Beethoven: String Quartet in B-flat Major, Op. 130
Much has been said and written of Beethoven’s Op. 130. It’s an old chestnut, deep at the heart of the string quartet repertoire.
Beethoven's Op. 130 string quartet is played when a quartet needs to indulge a lust for life, a death wish, and a fascination with simplicity, intricacy, intimacy, and brashness, all at once. A bittersweet membership change, a new season on the horizon, saying farewell to an old one, and the challenging questions posed by Karl and Jacqui in Open Source – now is the time for Axiom and Axiom’s community to live and learn in the paradoxical world of 130, where we can experience and be counseled by the love, gratitude, playfulness, fear, and contemplation Beethoven shares from his new horizon: the threshold between life and death.
The first movement is a fit of contrasts and pivots. There’s an expressive impatience in the writing so every phrase cuts to the chase. The way our individual parts, the transitions, and the disorder fit together is lumpy, bumpy, spontaneous, and the kind of fun a kid has with new squirt gun. Yet somehow a sudden, pensive serenity creates the most arresting, unexpected moments, suggesting that it’s all a fond memory.
The Presto is gone in the blink […]
In Katie’s words, the Scherzoso is like “you have to go the fancy party – but you don’t want to go to the fancy party – so you whine a bit, have a couple drinks, and float your way through the evening poking fun at everyone else.” Why does this movement belong in a loving, vulnerable piece about life’s final turning point? I think all of us have our own reasons for needing to hear it. On the other side of the coin, the Danza Tedesca is cheeky, nostalgic, simple on the surface, busy underwater, and a joyfully treacherous (or treacherously joyful?) jaunt that will leave you craving another tuneful refrain when it ends all too abruptly. Unlike Katie’s fancy party.
What to say about the Cavatina. In 1977, Carl Sagan and NASA’s Voyager team launched it into the deep recesses of space, inscribed on a gold record to be an artifact of humanity’s nature and accomplishments. If Carl and his team thought it could speak for itself to aliens, I’ll let it do the same to you. Close your eyes, let the harmonies wash over you, let them draw you in and stop time – as though you were floating alongside that copy 14.7 billion miles from here.
The Finale, composed a while after the rest of 130 as an alternative to the overwhelming Grosse Fuga, is a Hungarian dance that asks us to (somehow) revive a vibrant playfulness. It feels simultaneously like a necessity and an indiscretion after the Cavatina, a perfect example of the beauty and relatability of 130. Beethoven doesn’t ask us to come to his music with one expectation or one perspective – or leave it with one feeling or one message. Each of our lives will lead us to hear it differently today. And the next 24 hours will lead us to hear it yet differently tomorrow.
This is Beethoven’s axiom: the notes are old, but the music is always new.
Program notes by Matt Lammers
Blench: Open Source: A theology based on the voices of many for Bass-Baritone and String Quartet
World premiere performance commissioned by the Maggie Tucker Music Fund
Notes from librettist Jacqui Sutton: After I watched the documentary footage and learned of the Founders’ vision for the
First Congregational Church of Houston, I was struck by two things. First, the open nature of the congregational setting—modeled after the New England in-the-round format. The second, was a word that struck me as central to this new church’s mission: multilogue. It was described as a desire to promote conversations across religions—collective voices in the pursuit of healing and community. This reminded me of the information technological notion of creating something new through open-sourced data. The title seemed to write itself: Open Source. The subtitle A Theology Built on Many Voices speaks to the multilogue mission—creating community from multiple sources, views, angles, and perspectives. The text of Open Source acknowledges the often-inauspicious paths we embark upon, and the potential spiritual community in
which we can ultimately find ourselves.
The process of collaborating with Karl Blench occurred across a long distance but was powerful and productive, nonetheless. First, Karl suggested that we should aspire to create a piece that could live beyond the First Congregational Church of Houston. While it is dedicated to those from the church seeking light and love, it can aspire to be a spiritual chapbook in a way, where regardless of the reader and listener, they would find themselves, and possibly solace, in the spiritual resting place that we believe the piece attempts to provide. Karl also provided a MIDI file of melodies and themes he was beginning to hear. One melody, at the very end of the sample, was a quiet, emotional crest that truly felt like it was coming from above. So, the words, “incubator of love, from above” became the central theme that the traveler’s journey is built upon.
With that starting point, I presented a first draft to Karl. The response was something like, “This is great, hard work you’ve put in. Can you shorten it?” I’m a writer. I’m wordy. So, I went to the cutting board and stripped away some of my precious lines. Second submission: “Great! Can you cut just a little more?” Which I did, and which became this libretto. Karl was right. The current length is as it should be.
Notes from composer Karl Blench: “Does writing music come easy to you?” This is a question that I’m often asked. For me, writing music is usually anything but easy. Depending on who you ask, painful or frustrating might be words to describe me when writing. Open Source was different. I had been wanting to write a piece for Timothy Jones for some time. Many years ago I sketched an idea for string quartet and voice with Jones’ voice in my head. I didn’t have text to work with so it was just a vocalise of sorts. When I received the commission for Open Source, I wondered if I might be able to use some of the music I had written, but I wouldn’t know until Jacqui had finished the libretto if my music would fit with her words. The other important element for me was the I wanted to also include a hymn from the Hymns of Truth & Light, which is the hymnal the First Congregational Church of Houston uses. I went through several hymns until, one day, I came across the hymn Wherever I May Wander. It was hymn meant for children, at least the text was, but the music seemed vaguely familiar to me. The melody of the hymn is credited as a being an old New England folk melody. I grew up in Massachusetts and it just felt right. The Uvalde shooting had also just happened and I think the idea of hymn designed for children struck a chord with me. I created a version of this hymn and sent it to Jacqui and let her know I wanted this to be the music that closes the work. Again, I wouldn’t know if this would work until she was done writing.
Once I received the libretto the music just came. The musical ideas I had fit like a glove to Jacqui’s fantastic words. I began by writing Building Trade. I wrote the movement in just a few days which is quite quick for me. When I finished the movement I knew what the majority of the melodic material was going to be for the work. It was, in fact, easy. It was still an effort to write the work. I needed to develop several themes that would reoccur throughout the work to help represent the struggle and journey that is in the text. The first movement, for example, introduces the door theme in a tumultuous atmosphere created by the quartet. The third movement, on the other hand, features a sarcastically optimistic melody. When it came to using the hymn as melodic material, I need to be thoughtful. The hymn only appears in fragments starting about half way through the work. Only in the last movement, Open Door, do you hear the full and complete hymn with Jacqui’s text before the work comes to its peaceful and somber close.
Collaborating with Jacqui Sutton was a dream. During our several conversations, I could tell that we were on the same page regarding the overall tone and trajectory of the work. It was easy writing this piece because Jacqui helped make it easy. For that, I am forever grateful. In the end Open Source, for me, is about finding a place of solace, hope, and understanding in the face of the many tragedies that occur around us.