The Secrets of Symonds Beethoven

Michael Dahlenburg

Michael Dahlenburg, cellist of the Australian String Quartet, shares “the secrets” to the music of our upcoming Symonds Beethoven program and the inspiration behind the decision to pair Jack Symonds’ new String Quartet with Beethoven’s Op.131.

There is a palpable vibration in the air before the first sounds of a concert emerge out of silence. It is an expectancy—a build-up of energy—of things to come. For the audience, it can be that moment just as the Quartet is poised, perfectly placed to conjure their first sounds. 

As the Cellist of the Australian String Quartet (ASQ), that palpable feeling starts long before I put the bow on the string. It begins when I ask myself the question: why did the composer write this? What drives composers to their final decisions? Why ‘colour’ the music in this way? Why this many movements? Why give me so many high sections when my beautiful Guadagnini cello sounds so nice down low?

After asking myself questions for months, I often circle back to the Quartet’s choices and experiences when searching for an answer. Why did we choose Jack Symonds and Ludwig van Beethoven for this tour? The answer is simple: inspiration. 

I’ve had the pleasure of knowing Jack Symonds for a long time, having performed an earlier chamber work from his catalogue, a piano quartet, many years ago. The ASQ also enjoyed an intensely moving collaboration of his song cycle, Blühen, as part of the Adelaide Festival in 2021. His many skills were on full display here. Not only was he the composer, but also the conductor and pianist of a performance charged with that palpable vibration of expectancy. Commissioning Jack Symonds to compose this string quartet was a decision made soon after.

I am constantly reminded of a quote by Beethoven when I turn to the first page of a piece: “don’t only practice your art, but force your way into its secrets”. Perhaps this is a better proposition to my earlier question of why did a composer write this? For both Beethoven and Symonds, the story of inspiration and the choices that led to the first notes being written are distinctly their own and powerful in meaning. On this occasion, the secrets are buried in the first notes of each work. 

String Quartet No. 2 perfectly interrupts that intangible build-up of expectancy with a truly virtuosic violin line played by Dale Barltrop. That single line contains all the ‘DNA’ of the work; every note, every leap of the melodic material that makes up the piece is deftly crafted and outlined from the very opening. This juxtaposes against a warm cello solo that grows ever unsure of itself, receding into the frenetic line of DNA until the Quartet bursts into unison, spilling many truths about what lies ahead. 

Symonds’ understanding of the sonic texture of a single instrument and the combined power of a string quartet is evident in every note. There is a deliberateness in the choice of who plays when, where, how and why.

Composition is an art form—it goes beyond the purely schematic and aesthetic of how to write for a string quartet. Beethoven’s reference to ‘secrets’ is the key, and Symonds’ two-part work takes us all on a journey to find these secrets and to be moved by revelation and frustration. 

Symonds’ 20-minute work takes on a unique structure of two parts, titled “an abnormality of growth” and “a continuity of paradoxes”. Those questions of inspiration come into play here. Whilst a two-part structure is not a popular movement plan, it was utilised by Alban Berg for his String Quartet, Op. 3, a work held in high regard by both Symonds and the ASQ.

Symonds’ Quartet contains musical ideas ‘abnormally created’ (Jack’s words, not mine!), often evolving too quickly for ‘normal’ development. The music comprises rapidly repeating cells and ideas that dance their way through scherzos and intense slow moments. Each half ends with finales that almost accelerate out of control and peak by gathering the motifs that make up the whole work. The perfectly placed interruption at the very opening was the secret all along. 

In some ways, that palpable expectancy at the start of Beethoven’s String Quartet in C-sharp minor, Op. 131 almost spills over into beautiful longing. From the deafening silence before the entry of the solo violin emerges four poignant notes. Not so slow as to suggest a slow movement, but not so fast as to give assurance that this longing isn’t real. This is followed by another eight notes that, when put together, make up the DNA, or as Beethoven himself said, the ’secrets’ to the entire work. 

There is a unity of grief that is simultaneously shared by the Quartet and deftly translated by each individual performer and Beethoven’s written page. Perhaps this is where both works flourish—there is a great sentiment, inspiration and craft behind each note. They’re written to allow each instrument to display virtuosity and reflection within the texture.

Beethoven’s mighty Op.131 remains an elusive work, structurally surprising with seven intertwined movements that vary in length from fleetingly brief to deliciously drawn out. This emphasises the depth of the writing, from slow-moving fugues and complex harmonies to the almost comically light-hearted and absurd.

Beethoven’s juxtaposition of the emotional content and his skilful pairing of players to sing or argue with each other (musically speaking), is the pinnacle of my experience playing this work. I find myself inspired at every moment of this quartet. Although it is technically demanding and asks so much of the musicians’ craft, it rewards you in the most unexpected ways. The Scherzos are dizzyingly playful, and the gentlest moments of the quieter movements caress with a beautiful poignancy. Whilst the work is substantial in length, it never feels like you’ve heard enough. It gives you some of its secrets early on but ends full circle with the same material that is ultimately changed by the journey we have all been through. 

These two musical works provide me with great inspiration, not just because I find them at times unexpected or painfully beautiful, but because they perfectly interrupt the opening silence. Silence is gorgeous and powerful, but the creativity in the music of these two incredible works makes for an interruption worth experiencing and secrets deserving of discovery.

By Michael Dahlenburg


Read Jack Symonds’ interview in Limelight Magazine where he discusses what he hopes to achieve with String Quartet No.2, what it’s like to work with us to bring it to life, and how it feels to be programmed alongside Beethoven.

Watch our Q&A and rehearsal with Jack Symonds where we delve into the depths of his new work.

Hear these works

We give the World Premiere performances of Jack Symonds' String Quartet No.2 alongside Beethoven's String Quartet in C-sharp minor, Op.131, on our upcoming tour in October and November 2022.