Sunday, April 30, 2017

The other Beethoven: The Beethoven string quartets part 3

Portrait of Beethoven (detail), by Joseph Karl Stieler, 1820

In April the Takács Quartet returned to Berkeley's Cal Performances for the final concerts and residency activities in their Beethoven string quartet cycle. (For my posts on the other events in the cycle please see "For a later age" and "Not beautiful.")

The theme for the final weekend (extending from Thursday April 6 to Sunday April 9) was "Politics and Religion." Nic Mathew, our faculty host/raconteur for the cycle, pointed out that Beethoven was a wartime composer. From the time Beethoven was a young man until he was in his mid-40s, Austria faced a succession of conflicts with revolutionary and imperial France. Vienna was twice occupied by Napoleon's army, in 1805 and 1809 (dates which correspond roughly to the times of composition of the middle quartets).

Perhaps a wartime sense of the upending of certainties informed Beethoven's restless style. That such restlessness can still be disorienting to listeners became apparent in the jam-packed back room at University Press Books during Thursday's Page & Stage Book Club discussion of first violinist Ed Dusinberre's Beethoven for a Later Age (University of Chicago Press, 2016). Someone in the audience brought up the jarring contrasts in Beethoven's music, how the mood or tempo or character of one musical idea is often instantly negated by the radically different mood or tempo or character of the next. As Mathew memorably said, in Beethoven's music sometimes "you don't know where to put your ears."

The Takacs Quartet: Geraldine Walther (viola), Edward Dusinberre (first violin), András Fejér (cello), and Károly Schranz (second violin)

Such musical contrasts became a theme of the Takács Quartet's open rehearsal the next day. Dusinberre asked the audience to listen to the fourth movement from an early quartet, Op. 18 No. 6, called "La Malinconia" ("Melancholy"), and consider whether the alternation of the tragic slow and cheerful fast sections was a negation, or a dialogue:

After the Quartet finished the movement Dusinberre asked us for our responses. One woman in the audience mentioned that after the interjection of the bright fast music, she heard the slow music becoming less dark and more serene. What fascinated me was that I'd heard exactly the reverse: it sounded to me as though over the course of the movement the fast sections had taken on a more unsettled and searching quality. Listen, for example, to the way the reintroduction of the fast theme (around 6:32 in this recording) dies out after a bar or two before it is finally re-established (around 6:50), to my ears somewhat tentatively. In some ways, perhaps, the protean character of the music enables each of us to hear the Beethoven we want to hear.

Which Beethoven do we want to hear? As Mathew pointed out in his pre-concert talk on Saturday, there are many Beethovens. The music we think of as "Beethovenian" is only one aspect of a musical style that within a single work or even a single movement, as in the example above, can be exceptionally varied.

And when we think that Beethoven's dramatic qualities are instantly recognizable, our ears can deceive us. Mathew played three brief musical examples of larger-scale works with Beethovenian opening gestures:

This is exactly the kind of music we usually expect to hear when we think of Beethoven. Only, the first excerpt is the beginning of the overture to Mozart's Magic Flute (1791, performed by the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Otto Klemperer). The second is the opening of Joseph Haydn's Symphony No. 104 ("London," 1795, performed by the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra conducted by Nicholas McGegan). And the third is the beginning of the overture to Luigi Cherubini's opera Anacréon (1803, performed by the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Herbert von Karajan). So the musical rhetoric we think of as typical of Beethoven was actually already a part of the sound-world that shaped him as a composer: "Beethovenian" music existed independently of Beethoven.

And perhaps the "quite slow, singing and tranquil" third movement of Op. 135 (performed by the Takács on Saturday) doesn't strike us as being particularly Beethovenian. But it is this "other Beethoven" (in Mathew's phrase) that I find most compelling;

The other Beethoven is found primarily in the slow movements of the quartets: the second-movement Adagio from Op. 18 No. 1 (inspired by the tomb scene from Romeo and Juliet), the second movement from Op. 59 No. 2 (with the heartbeat motif), the third movement from Op. 132 (the "Hymn of Thanks" to be played "with inward feeling"), and the fifth-movement Cavatina from Op. 130 (to be played "slowly and very expressively"). And it is this Beethoven that I think I will return to again and again.

The final work performed by the Takács to complete the cycle was a reprise of Op. 130, which they had performed in the first concert in the series—but this time with the original ending, the Grosse Fuge (later published separately as Op. 133). It was easy to hear why—given the Grosse Fuge's sheer length and often agitated character—Beethoven's publisher requested a different ending. Parts of the Grosse Fuge sound as though they could have been written today. Such a concluding movement must have astonished Beethoven's contemporary audiences, because it is still astonishing in a later age:

During the open rehearsal Dusinberre mentioned in response to a question that knowing that this long, knotty movement was looming at the end of the Cavatina was likely to shade the Quartet's approach to the preceding music. And indeed when the Cavatina was performed on Sunday afternoon for the second time in the cycle, it seemed marginally less moving than it did in my memory of its first performance in the fall. Perhaps that was due to the power of Dusinberre's suggestion, to the enhancements and embellishments of memory, or to my greater familiarity with the music. But some of the other people with whom I've been attending the concerts mentioned a similar feeling, and it would be remarkable if even world-class musicians such as the Takács were utterly unaffected during the Cavatina by the prospect of Op. 133.

