Silésie. en Jenvier 1941.” Upon the fall of France to German forces in 1940, Olivier Messiaen was held in a POW camp, where he met up with three other musicians and completed this composition for a rather unusual ensemble based on the musicians and instruments available: violin, clarinet, cello, and piano. It was first performed for about 400 fellow prisoners and guards in the outdoors on January 15, 1941.

In concert, this music can be spellbinding, an effect largely achieved by several slow movements, in particular the 3rd movement, “Abyss of the Birds” for a very slow solo clarinet that ventures into faster passages for Messian's characteristic birdsong; the 7th movement, "Cluster of Rainbows for the Angel who Announces the End of Time," and the final 8th movement, "Praise to the Immortality of Jesus," for violin and piano.

But to me it is the 5th movement, “Praise to the Eternity of Jesus” for cello and piano, that justifies its inclusion in this list. A rhapsodic cello plays against simple rhythmically steady piano chords, and this unvarying tempo perhaps suggests an "eternity" of existence, but to me is too relentless to be comforting.

Or Is All This Hokum?

Writing this blog entry did not go smoothly. The more I tried to identify a legacy of the "Heiliger Dankgesang," the more I doubted the very premise. What I think we must ultimately acknowledge is the unique presence of the "Heiliger Dankgesang" in the history of Western music. There was nothing else quite like it before, and its later cousins seem dimished when compared with the original. The legacy simply doesn't exist.

Wait a minute: Shouldn't I have included the middle movement of Samuel Barber's String Quartet in this list?