Wednesday, 1 February 2012

At Seventy

At Seventy

Following my 70th birthday party in The Plough Inn at Wolvercote, I stumbled through some half-prepared, half-enunciated, half-baked thoughts that may have left the company confused (or at least half-confused). I try to enunciate those thoughts here.

One of the words I had scribbled on a scrap of paper was 'Pinnacles'. The thought there was that I was not going to attempt to summarize my life in terms of achievements or great moments. Of course I had my moments; in research and in family life. But I remember the depression I caused my father simply by asking him to note down the salient features of his life in case we forgot details when he could no longer correct us. He jotted down some notes, but that threw a pall over his spirits, which hung over him for weeks. A keen reader of biographies, he emphatically rejected the idea of a biography of his own life. Similarly, I remembered my reflex rejoinder to my son Richard when we were discussing "You and Your Research" by Dr. Richard W. Hamming (and Medawar's "Advice to a young scientist"), for I said that doing significant science, while admirable, is not the only worthwhile life-aim or life-justification. As a retired scientist I do not want to count my publications or rank my contributions. I seek my justification elsewhere. Jean Anne said she thought of me as a basically cheerful or contented person, which gratified me.  I would like to see myself that way too, for lurking right behind me is the black shadow of failure, the 'nearly made it' man, the too lazy, self-complacent, or forgetful man. I awake from more dreams of failure than dreams of success. But I rather deliberately look the other way; and furthermore I advocate that others do likewise. I like to count as the pinnacles of my happiness and ground of my gratitude that myriad upon myriad of exquisite moments that life can offer most of us, like opening an apple, or seeing a flock of starlings or feeling rain on one's face. They are too many to count, but not too many to savour; and the savouring can fill the day, the year, the life.

I tried to say something about my un-analysed desire to introduce my family to my friends and friends to family; my yearning for a circle (like the Bloomsbury Set) which had not just the spokes but also the rim of the wheel; a fellowship. Perhaps I uniquely enjoyed my few years as a fellow of Clare College for that reason; a fellowship entirely without competitiveness, great scholars who cheerfully sat down with young research fellows with the shared aim of mutual enjoyment and common improvement.

I wonder if I managed to deliver my message.

L. Cawstein

Programme Notes

String Quartet in D, (Op. 18/3)  –––––  Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 - 1827)

i. Allegro, ii. Andante con moto, iii. Allegro, iv. Presto.

The Opus 18 set of 6 quartets were the first that Beethoven published and are dedicated to Count Lobkowitz. No. 3 is thought to have been written during the winter 1798/9 and to be the first composed of the set. The first movement opens with a motif of two notes alla breve (one note per bar), jumping up a 7th.  The alla breve motif recurs and, at a pivotal point in the movement we find its full 8 bar statement. While all the other movements are in D, the second is in B. Its cantabile main theme is built out of a 4 note figure three times repeated. The sound of a ticking clock briefly recalls Haydn, until sudden key changes re-establish the vigorous originality of Beethoven's genius. Where Haydn and Mozart would characteristically place a Minuet-and-Trio (a graceful 3/4 movement), and Beethoven and Schubert give us a Scherzo (a speeded up and jokey minuet+trio), Beethoven here gives us simply a tempo marking - "Allegro". However, it is in essence the world's first Scherzo; it is brief, in 3/4 time, rhythmically emphatic but harmonically uncomplicated, has a more sombre section in the minor key, followed by a return to the beginning. From the sketches it is clear that the presto finale is not Beethoven's original, but a second try. Though not called a scherzo, it is full of 'jokes'. Its capering 'Hauptthema' is  played across the bar lines creating confusion at the end of the phrases. Towards the end of the exposition the violins seem to be in one key and the cello in another. Finally the movement ends pianissimo, or rather it vanishes.

String Quartet in F♯ minor, (Op. 50/4)  ––– Franz Joseph Haydn (1732 - 1809)

i. Allegro spirituoso, ii. Andante, iii. Menuetto/Trio, iv. Finale fuga (Allegro moderato)

Haydn, aged 55 in 1787, was still employed at Esterhazy, but was lonely in the countryside and might have been casting around for a change of employment. (He came to England 4 years later.) This set of 6 quartets is dedicated to Friedrich Wilhelm II of Prussia. In it Haydn seems to be reacting to the challenge of Mozart's recently completed "Haydn" quartets (1785), regarded by some as the pinnacle of the genre, and themselves a response to Haydn's magnificent Opus 33 set. Completed 6 years after Opus 33, the Opus 50 works seem more musicological, self-conscious, written for connoisseurs; terse, complex, light in texture and 'classical'. They are not the most frequently played of Haydn's 83 quartets.  No. 4 is in the remote key of Fminor. It has a spirited first movement and a magical slow movement. Both the last 2 movements are short. The trio section of the Minuet is unusual in being fugal, as is the bulk of the exceptionally terse Finale.

Quintet for clarinet & strings, (K. 581)  ––––  Wolfgang  Mozart (1756 - 1791)

i. Allegro, ii. Larghetto, iii. Menuetto and Trios, iv. Allegretto con Variazioni.

Mozart completed his quintet for clarinet and strings KV581 in September 1789, dedicating it in his personal catalogue to "Herr Stadler the elder", and describing it the following year as the "Stadler Quintet". It was a time of acute financial hardship and depression for Mozart. Austria was at war with Holland, Prussia and the Ottoman empire, and at home Emperor Joseph's reforms were weakening and alarming aristocratic patrons. However, none of this shows in his work. The quintet, predominantly in A, is throughout characterized by the exceptionally lyrical quality of the clarinet tone; liquid and mellifluous. One concludes that here, as elsewhere, Mozart wrote for a particular musician. For the most part the clarinet is not a soloist but an integral part of the ensemble. An exception is the first cantabile theme of the D major slow movement, given to the clarinet over an accompaniment of muted strings. The Minuet is unusual in having two Trio sections (M-T1-M-T2-M) the first of which is in A minor without clarinet, the second in A major and with a prominent clarinet part. The last movement contains 4 variations on a theme of classical symmetry (4 bars falling to the dominant; 4 bars returning to the tonic). After the theme and 4 variations, there is an adagio passage before an allegro reprise and coda.

L. Cawstein