If so, the only reason I could ever be grateful for the boisterous replacement ending that was played in the fall would be if it enabled a maximally profound Cavatina. In fact, I felt that both endings marred the Cavatina's hushed mood: I think Beethoven, a radical in so many things, should have taken the unprecedented step of ending Op. 130 with the slow movement.

Final thoughts on the cycle: Remaking Beethoven

Summing up such a richly rewarding experience in a few words isn't really possible, for two reasons. The first is that every concert, as well as every pre-concert talk, open rehearsal, panel discussion, master class, symposium, and post-concert conversation presented multiple moments of intellectual and emotional engagement as well as points for reflection and reconsideration.

The second is that this is music that resists any final conclusions, because it is so multifarious and encompasses such a broad range of feeling and expression. To seek some final coherence or unity is to look for a quality that Beethoven himself seems to have delighted in confounding. The quartets have to be accepted for their difficulties and incongruities as well as their profound beauties. And each new encounter with this music will be a different experience; as the the opening theme of the residency had it, performers and audiences together actively participate in its remaking each time.

Very special thanks to Cal Performances' Director of Artistic Literacy Sabrina Klein and to Executive and Artistic Director Matias Tarnolpolsky for designing, organizing and implementing such a meaning-filled series of residency activities surrounding the concerts, and to Professor Nicholas Mathew of the UC Berkeley Department of Music for being such a brilliant and engaging host throughout. And my deep gratitude to the musicians of the Takács Quartet, who were unfailingly generous with their time and energy, and extraordinarily insightful on and off the stage.

Other posts in this series:

Sunday, April 16, 2017


Mamta (A Mother's Love, 1966), directed by Asit Sen, story by Nihan Rajan Gupta after his novel Uttar Falguni, dialogues by Krishen Chander and Pandit Bushan, music by Roshan, lyrics by Majrooh Sultanpuri

Suchitra Sen as Pannabai in Mamta

I have a huge soft spot for many classic Bollywood narrative devices:
  • tragic courtesans, as in Amar Prem (1972)
  • forbidden love, as in Parineeta (1953)
  • maternal self-sacrifice, as in Sharafat (1972, also directed by Asit Sen)
  • children in danger, as in Brahmachari (1968)
  • reunions between long-separated lovers, as in Veer-Zaara (2004)
  • reunions between long-separated parents and children, as in Aradhana (1968)
  • double roles, as in Seeta aur Geeta (1972)
  • courtroom scenes, as in Awara (1951)
Mamta manages to combine every single one of these devices, and (as do so many tragic courtesan films) adds great music as a bonus.

Pannabai (Suchitra Sen) is a renowned dancer who entertains men every night in Lucknow's pleasure quarter. One afternoon a drunken man asks for her not as Pannabai, but as Devyani. She tells him he's mistaken:

I am Pannabai, a courtesan

The man is Rakhal (a very creepy Kalipada Chakravarty)—the abusive husband from whom Devyani fled several years ago. She'd thought she was safe from him, but:

Who has ever got rid of anybody in this world?

Pannabai does not yet know how true those words will prove to be.

Rakhal has discovered Devyani's new identity, and demands money, or else:

I will sue you for restoration of conjugal rights

While Pannabai/Devyani is getting the blackmail money for Rakhal, her daughter Suparna wanders in to see the stranger. A mistake:

Come to me. Want a toffee?

Devyani returns in time to save Suparna from Rakhal, but realizes that she must send her to a place where he can never reach her: Mother Mary's convent school in Calcutta. (The subtitles have "Mother [or Madam] Marlin," but that seems like a mishearing.) At first Pannabai is refused; her profession is too scandalous. She pleads with Mother Mary:

Madam Marlin, I was not a courtesan always

Backstory time! We learn that as a young woman Devyani fell in love with a poor law student, Manish (Ashok Kumar). He went to London to study law for three years, and the lovers pledged themselves to one another: they would marry on his return.

