How I first encountered Beethoven and his quartets by Patrick Vaughan
I’m in my early 70s now, and its not an exaggeration to say that Beethoven’s quartets, especially the late quartets, are a significant part of what I might call ‘my spirituality’. By which I mean that they express for me something profound about ‘the meaning of life’ and contain a number of clues as to how ‘the good life’ should be lived. But it has not always been so.
Beethoven’s music has been a part of my life since teenage. At school I discovered the piano sonatas. My ‘A’ level performance piece was the opening movement of the Tempest sonata, which by sheer dint of daily repetition I managed to convince the examiner that I was worth a distinction – though I know now that that was rather delusory, as I have never possessed a proper pianistic technique. But alongside this exam piece, I steadily worked my way through the slower sonata movements in the company of another close boyhood friend. Neither of us enjoyed life in our boarding school, but we both got considerable solace from listening to Beethoven, and performing him as best we could.
Working life took me to places where it was scarcely possible to hear live performances, so playing LPs of symphonies and sonatas were the only way for me to access Beethoven through the inadequate medium of loud-speakers. But for all these decades I was unaware of the Quartets. Then at the age of 57, shortly after I had come to live in Sheffield, I had a chance encounter at a party with a long-term Sheffield resident. Being still somewhat adrift in my new environment, I asked him what was the best thing about life in Sheffield, and without a moment’s hesitation he replied “Going to Music in the Round concerts, and hearing The Lindsays”.
I had already been to a Music in the Round concert the previous winter (in November 1994) to hear Richard Goode play Beethoven piano sonatas which I knew and loved. But it had not occurred to me to attend a quartet recital. So on the basis of my friend’s recommendation I launched out into new territory, and bought a ticket for a Lindsay concert in the Crucible Studio. I still have the programme for it (28 October 1995): they played Haydn Op.33:2 (The Joke) and Beethoven Op.127. It was the first time I had heard a Beethoven quartet live. I was bowled over by the intensity of the experience.
That concert was the first of a planned series: each month there was a recital of one of the Haydn Op.33 set, one contemporary quartet and one of the late Beethoven quartets. I lapped up the opportunity, and went to all of them. Peter Cropper spoke in his usual informal style, describing one or two features to listen out for, each illustrating how the quartet form had developed. I was hooked. I was able to built up my knowledge of other Beethoven quartets during the following May Festival, which had the theme ‘Beethoven & His Contemporaries’. I see, looking back at my copy of the festival brochure, that I heard The Lindsays perform Op.74 (The Harp) – against which I have scribbled in pencil: “What creation of rhythm – continuing through silences and rests! Tremendous explosion of energy at end”.