TS Eliot and Beethoven

T. S. Eliot
Four Quartets [Burnt Norton – East Coker – The Dry Salvages – Little Gidding]
String Quartet in A minor, Op.132

Stephen Dillane (reader)

Pacifica Quartet
[Simin Ganatra & Sibbi Bernhardsson (violins), Masumi Per Rostad (viola) & Brandon Vamos (cello)]

Katie Mitchell – director

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 21 November, 2005
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Poetry and music might be felt to go hand in glove so far as expressive affect is concerned, which makes it the more surprising that the two are not more frequently juxtaposed in live performance. This pairing was suggested by the acknowledged influence of Beethoven’s ‘late’ string quartets on T. S. Eliot’s most searching investigation into the essence of poetic thought – his “Four Quartets”.

Initially a stand-alone entity – “Burnt Norton” – in 1935, Eliot went on to continue the sequence during 1940-42, though what resulted is neither a multi-part poem – as is “The Wasteland” – nor an extended verse-drama of the kind he had evolved with “Murder in the Cathedral” and also “The Family Reunion”. Andif the interplay of authorial voices may be thought analogous to that of instrumental parts in music so frequently contrapuntal as are Beethoven’s late quartets, Eliot’s reiteration of verbal motifs is more to do with rendering an idea from several poetic perspectives – albeit as simultaneously as the perception of words will admit – than the evolution and expressive intensification of a formal process.

Moreover, while the mode of address becomes richer and more complex as each ‘quartet’ progresses, the intention is surely to create a sense of change by moving circularly to a point of closure – rather than the overtly dialectical method embodied in Beethoven’s instrumental music in general, and his ‘late’ string quartets in particular. Completed in 1825, the A minor String Quartet is the fourth of the five works that constitute his spiritual testament and, though not the most forward-looking in terms of formal continuity, has a tonal and harmonic disparity across and between each of its five movements that made it as influential on future generations as any of the pieces from his so-called ‘third period’.

The number of movements is itself contentious since, though Beethoven designates the brief ‘Alla marcia’ as the work’s fourth movement, it could be argued that – given its role in the motivic process, as in the long-range tonal evolution – the piece is more an introduction to the Allegro appassionato that follows; a movement whose major-key coda thus fulfils a structural as well as an expressive purpose (continuing on from the finale of the F minor String Quartet of 15 years earlier): so undermining the five-movement analogy which is claimed as a crucial link with the format of Eliot’s own quartets.

So much for the relative differences between these two artworks: what they undoubtedly share is a desire to communicate profound emotion through combining a focus on expressive essentials with the need for long-term concentration on their respective creative means. And if one then accepts that Eliot’s four authorial voices combine in achieving an expressive unity as rigorously as do Beethoven’s four instrumental voices, then the sense of a common creative purpose will seem the more real whenthe two artists are brought within one programme – as happened here at the Wigmore Hall.

As to the performances, Stephen Dillane – hunched over a work-desk, beret-clad and dressed in what might have passed for Bohemian attire during the early twentieth century – hardly evoked the exalted literary figure Eliot had become by the time of “Four Quartets”, yet his measured (never somnolent) tone, impeccable diction and an effective deployment of vocal colouring to differentiate between the ‘voices’ in each text went a long way towards making the words ‘come alive’ when heard in real-time. Although writing as inwardly intense as this really needs to be read to oneself, and on one’s own, the single interpretative perspective offered by Dillane rarely felt one-dimensional, while his building of expressive intensity over the course of the cycle accorded with how one is most likely to apprehend the texts in a continuous reading. 66 minutes passed with a definite feeling that the spirit of Eliot’s ruminations was being entered into and made – even if in spite of itself – a collective experience.

The account of Beethoven’s A minor Quartet was very much on a par with that of the C sharp minor which the Pacifica Quartet gave at its Wigmore debut last year. Thus the probing, restless firstmovement emerged inexorably from, only to be pervaded by, its slow introduction, while the halting scherzo had the right degree of mobility and a whimsical take on its ethereal central trio – for once, perfectly in tune. The ‘Heiliger Dankgesang’ was given with a deliberation that never became mere sluggishness, the ‘dance’ sections having a lightness that linked naturally into the ‘song’ sections on their intensified recurrence. A breathless transition between the final movements rather suggested that the Pacifica felt these two to be a single, indissoluble unity, and if the coda’s affirmation was at all offset by a fractional degree of hesitation, this was hardly inappropriate in a work that – like the Eliot – is very much about rendering experience in a provisional, because essentially speculative, light.

Quite an evening, then – one in which director Katie Mitchell can feel vindicated as to her juxtaposing of two undoubted masterpieces within their respective media. The idea would be worth taking further, perhaps bringing together some other of Eliot’s later verse with other of Beethoven’s ‘late’ quartets – and if the Pacifica Quartet is on hand to round out its survey of the latter, then so much the better.

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