In March 2020, the Danish String Quartet was just stepping into the spotlight of classical music stardom, having been named "Ensemble of the Year" by Musical America.
The foursome launched the 250th anniversary of Beethoven's birth year by performing all 16 of his string quartets at New York City's Lincoln Center. They were slated to repeat the feat in Minnesota that May, but COVID had other ideas.
At last, the quartet arrives this week in St. Paul to perform the complete Beethoven cycle over the course of six concerts in seven days, starting Friday evening, as Schubert Club artists-in-residence.
So why Beethoven and why now? What does a composer who died 194 years ago have to say to us in this age of pandemic, fear, conflict and racial reckoning?
We asked that question of the Danish String Quartet. The four musicians talked about loss, grief, being present and staying curious. Each cited one of the 16 Beethoven quartets that holds particular resonance for them and for our times.
Violinist Frederik Øland:
"My father used to run a small music society in the heart of Copenhagen. As soon as we had risen to a somewhat presentable level, we'd play there every year. In November of 2011, we played one of the late Beethovens, Op. 132. This was one of my father's favorite pieces and, luckily, he liked the way we played it, so much so that he asked us to play it again in November of 2012.
"Afterwards, we went out together and had a wonderful evening with discussions about music, music appreciation, our quartet and the emotional depth of Op. 132. This evening was also the last evening I saw my father awake. He had a stroke the next day, spent a week at the hospital in a coma, after which he passed away.
"Now, whenever I perform it, there is no way I can think of anything else than my father. I feel him when I perform it. Not only in a spiritual way, but also physically. I sense his smell, I feel the way his skin felt when he was in the hospital, I hear his laugh and I see his tears — a rare sight, but there when we performed Op. 132. For many years, I could not play this piece without crying on stage.
"Even without this story, this piece of music is almost too much for anyone to bear. But it is not only sad and dark. It is sadness within the most radiant light. Or beauty within the confines of sorrow. To me, the third movement became like a requiem for my father. I feel in the music how he was lying in the hospital. Alive but unreachable. Somewhere between life and death.
"And while we are mercilessly moving towards the end of the movement, I feel how his body gave up and his soul or spirit lifted ever so slowly. In the end, it leaves and fades in the most painfully beautiful way. My mind tries to follow him, but there is no way I can. We are left alive on Earth with love, gratitude, pain and loss."
This piece will be performed Saturday evening at Ordway Concert Hall.
Cellist Fredrik Schøyen Sjölin:
"In the original score of the last movement of the Op. 135, the three first notes have the text, 'must it be.' Later, the next theme has the text, 'it must be.' Quartet players and scholars have wondered about the meaning of this ever since, and probably will for the eternal future. What is the answer? Is there an answer?
"All of Beethoven's quartets are full of question marks and unfinished sentences that he left open for us to dwell on and think about. Which makes his music forever modern, since the inspiration for curiosity can relate to you and your surroundings no matter who, where or when you are."
The piece will be performed Nov. 11 at St. Paul's United Church of Christ.
Violinist Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen:
"Beethoven was not known for being a master of writing captivating melodies the same way as Schubert or Brahms. But one movement where he really struck gold is the third movement of Op. 59, No. 1, a lament for his brother who died when the composer was 12 years old. The music is dark and sorrowful, but also incredibly beautiful. Losing a relative or a close friend is something we can all relate to, and often we can find comfort in music."
The piece will be performed Friday evening at St. Paul's United Church of Christ.
Violist Asbjørn Nørgaard:
"To most people, Beethoven is an intense composer. He can create the big, epic moments, he can shake his fist at the sky, he is powerful and deep. And the Op. 131 quartet is a huge, busy quartet. Nonstop music for 40 minutes, big moments, big solos, big emotions. It is a mountain to climb for any string quartet (and audience).
"But, for me, the defining moment of this quartet is actually the moment where everything stops in the sixth movement. The musical train that has been pumping nonstop for a long time hits a portal, and out of the silence comes a simple song. For once, we are not actively playing our instruments, we are just silent and still together. It is a short moment. With the blink of an eye, we return to the hurricane of the seventh movement, music to ride into the abyss.
"To me, this tiny movement has more impact than all the loud and powerful events that surround it. Often, I find that in the moments that really matter, it is not so much which actions we take; more about our presence. Like when it is night, and one of my girls is with a fever, and I have done everything I know and can to help them. There is nothing left to do other than being there, being present and together with them in the fever, so they are not alone."
This piece also will be performed Friday evening.
Danish String Quartet
When/where: 7:30 p.m. Fri. & Tue.-Thu., St. Paul's United Church of Christ, 900 Summit Av., St. Paul; 7:30 p.m. Sat. & 3 p.m. Sun., Ordway Concert Hall, 345 Washington St., St. Paul
Tickets: $5-$45, available at 651-292-3268 or Schubert.org
Rob Hubbard is a Twin Cities classical music critic. firstname.lastname@example.org