Speak Less Than You Know
Tinalley String Quartet
with guest artist John Bell
Tuesday 4th of October
Elizabeth Murdoch Hall
Melbourne Recital Centre
Adam Chalabi: 1st violin
Lerida Delbridge: 2nd violin
Justin Williams: viola
Michelle Wood: cello
Ludwig van Beethoven
‘Beethoven’s Letters’ featuring John Bell
Concept devised by Anna Melville
Said the Fool to a man beclouded:
“Have more than thou showest,
Speak less than thou knowest,
Lend less than thou owest,
Ride more than thou goest,
Learn more than thou trowest”[i]
But Lear did not unravel the fool’s sage advice. Blinded from reality, mentally rather than physically, Shakespeare’s fictional Lear chose the finely embroidered over truth. That was his tragedy.
For me, Speak Less Than You Know, presented by the Tinalley String Quartet, with Mr. Shakespeare himself, special guest John Bell, founder of the Bell Shakespeare Company, is tied to a narrative tragedy of a different kind and sense: the flesh and bones tragedy of a musical genius, Ludwig van Beethoven, as he faced the prospect of his increasing deafness. As revealed through a selection of his letters from the age of 13 through to his death at age 57 on the 26th of March, 1827, Beethoven lived in full awareness that his body was failing him and cruelly so. It is not hard to imagine the musician bargaining the non-transferable, ‘take any of the four remaining senses, but leave me my hearing.’
There is something of the Fool to Lear in me too, as I endeavour to hear the string quartets in new ways. I am aware that I was missing much, but that which I grasp is revelatory, and, for now, perhaps that is enough. Where John Berger provided me with new Ways of Seeing, the Tinalley Quartet with John Bell were offering new ways of listening and in turn understanding the illuminations of Beethoven. If, as Beethoven said, “he who divines the secret of my music is delivered from the misery that haunts the world,” I am thankfully one step closer to being soothed. No-one said this was going to be easy, least of all, the Fool.
Of the sixteen luminous string quartets he created, “Beethoven’s personal belief in redemption through struggle and perseverance is reflected in the cathartic narrative structure of Opuses 95, 131, and 132 and in his last years — ill, isolated, and poverty stricken — he poured his remaining resources of body and spirit into the magnificent late quartets, creating them as the ‘last revelations of his spirit.’”[ii] For Beethoven, one’s art required “submission, deepest submission to your fate …. Do everything that still has to be done to arrange what is necessary for the long journey …. for you there is no longer any happiness except within yourself, in your art.”[iii] A passage of discovery and self sacrifice for art shoehorned into one evening at the Melbourne Recital Centre: I could easily become lost, or I could simply open my eyes and ears, my head and my heart, and let the experience enfold me. Art as salvation; we are in accord. To me, art is perseverance, art is faith,[iv] and so I shan’t stray too far from the path.
In the honeyed hoop pine sanctuary of the recital centre, a quartet dance. Comprised of Adam Chalabi (1st violin), Lerida Delbridge (2nd violin), Justin Williams (viola), and Michelle Wood (cello), they form a tight knot, huddled in the spotlight, beneath overhead acoustics shaped like blackened lobster tails. In the indigo shadow sits Bell, perfectly composed and at ease, with a sheaf of papers in his hand, and the tips of his shoes tickling the ring of light. Stepping forward, Bell begins with a charming and formal letter penned by Beethoven (then 13 years-of-age) to a patron, Maximilian Friedrich, dated 14th of October, 1783. But of course, Bell being Bell, he does not merely read the letter, moreover, he becomes the essence of the letter, and later in evening I will wonder: did he bob on the balls of his feet like an excited youth as he did so or do I misremember?
