October 12: the smell of the beast

I was privileged to receive an invitation to a private concert in a private house the other day. It wss musician I know a little who is first violin in a fairly well-known string quartet and they wanted to rehearse a couple of Beethoven string quartets in front of a few people in their living room before performing the full set of quartets in a series of concerts a week or so later. There was a tiny audience of five and it was a terrific event. What interested me, though, apart from the music, was the lead violinist’s apologetic introduction to the Beethoven opus 130 quartet which includes the demanding ‘grosse fuge’ movement. In advance she apologised for its uncompromising nature, as though it were somehow a slight on civilized company to perform such a beast. She sounded almost like the Germans at the time who had not understood the movement and bullied the ageing, now deaf Beethoven into writing a more polite alternative movemnet to bring the quartet to a more refined conclusion.
It is, I confess, difficult to know what to do with a high-brow preoccupation. Some people tone down the high-brow nature of their preoccupations; others tone them up. Toning down might be seen as a modest act. I remember one person I knew insisting he had never heard of the Spice Girls at the height of their fame, the implication being that he was too high-minded to even notice such manifestations of popular culture. This type of boorish behaviour is now, thankfully, more common in the older generations where popular culture was more readily sniffed at. Nowadays, the civilized man looks to extend his range from Bach to Beyonce. and this is mostly good. But there is no worth in denying the high-brow out of a sense of modesty. The high-brow often smells more of the beast than the low brow. Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge reeks of it.

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