by Richard Whitehouse
Poetry and music might be felt to go hand in glove so far as expressive affect is concerned, which makes it the more surprising that the two are not more frequently juxtaposed in live performance. This pairing was suggested by the acknowledged influence of Beethoven’s ‘late’ string quartets on T. S. Eliot’s most searching investigation into the essence of poetic thought – his “Four Quartets.”
Initially a stand-alone entity – “Burnt Norton” – in 1935, Eliot went on to continue the sequence during 1940-42, though what resulted is neither a multi-part poem – as is “The Wasteland” – nor an extended verse-drama of the kind he had evolved with “Murder in the Cathedral” and also “The Family Reunion.” And if the interplay of authorial voices may be thought analogous to that of instrumental parts in music so frequently contrapuntal as are Beethoven’s late quartets, Eliot’s reiteration of verbal motifs is more to do with rendering an idea from several poetic perspectives – albeit as simultaneously as the perception of words will admit – than the evolution and expressive intensification of a formal process.
Moreover, while the mode of address becomes richer and more complex as each ‘quartet’ progresses, the intention is surely to create a sense of change by moving circularly to a point of closure – rather than the overtly dialectical method embodied in Beethoven’s instrumental music in general, and his ‘late’ string quartets in particular. Completed in 1825, the A minor String Quartet is the fourth of the five works that constitute his spiritual testament and, though not the most forward-looking in terms of formal continuity, has a tonal and harmonic disparity across and between each of its five movements that made it as influential on future generations as any of the pieces from his so-called ‘third period’.
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Listen to the Alban Berg Quartet play Beethoven’s string quartet, Opus 132 in A minor – the music that inspired T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets.
Another reminder that we’ll be reading and discussing T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets in our February and March sessions. On February 23 we will focus on “Burnt Norton” and “East Coker.” Please bring your own favourite excerpts, interpretations and comments for discussion about these challenging poems.