November 1, 2013
I have a hard time getting my brain around abstractions. So when I read with alarm about the latest debt limit crisis in the United States Congress and the possibility that Uncle Sam might actually close our government’s doors, I tried to imagine the situation in terms of my own profession—music—and, even more specifically, in terms of the workings of a string quartet.
What if a string quartet—let’s call them the Appasionata—long admired for their polished ensemble and probing interpretations, had a similar crisis to deal with? What if two members of the Appasionata String Quartet, say, second violin and cello, retired from the group; and what if Sascha Saschakoff, first violin, and Michel Applebaum, viola, decided to recruit two new members in order to continue a quartet career that had given them years of deep satisfaction?
And what if after holding extensive auditions, two outstanding musicians, Skyler Chase and Maxim Veronsky, second violin and cello, respectively, were accepted into the Quartet? These performers were not only younger than Sascha and Michel, but often had very different ideas than the older members about music.
Sascha and Michel thought that this was potentially a healthy and positive situation. What could be better than to have fresh, new ideas thrown into the mix when studying a work they’d performed countless times and in what may have settled into a set and predictable interpretation. Of course, it would be a given that differences of opinion during rehearsals had to be discussed with respect, no matter how passionately they were held. Inevitably, majority opinion would win out, leaving a single dissenter in a three to one vote to accept the outcome good-naturedly.
But what if the vote was tied, two in favor of, two against, say, a suggested ritard on the first beat of the second bar of the third movement of the fourth Schrattenholz String Quartet? Then what? The Budapest String Quartet had a practical solution. For each work to be studied, a so-called composer’s vote was given to one member of the group in addition to his own. When a tie took place, the composer’s extra vote had to result in a three to two decision and an end to further discussion.
The Guarneri String Quartet had a different way of dealing with a tie vote, especially when opinions remained unmoved after many rehearsals. We called it “the moment of truth” solution. Since the tie problem invariably had to do with a work slated for one of our tour programs, we decided to perform the music in question one way in, let’s say, Des Moines, and the other way the next night in Omaha. Almost always, the true way, the right way, the very best way seemed to magically appear on stage in the heat of performance. And if not immediately, we simply kept on alternating until it did.
Sadly, none of these approaches worked for the Appasionata String Quartet. Sascha and Michel were constantly pitted against Skyler and Maxim in competing opinions that only seemed to harden with time. For example, a furious argument broke out over how to play the last three chords of Beethoven’s late quartet, “Opus 131 in C Sharp Minor.” Sascha and Michel had always felt that these chords at the ending of this monumental work must have a certain weight and grandeur. Skyler and Maxim maintained that it was sheer indulgence to slow the chords down. Beethoven had written no ritard for the chords, they said, and therefore none should be forthcoming.
Differences began to extend far beyond musical matters, however. Skyler and Maxim resented that the Quartet had always played a certain number of concerts every season free of charge for the poor. “Stop coddling these people—some of them could be welfare cheats,” they groused. “We should be paid for our services—no money, no concert.” Sascha and Michel, on the other hand, maintained that even absent a fee, the Quartet still had an obligation to provide music for the needy and the underserved.
And then there was the matter of the Quartet’s increasingly successful and popular six-concert Beethoven cycle, sponsored in large part by Federal or State Arts Councils. Sascha and Michel and the other original Quartet members had always loved the idea that governments as well as private sponsors were willing to support the arts. They had been happy to lop off one of the six concert fees in a gesture of good will. Skyler and Maxim not only were against a fee reduction. They also hated the idea of big government mixing in with their lives. “First the local Council for the Arts pays for a Beethoven cycle and before you know it, they’re telling us which tempos to play,” Maxim jeered.
The Appasionata’s disagreements became so unpleasant and stressful that in desperation they arranged a meeting with Arlo Armitage, their manager. Armitage had been with the Quartet from the very beginning and had not only skillfully developed their concert career but had also served as a wise and helpful advisor when problems had arisen in the past. But that was the past. When Armitage suggested that quartets survived in the long run not only by playing well, but also by respecting each others differing views and by their willingness to compromise, Skyler and Maxim hit the ceiling. They called him a wimp, a man without backbone, and they threatened him with the loss of his job if he even so much as mentioned the idea of compromise again.
At the next rehearsal, Skyler and Maxim presented a written manifesto to Sascha and Michel in which they stipulated that either all their demands both musical and financial be met or they would shut down the Quartet by refusing to play another note. It was time, they stated, to stand up for what one truly believed in. Discussion was out of the question since they had already released their manifesto to the leading arts organizations.
When word of the Appasionata’s impasse became known, confusion, anger, and fear broke out in the entire chamber music world. Music, Music, Music, the monthly chamber music magazine, called the manifesto an irresponsible act with unimaginable consequences for the rest of the field. On the other hand, Perfect Pitch, the periodical concerned primarily with authentic performance practice, called Skyler and Maxim’s behavior “the courageous musical stand everyone has been waiting for.”
In my imaginary music world, the Appasionata String Quartet was unquestionably one of the great quartets of its era and a must for any significant concert series. If the manifesto were in fact carried out, each presenter would have to face the dilemma of replacing the Quartet on short notice.
And what if other string quartet members got the idea that compromising in any shape or form was weak-kneed and that standing up for one’s principles was noble, pure, and heroic no matter how disputed those principles were and what the consequences might be?
And what then?
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