Track 1: Guarneri Quartet, Grosse Fuge

The first recording I shall consider is the Guarneri Quartet’s 1969 recording of Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge (op. 133). Originally composed as the finale to his String Quartet in B-flat (op. 130), the fugue was deemed too difficult and was severed at the recommendation of his publisher. It was subsequently published as a stand-alone work. The reasons why Beethoven separated the fugue from the rest of the quartet, replacing it with a comparatively trifling finale, has been much discussed by biographers: “some have attributed it to his preoccupation with [nephew] Karl [van Beethoven]’s suicide attempt; others to his desire for an additional 15-ducat payment; still others to his disdain for those who were unable to grasp his intention” (Solomon 1998: 421). This debate has spawned another, wherein performers must decide whether the fugue or its replacement is the appropriate one with which to close the B-flat quartet.[v] We might suppose, following Tia DeNora’s research on the discourse of “genius” (1995), that severing the fugue was a tactical move on Beethoven’s part—and even if it was not, the end result has surely beento elevate the Grosse Fuge to the zenith of the Romantic string quartet repertoire–the most difficult of works that a quartet must tackle in order to be recognized as truly accomplished.

The Grosse Fuge was clearly regarded by the Guarneri Quartet as one of the repertoire’s most challenging, described by violinist John Dalley as “Herculean” and by violist Michael Tree as akin to “scaling a mountain peak” (Guarneri Quartet 1986: 164). By referring to the fugue in plainly athletic terms, these musicians recognize the extreme physical demands placed on the quartet. This encompasses: the endurance to play a taxing work that generally lasts well over 15 minutes; the necessity of coordinating four distinct parts playing complexly interlocking themes and countermelodies; and the need to shape a musical trajectory over the full breadth of the work. The Grosse Fuge is a deeply physical work that makes plain the physical demands it places on the performers.

Thus, it is little surprise that even in the recording context, one might encounter sonic evidence of the physical strain of performing the Grosse Fuge. In the case of the Guarneri Quartet’s recording, this evidence takes the form of the quartet members breathing and grunting at several key points in the work. For instance, in the fugue’s coda, the rhythmic feel of the work slows from two beats to the bar to a single beat (mm. 611–36). At this point there are several audible breaths that mark the movement of the cello on the bass line. As the slow, suspended passage gives way to a series of short and heavily stressed chords, the breaths cease and are replaced by a series of audible grunts aligned with each chord (see: Figure 1).

While I cannot be positive that these breaths and grunts are produced by cellist David Soyer, this seems the most logical conclusion. This reading is evidenced by the breaths lining up with notes that Soyer articulates. Since his part moves at a slower rate than the rest of the quartet, it make sense that he would breathe to mark his changing notes. Moreover, the audible grunts are pitched on a low F (F1), two octaves below the cello’s first loud pitch (and one octave beneath the viola); as the grunts seem to articulate the passage’s bassline, I find it more likely that they are Soyer’s voice than a musician playing one of the upper lines. Ludwig van Beethoven, Grosse Fuge, mm. 609­–637. The breath marks in the cello part represent the audible sounds of breath on the Guarneri Quartet’s recording.

Regardless of the attribution of breath sounds within the Grosse Fuge, these bodily sounds serve a critical authenticating function for the recording, and they do so on several levels. The breaths might be considered part of the quartet’s system of ‘leads’, the cues that one member of the group gives to the others to coordinate articulations and entrances. The Guarneri players described themselves as a “leaderless quartet”, and they therefore developed some very subtle cues to communicate with each other (Guarneri Quartet 1986: 10). In part, their system of “leads” was developed from their awareness of the visual component of concert performance; violinist Arnold Steinhardt observed: “It’s important not to allow our gestures to distract from the line of the music. Whether we like it or not, the audience takes in the visual part of the experience” (ibid.). Moreover, the quartet emphasized that unlike many chamber ensembles, they do not look at each other. As Steinhardt noted: “To actually look at John [Dalley] I would have to turn my back to the audience. I don’t have to see his expression—inspiring as it may be—but I must be able to see his bow and, above all, the fingers of his left hand” (ibid.: 14). Steinhardt’s wording in these matters suggests that the Guarneri players have perhaps compromised their ideal way of cuing each other for the sake of presenting a unified image to the concert audience.