While Manish is abroad, though, Devyani's father Ghishta (Chaman Puri) becomes heavily indebted to a moneylender: Rakhal. The predatory Rakhal has noticed that Ghishta has a beautiful young daughter, and offers him a way to clear his otherwise crushing debt:

Either pay my money, or get Devyani married to me

Her father doesn't want to ask Devyani to marry Rakhal to clear his debt. But she is so dutiful she doesn't need her father to implore her to rescue him. First she goes to Manish's mother to ask for a loan, only to be rejected:

I was against this alliance since the very beginning

Devyani feels she has no choice:

To save my poor father from debt, I forgot Manish, I forgot myself

She marries Rakhal. On the wedding night he is drunk and cruel:

If you act stubborn, even I will use force

She steels herself to "tolerate every atrocity":

Thereafter, every night was darker than the first

But when Rakhal tries to force her to sleep with other men (who have clearly paid him for the privilege), a pregnant Devyani realizes she must escape.

She flees on the train to Lucknow, but, despairing, tries to commit suicide. The woman sharing her berth prevents her from throwing herself off the train, and once she's able to calm Devyani down, explains who she is: Meenabai (Chhaya Devi), the owner of a house of (men's) pleasure. She offers Devyani a home and a means of supporting herself and her soon-to-be-born child. Devyani, by now used to tough decisions, accepts. Devyani dies, and Pannabai is born:


And now, Pannabai tells Mother Mary, she wants to save the daughter she has raised from her dissolute father, "and from myself." Mother Mary is moved by her story; on Pannabai's promise to have no contact with her daughter, Suparna is accepted into the convent school.

Shortly afterwards Pannabai is leaving a shop when she encounters someone from her past:


It's Manish, returned from London and now a famous barrister. After exchanging a few pained words with him, she jumps into a taxi and speeds off.

A friend of Manish expresses his amazement that he accosted a "cheap woman" in a department store, and fills him in about Pannabai's profession. When Manish angrily expresses disbelief, his friend offers to prove it by hiring Pannabai to perform for him.

That night, almost as soon as Pannabai walks in she realizes whose house she has entered. An anguished Manish conceals himself behind a curtain in another room, but Pannabai knows exactly who is listening. "I had to swallow all kinds of venom to survive; I have borne every humiliation," she sings. "Don't spurn me."

The subtitles on the version I quoted above are a bit less decorous than the ones on the embedded/linked video; Suchitra Sen's playback singer on "Rehte thhe kabhi jinke dil mein" ("The one who dwells forever in my heart") and the other songs in this post is Lata Mangeshkar.

When Manish's friend tries to pay her for her performance, Pannabai disdainfully refuses the proferred money. Manish follows her home to find out what happened while he was in London. Trapped by the curfew, Manish must remain at Pannabai's. In Suparna's now-empty room over the long night, Devyani tells her story.

As dawn breaks, a devastated Manish asks her to come home with him:

You are still Devyani for me

But she realizes this is impossible: Manish would be bringing home Devyani, but the world would assume he is consorting with Pannabai.

My life has been ruined. Why should I ruin your life?

Instead, she begs him to look after Suparna. Manish readily agrees to become Suparna's guardian, and to help realize Pannabai's dreams for her:

Maybe she becomes a barrister like you one day

This is only the first hour of the film.

As the years pass and Suparna becomes a young woman, Pannabai's dream will come true—with unforeseen consequences. While studying law in London Suparna (Suchitra Sen in a double role) has met a classmate, Indraneel (Dharmendra), and love has begun to blossom. But Rakhal returns and threatens Pannabai with exposure. If Pannabai's identity is revealed, she fears that her dreams for Suparna—a professional career, a respectable home, and the love of a good man—will be utterly shattered. And a mother's love can never allow that to happen. . .

Mamta has some fairly radical-for-their-time propositions to offer: that children's destinies should not be determined by their parents' status, that women should have the same opportunities as men to enter professional life, that romantic but non-sexual friendships are possible between men and women, and that we should not judge criminal acts before understanding the extremity that may have led to them. That we still can't take these propositions entirely for granted says something about how much further we still have to go.

Suchitra Sen's excellent performances as Devyani/Pannabai and Suparna are the main reason to watch Mamta. She makes us feel all of Pannabai's pathos and all of Suparna's joy and hope. And although she was in her mid-30s, she convincingly embodies her characters at every age from late teens to mid-40s. Both she and Chakravarty were reprising their roles from Asit Sen's Bengali version, Uttar Falguni (1963), which (together with Suchitra Sen's other Bengali films) is now at the top of my to-view list. Although Ashok Kumar as a young law student is a bit of a stretch, he excels at expressing the range of emotions—from bitterness to self-accusation to deep affection—experienced by the older Manish, as "Rehte thhe kabhi jinke dil mein" shows.

To end the post, two songs from the film that are so brief they seem almost like throwaways, but which are freighted with emotion:

"Chhupaa lo yoon dil mein pyaar mera" (Hide my love in your heart): (song ends at 10:10;
the male playback singer is Hemant Kumar)

"Hum Gavanwa Na Jaibe Ho":

For another perspective please see Dusted Off's review. Mamta can be viewed for free on YouTube.