Beethoven and Bill Evans: Thinkin’ about Tomorrow

It’s Not Too Late and We’re Not Done Yet.

Don’t. Stop. Thinking about Tomorrow.

I’ve been listening to various chamber groups play the late Beethoven quartets—Quartets numbered 12, 13, 14, 15, and 16—the last pieces of music he wrote, in 1825 and 1826. He died the following year, at the age of 57, probably from a bogus medical treatment that introduced lead into his abdomen.

Beethoven was well equipped to overcome the inconvenience of being completely deaf at this point. He had the music in him, for many consider these quartets to be some of the greatest music ever written. At the time, however, the late quartets were demeaned and dismissed. Another composer, Louis Spohr,* called them “indecipherable, uncorrected horrors.” 

It was as if the Romantic movement moved on through the 19th century of its own accord, choosing to overlook Beethoven’s parting contributions. But what fascinates me most, and I’m not the first to say this, is that Beethoven’s late quartets, in the first quarter of the 19th century, foreshadowed the 20th! It was 83 years later, in 1909, when Bartok wrote his first of six quartets, quartets that were greatly influenced by Beethoven’s.

There are many great recordings of these masterworks, I’ve only sampled a few, and have no real criticisms of any of them. But consider that Beethoven was writing for the future, and that classical musicians tend to honor the traditions and the approaches of the past in their interpretations.  

The exception to that that proves Beethoven’s prescience has arrived! I’ve been especially moved by the Danish String Quartet’s performance of Opus 131, Beethoven’s String Quartet number 14 in C# minor. Beethoven himself considered it his most perfect single work. Beethoven’s late quartets were so different from anything he—or anyone—had written, that it took closer to 200 years before we got to the Danish String Quartet’s performance that with fresh eyes thaws the notes frozen on paper and makes a clean break from the musical tropes of Western Art music’s past, creating a contemporary sound: almost mechanical rhythms, but rhythms sans cultural affect that perhaps Beethoven was reaching for.

Another favorite of mine is an 8-CD box set, the Bill Evans’ Trio’s The Last Waltz: The Final Recordings, taken from his final residency at San Francisco’s Keystone Korner in 1980. Evans knew he was dying, and did, one week after these recordings were made. He’d already released dozens of albums, yet in his final moments he made rapturous music that took his explorations a step further, and further enlarged his legacy.

Evans’ music is thick with complex harmonies and unbridled passion. Not thick with the layered thudding found in much of today’s popular music, but thick with forests of notes, textures, singing melodies and harmonies that reward attentive and repeated listening. The man brought so much music into the world in so many shared moments. He never stopped innovating and producing.

What’s my point? Beethoven probably knew he was dying, yet he did not retreat into the patterns and pathways he’d already tread, he invented new ones and continued to think about tomorrow, he composed for the future. And so did Bill Evans. We can all take a lesson from this. A generation is hanging “old age” around their neck, but shouldn’t stop thinking about tomorrow. Your life is your art, and for your final acts, get working on your late quartets. Rehearse for your last waltz. Your best is yet in you.

*And who ever lets a day go by without humming a few bars of a Louis Spohr composition?

Notes from my friend Brian Overland, who makes an analogy to Shakespeare: the later plays were mostly weak, but there were some interesting ones: In “Measure for Measure,” completely devalued at the time, he was writing about sexual harrassment 400 years before anyone else did! A play ignored as bizarre at the time, it was further testament to his genius.

I think Picasso’s abilities were considered strong into the late part of his life. Proabably Michaelangelo, too. Mona Lisa would have to be considered a very late work, because da Vinci never lived long to finish it, but actually worked on it during the last ten years of his life.

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