Sunday, 26 September 2010

The saddest music ever

Many years ago, when I first played the fourth movement of Mozart's g minor quintet K516, I was sure this was the saddest music ever written. We played it at a memorial service for a violinist friend from our chamber music club who had died recently. We were coached by Peter Kamnitzer, then violist of the Lasalle quartet, who insisted that we play it softer than I had ever played before. That was really the first time I ever really played pianissimo, and that, too, made a strong impression on me.

Here is the Salomon quintet playing the movement:

But then I played the Schumann piano quintet. And I decided that the slow movement, that dreary, funereal theme with the violins thumping like muffled drums, was the saddest music ever written.

(Sviatoslav Richter and the Borodin Quartet).

Years passed, I got better, and learned the Brahms Opus 60 piano quartet. This is music to commit suicide by. Indeed, Brahms asked his publisher to print it with a picture of himself holding a gun to his head. The death knell rings of the piano, and the dark, descending chorale in the strings in the opening are a hopeless descent into the maelstrom. Here is Martha Argerich, Dora Schwarzberg, Lyda Chen and Mischa Maisky:

But all these pieces were just warming up sadness. This summer I played the Bartok 6th string quartet at the Raphael Trio chamber music workshop. This piece is beyond sadness. That opening viola solo, the signature tune that introduces each of the four movements, pervades the entire piece with an aura of unrelenting catastrophe. The climax of that melody, the breaking sob toward the end of the introduction, foretells of what would come shortly after it was written: Bartok, the idol of Hungary, alone and penniless in a New York flat while 6 million go to their slaughter and Europe is consumed in flames. I have a visceral reaction every time I play that passage, chills run up my spine and the roots of my hair tingle.

That's the Tak√°cs quartet. At the end of the workshop, we performed the third movement, the Burletta or burlesque. This is Bartok's mean joke of a scherzo: full of slippery sliding, cockeyed quartertones and quirky tempo changes. It is funny, but not in the haha sense. It inspires the kind of embarassed, horrified chuckle you make when you see the three-legged midget at the freakshow doing somersaults. Here is the Alban Berg, playing it (without the signature introduction), considerably better than I ever will.


  1. Don't you think Bartok is parodying Stravinsky a bit, when the second vln has the walking, stumbling thing alone, sort of a combination of rite of spring and the violin walking part in "Histoire du Soldat"? Or do I have my dates mixed up?

  2. You certainly don't have your dates mixed up. Stravinsky wrote Histoire in 1918, and Bartok wrote his quartet in 1939. The works do have a quirky similarity, full of off-rhythms, folk motifs and surprising disonances. But my own feeling is that Bartok didn't have Stravinsky in mind when he wrote the Burletta; rather, I think he was thinking of a broken calliope, or a circus band playing during an earthquake.

  3. Again, I resist mightily labeling music as "sad" (or anything else). OTOH, these pieces are all admittedly mood-changers, in the direction of sober reflection and the darker sides of experience. But also such depths of knowing, and such ethereal beauty-- "sad" doesn't quite capture it IMHO. You present these 4 pieces as a progression of increasing sadness, and one can't help juxtapose the chronological progression: Mozart (1787), Schumann (1843), Brahms (1876), Bartok (1939). Is there an entropic law here: sadness ever increaseth? On a personal level, does sadness come with aging? (Garrison Keillor: Y'know, Jimmy, wisdom doesn't always come with age. Sometimes age comes alone.)

  4. Yes, sad is a bit trivializing of a word. There is something much more cosmic, more transcendent about music than language can express. That is why it is language, and not music.

    This is a weighty philosophical issue that I will certainly write about in a future post, and I hope you will argue vigorously with whatever I say, as your name suggests you will.

    As for a chronological issue here - the truth is that, in this cosmic and transcendent realm, it isn't really right to call one piece more sad than another. The truth is that I always feel the saddest piece is the one I am playing at the moment.

  5. I don't know. I guess it's a personal choice. But I find the ending movement of Bartok's 2nd quartet much more devastating, even though the sixth is a overall a very sad piece.

    And while he is more musically limited, Shotakovich in his 15th Quartet reaches very low indeed. There's a story saying some Soviet art commissar in the 1970s had a heart attack and died when he heard the piece in rehearsal. As the story goes, Shostakovich said something like "He understood what's this music is about" or some such.

    Other Shostakovich quartets also have moments of immense sadness and even his happy moments seem like the musical equivalent of a smile just barely achieved.

    It took me a very long time to appreciate Shostakovich. I would expand on that point but it's not blog, so...

  6. As a Hungarian it's kinda funny to see that, at least there is one thing we are winning at. Sadness :')