Concievably, the recording studio offers the Guarneri Quartet a context where they can play unencumbered by visual considerations. However, this was not the case. Cellist David Soyer described the experience noting that:

It’s a sterile situation; the setting is antimusical. There’s no audience; you’re playing to a battery of microphones. The process is corrupting. You play a piece many times; the mikes aren’t right, the balance isn’t right, there may be mistakes, you’re unhappy with something. And as you make takes of a movement over and over again, your perceptions begin to alter. What you would have at first considered a good tempo may seem to slow because you’ve heard it so many times. So on the finished version we may end up doing something that’s glib—because it’s take number ten. (Guarneri Quartet 1986: 20–1)

Like a great many classical musicians, the Guarneri Quartet objected to what they saw as an artificial construct for a musical performance. The recording studio is necessary, as recording has become a ubiquitous part of contemporary music-making. However, many classical musicians share the Guarneri’s view of studio work as necessary but musically unsatisfying.[vi]

The Guarneri musicians spoke very little about their artistic process in the recording studio. Nonetheless, I argue that the corporeal elements of their recordings—the breaths and grunts that mark the close of the Grosse Fuge—serve a critical role in conveying their conception of the musical works they recorded. The breaths and grunts are important not despite, but because of the lack of visual elements in the recording context.[vii] In concert, the quartet’s leads might happen silently (or at least without the audience paying much mind to them, against the rest of the music). In the recorded context, however, the leads are laid bare for us to hear. These breaths and grunts are an example of Sanden’s “corporeal liveness”, the traces of the “acoustic sounding body” that verifies the authenticity of the performance (Sanden 2013: 11). These breaths and grunts verify the musicking bodies and in doing so form a  critical component of the recorded performance—helping to convey the quartet’s sense of the Grosse Fuge’s architecture and their own “Herculean” grappling with its physical challenges.

Furthermore, the corporeal traces on the recording are not (or at least not only) generally musical; they are also particular to the time and place of the recording. If we listen closely to the Grosse Fuge passage described above, we can not only hear the audible breaths from Soyer (or whomever) before several notes; we can even hear a bit of a flutter in the final breath of the passage, evidence of a partially obstructed nasal passage. Such a detail speaks directly to the particulars of the musicians at the moment of the recording, not merely verifying the corporeality of the performance and the musical concept of the performers, but also revealing the unique imperfections of Soyer’s body, in his sinus cavity, on the day the recording was made. Such a sonic trace has a unique life on recording because of its singularity.

Replication of that precise moment when Soyer took his fluttering breath is rather beside the point, at least from a recording standpoint. The presence of the quartet’s breaths and grunts tell us virtually nothing about the technological processes by which the recording of the Grosse Fuge was produced. We cannot know from these details to what extent the recording is a composite of several different takes, who made the decisions to retake and edit the recording, etc. Furthermore, we do not know whether any effort was made to conceal the musicians’ breathing and vocalizations during the recording process. While the musician’s inhaling and grunting could not have been excised technologically from the recording—at least, as easily as they might be today—the musicians and recordists surely were aware of those sounds on the recording and could easily have created a breath-free recording through retakes and patches, had they chosen to, Regardless of the musicians’ and recordists’ intent, the breaths and grunts ultimately validate and authenticate the recorded performance, particularly in the absence of the visual cues—dramatic gestures, violent bow strokes, sweating musicians—that audiences have in concert performances. Thus, these corporeal sounds serve to verify what have traditionally been core tenets of Western classical music: the singular, unified performance and the expression of the composer’s intention (with the performer as vessel for that intention).[viii]