February 2, 2008
The Guarneri String Quartet played a concert in Wisconsin several years ago. Why do I remember that this particular concert was in Wisconsin? Probably because Wisconsin is a cheese-making state and a delicious selection of cheese was set out at the after-concert party. It’s funny what details remain vibrant in one’s mind, especially in light of what else took place at this particular concert.
We arrived, as usual, around an hour beforehand to try the hall and to warm up. I ran my fingers up and down the violin to make sure they were in working order. Then I practiced some of the program’s more daunting passages. There was still time left before we were due to step out on stage, so I picked up a program to make sure that the Guarneris and the concert presenters had the same ideas about what was to be played. (Despite everyone’s best efforts, repertoire mistakes sometimes slip through—a most unpleasant surprise just before concert time.) Everything was correct.
The evening’s program notes caught my eye. I began to read about the opening work, Mozart’s A Major Quartet, K464. It appeared that no less a figure than Ludwig van Beethoven was so impressed with this work that he copied it out by hand, studied it thoroughly, and used it as a model for his own string quartet in A Major, Opus 18, #5. The writer pointed out that both quartets have four movements, that their movements are in identical keys, and that each quartet is imbued with the same sunny disposition. The third movements of these two works especially interested the writer. Mozart crafted his as a set of variations based on a serene and good-natured theme. Beethoven followed suit with his own theme and variations. The writer noted that both themes and many of their variations possess similar characteristics. But just as I began to read further, the familiar “On stage!” call came from the wings. I Reluctantly tore myself away from the program notes and walked on stage with my colleagues: John Dalley, Michael Tree, and Peter Wiley. We bowed and prepared to play Mozart’s Quartet in A Major.
The program notes were far from my mind as our quartet performed the first two movements. Mozart’s genius challenges a player not only to present his music coherently, but also, by some undisclosed act of magic (not taught in music school), to give it wings. A full-time job, that! Still, when the third movement arrived, my attention flagged for a moment. My thoughts turned to Beethoven—the giant Beethoven—a visionary so supremely endowed with craft, fantasy, and inspiration that you would think even the miraculous output of a fellow giant would be of little use to him. Wrong, of course. Visionary or blind, gifted or mediocre, we are all interconnected. Still, think of the great Beethoven laboriously and reverently copying out every Mozart note by hand in order to construct some kind of template for his own work of genius.
We began the third movement and without realizing it, my mind began to slip into two separate modes of thought. Part of me tried as usual to perform as best I could; another part, standing off to the side, set out to test the program notes’ premise. Were there such dramatic similarities in the two men’s music? As I played Mozart’s opening theme, I conjured up Beethoven’s in my mind’s ear. The themes, while completely different in terms of notes, were markedly related in character: amiable, sunny, and peaceful. Then came a variation in which the first violin rambles through a series of running sixteenth notes. But wait! Didn’t the same sort of thing, another flowing violin riff, occur in Beethoven’s third variation? We moved on, soon arriving at Mozart’s charming drum-roll variation in which the cello cheerfully beats out its characteristic rhythm. It made me think of toy soldiers on the march, and that, in turn, reminded me of a much rowdier Beethoven variation, rough-hewn enough for real, live soldiers to march in parade. I discovered more similarities as the movement progressed. With each, I felt ever more drawn into the act of creation itself. “Ach,” might Ludwig have said to himself, “I must do something with this clever idea of Wolfgang’s.” Finally, Mozart drew on his original theme’s basic elements as a way of bringing the movement gently and peacefully to a close. I smiled to myself. Beethoven, like a thief, had used the same method to artfully end his own movement. I sat in my chair for a brief moment, transported by the sublime collection of sounds that had just died away. Mozart left me with the impression that the world was complete and in perfect harmony.
Then I stood up and bowed to the audience. A mere smattering of uncertain applause broke out. I looked around incredulously. John, Michael, and Peter remained seated. What on earth was the matter with them? When a piece comes to an end, you stand up and bow. But they remained seated, and I now noticed that they were smiling at me rather oddly. In an instant, all musical concerns were swept away by something more pressing. Why was I standing alone on this Wisconsin stage while the guys sat in their chairs staring at me? The applause began to die down. Suddenly, John, grinning broadly, stood up and bowed alongside me. Two of us were now up, two down—a incongruity the likes of which the Quartet had never experienced in over four decades of public performance.
Then the awful truth dawned on me. Mozart’s Quartet in A Major, K464, has four movements. We had just finished the third. Somehow, my on-stage ruminations about genius and the act of creation had confused me into thinking that Mozart’s third movement ended the work. I turned beet-red with embarrassment and sat down abruptly. John, in what appeared to be another act of solidarity, followed suit, sitting down just as abruptly next to me. Then all three members of the Guarneri String Quartet turned toward me expectantly as if to inquire what my future plans might be. There was only one plan I could think of in my unhinged state, and that was to play the last movement. And as we did, high-minded thoughts about Mozart, Beethoven, and the miracle of genius vanished. I haven’t the faintest idea how we or I played that last movement, for I could think of nothing but what I should tell people at the after-concert dinner party when they asked the inevitable: Why did you take a solo bow, Mr. Steinhardt?
In fact, that very question was posed to me as the Wisconsin cheese was passed around at the party an hour later. The truth seemed embarrassing, yet I could think of nothing other than to sheepishly admit that I had been confused by the sheer beauty of Mozart’s third movement, and to mention that the cheeses were unquestionably some of the best I’d ever tasted, and inquire after their names and also to ask where could I purchase them?
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