The spoken word and music have long been collaborators, frequently on the same stage — the poetry of T. S. Eliot with the music of Beethoven, Richard Dehmel with Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht — with the intention of one informing the other, offering new ways of experiencing something on a deeper or certainly different level. Transpiring on stage as if some conjurer’s chicken-and-egg trick, a letter informs my hearing of an opus, just as String Quartet Opus 18, No. 2 in G major (1799) colours the letters to fellow friend and musician Karl Amenda:
“Know that my noblest faculty, my hearing, has greatly deteriorated. When you were still with me I felt the symptoms but kept silent; now it is continually growing worse, and whether or not a cure is possible has become the question …. How sad is my lot, I must avoid all things that are dear to me …. Oh how happy I should be if my hearing were completely restored, then I would hurry to you. However, as it is I must stay away from everything and the most beautiful years of my life must pass without my accomplishing all that my talent and powers bid me to do — A sad resignation must be my refuge, although, indeed, I am resolved to rise above every obstacle. Of course, I am resolved to rise above every obstacle, but how will it be possible? …. I beg of you to keep the matter of my deafness a profound secret to be confided to nobody, no matter whom..." —To Karl Amenda, Vienna, 1st of July, 1801 (Age 31)
Imbued with the loss of a vital sense, of hearing slipping away, Beethoven’s opuses are synonymous with belief, or as T. S. Eliot described, “sort of heavenly, or at least more than human.” In his own work, through transparency, T. S. Eliot wished to "get beyond poetry” as he felt Beethoven “strove to get beyond music,”[v] beyond body. And with the exception of the first letter spoken aloud, they are also impulsive and open, from which I glean a sense of who Beethoven might have been. As Bell describes of the letters, “if you've ever seen a manuscript of Beethoven's writing, it's scribbling out and dots and dashes and wild, chaotic writing. His letters are somewhat similar, full of exclamations and very spontaneous utterances — there's nothing considered…. They are dashed off and stuck in an envelope and sent on the mail coach immediately. So there's no revision and there's no corrections. And that makes them very interesting to read. You do feel a sense of the man's character, much more than most people's letters, which tend to me more formal.”[vi]
From the well-known breathless streak of the ‘Immortal Beloved’ letters to an unknown woman, two of which written and dispatched on the same day such was the ardour, to those more playfully laced cantankerous, the five players delight. Here, things all but skip and tease, as Bell wrapped in a lover's flurry calls for calm with assured comic timing: “At my actual age I should need some continuity, sameness of life — can that exist under our circumstances? Angel, I just hear that the post goes out every day — and must close therefore, so that you get the L. at once. Be calm — love me — today — yesterday.”
To a letter to his surgeon, Dr. von Smetana, Opus 131 in #c minor (1826) gives us the sound of a shaking fist. Dealing with the failures and frailty of the human body requires patience, but fists need to be shaken too and Opus 131 delivers precisely that before tipping into ecstasy. True to the epic scope of Beethoven’s string quartets, we dive into sorrow with The Heiligenstadt Testament to his brothers and Opus 132 in a minor (1825) to make gooseflesh of my forearms and a constriction at my throat:
“….but what a humiliation when one stood beside me and heard a flute in the distance and I heard nothing, or someone heard the shepherd singing and again I heard nothing, such incidents brought me to the verge of despair….” —The Heiligenstadt Testament to brothers Casper Anton Carl and Nikolaus Johann van Beethoven, 6th October, 1802, discovered after Beethoven’s death in 1827 hidden amongst his private documents in a secret drawer in his wardrobe.
Within the hollowed out space, every sound is audible. Guiltily, if ears could be said to sup, I lap up the performance; my own five senses heightened throw Beethoven's loss into sharp relief. But through, or rather, from anguish, there is beauty in abundance. Coupled with the fervency of the performers, a sense of intimacy is carved as a higher plane is sought.
Ah, keep playing for me a heartache, Tinalley Quartet, I’m in danger of speaking longer than I know.
[i] William Shakespeare, King Lear, Act I: Scene IV.
[ii] Adam Chalabi, ‘Beethoven’s Letters: a personal commentary,’ Speak Less Than You Know programme notes, Melbourne Recital Centre.
[iii] Maynard Solomon, Beethoven Essays (London: Harvard University Press, 1997), p. 246.
[iv] "Perhaps I shall get better, perhaps not; I am ready. — Forced to become a philosopher already in my twenty-eighth year, — oh it is not easy, and for the artist much more difficult than for anyone else. — Divine One, thou seest my inmost soul thou knowest that therein dwells the love of mankind and the desire to do good." Ludwig van Beethoven, The Heiligenstadt Testament, 6th October, 1802.
[v] T. S. Eliot quoted in Alex Aronson, Music and the Novel: A Study in Twentieth-Century Fiction (Totowa, NJ: Rowman, 1980), p. 177.
[vi] John Bell quoted by Angus McPherson, ‘John Bell to read Ludwig’s letters in innovative concert,’ Limelight magazine, 21st of September, 2016.
String Quartet in a minor, Opus 13
i. Adagio — Allegro vivace
ii. Adagio non lento
iii. Intermezzo: Allegretto con moto — Allegro di molto
iv. Presto — Adagio non lento
Ludwig van Beethoven
String Quartet Opus 18, No. 1 in F major (1799)
String Quartet Opus 18, No. 2 in G major (1799)
String Quartet Opus 74, in E Flat Major, 'Harp' (1809)
String Quartet Opus 18, No. 3 in D major (1799/99)
String Quartet Opus 131, in c# minor (1826)
String Quartet Opus 135, in F major (1826)
String Quartet Opus 132, in a minor (1825)
Image credit: Beethoven’s String Quartet Opus 131, courtesy of the Royal Holloway University of London database