Beethoven's Quartets Performed At Heifetz

Feb 21, 2020

2020 marks the 250th anniversary of the birth of one of the giants of classical music, Ludwig van Beethoven. 

He altered the course of so many aspects of music – the symphony, the sonata and the string quartet.  Beethoven composed 16 quartets over the course of his lifetime, and the Borromeo Quartet, the quartet-in-residence at the Heifetz Institute in Staunton, will perform all of them in six separate concerts throughout the year.  The Beethoven Experience begins Monday, February 24 at Blackfriars Playhouse, and this is a new three-way collaboration between Heifetz, The American Shakespeare Center, and Mary Baldwin Univeristy’s new College of Visual & Performing Arts. Nicholas Kitchen is the first violinist of the ensemble and the Artistic Director of the Heifetz Institute.  WMRA's Kimberlea Daggy  spoke with Kitchen about the series.

Kitchen: The fact remains that if Beethoven only wrote his first string quartets, they would be celebrated as some of the greatest quartets ever written and that would be where it would stop.  But, of course, then he reinvented his whole way of making music with the quartet over and over again.

We love the idea that you progress with him in each one of these programs, from his first fantastic ideas to his second enormous ideas to his third paradigm shifting ideas about how a string quartet can function.

One of his patrons was Razumovsky.  These three pieces, Razumovsky no. 1, no. 2 and no. 3 are pieces that forever changed the understanding of what could be done in a string quartet.  The size of idea that could be expressed by just these four string players.  He supported, financially, setting them up so they could be a research and development string quartet for Beethoven so that he could spend as much time as he wished to test his ideas.

Daggy:  Each concert will be preceded by a symposium, digging deeper into the music featured in that particular program.  The panel includes Kitchen, Paul Menzer director the College of Performing and Visual Arts at Mary Baldwin University, and Ethan McSweeny, director of the American Shakespeare Center. The programs are assembled thematically, and the first delves into Beethoven’s love of one of his favorite creators – William Shakespeare. 

Kitchen:  You don’t have to scratch very hard in Beethoven history to discover that he adored Shakespeare.   He devoured Shakespeare translations in German as they came out.   And he spoke with great enthusiasm and insight about the ideas Shakespeare brought up.  Even if Beethoven didn’t know anything about Shakespeare, I think there would be something very telling about allowing what Shakespeare stimulates in us to reflect on what Beethoven stimulates in us.

Nicholas Kitchen

As chance would have it, in the sketches for the very first string quartet, there is an unmistakable reference to the tomb scene of Romeo and Juliet.   For one thing, the emotional power of that slow movement, where this reference is made is, overwhelming.  It is a somewhat terrifying movement, absolutely beautiful. It’s also touching and sweet in the most incredible way.  And that is directly connected to inspiration that he took from Shakespeare. 

Beethoven actually talked about himself as a poet in tones.  He would even improvise for people in a setting where it was meant to be his letter to them about something that he felt deeply that he needed to express to them. 

The plays of Shakespeare are not improvised…

Daggy:  …but the great actors sound like they’re improvising

Kitchen:  Well, that’s right.  I have no doubt that if we were in the presence of the actual William Shakespeare, he would not have trouble astounding us with what he would make up in front of us.  Beethoven did the same thing Shakespeare achieved, which was creating this body of work that we can go back to over and over again.  It throws us to the height of wildness and humor and bouncing around in the highest of spirits and then it expresses some of the deep awe that we feel for the world around us and the challenges and the beauties that are in it.  That’s what Shakespeare’s doing, that’s what Beethoven’s doing.