Beethoven's String Quartet in C Sharp Minor is surely one of the most melancholy pieces of music I have ever heard. In its own way, it is likely the most beautiful too.
Music leaves its marks on different people in many different ways. It can rouse, sadden, inspire, and humble. My personal introduction to this magnificent piece came through my introduction to a magnificent human being, whose life was connected to this piece in a unique way.
When J. Robert Oppenheimer became a Professor of Physics in the early 1930s at the University of California at Berkeley, he created the greatest school of theoretical physics that the United States had ever known till then. Because of his bohemian and spartan existence, as well as his astoundingly versatile interests, students all over the country were drawn to him and mesmerized by his sparkling intellect and his eclectic interests. They were a ragged band, coming from diverse parts of a depression stricken nation, barely surviving on the most meagre of scholarships. But their thirst for knowledge was such, that they cast away all the shackles of the material existence and came to Berkeley to literally study at the feet of the master. "Oppie', as they affectionately called him, introduced them to a whole new world of science and art. While men and women elsewhere were talking about FDR's New Deal, Oppie and his disciples would be pondering the most arcane secrets of the atom, and reading Sanskrit with an ascetic colleague, Arthur Ryder, late into the night. When others were mostly concerned with the ongoing political situation in Europe, these dilettantes would be reading Hamlet and Dante. Oppie's students saw him as an otherworldy asthete, and in fact soon picked up his mannerisms. They were all 'little Oppenheimers', and as one acclaimed physicist said, 'purse proud about it'.
One of the things missing from the group's diverse interests was music. Oppenheimer, for all his eclectic interests and excursions into every intellectual domain, had an almost painful aversion to music. However, for some reason, in those halcyon days, he started to appreciate it, although still not as much as some of his students.
Joe Weinberg, who used to study with his mentor late into the night, used to put on music in the background. Once, Quartet in C Sharp Minor was playing, and the wine had broken some of his emotional resolve. His eyes teared as the gossamer notes slowly faded into the background. Looking up, he saw Oppie, who stood in silence, and finally looked at him through those icy-blue eyes, and said, "Yes, it IS beautiful..."
Weinberg decided that this piece would be the group's theme song...
More than a quarter of a century later, on a fine day in 1967, the piece was heard once again, but this time in a completely different ethos. Oppie was dead of throat cancer, having risen as Promethus in his ascendancy as director of the most important scientific project in history- the atomic project. Riddled with guilt by the existence of the weapon he had created, he had become the Hamlet of the atomic age himself. He had become the director of the Institute for Advanced Study, riding with luminaries including Einstein himself, whose every word was heard with hushed dedication by scientists and statesmen alike. His concerns for the future security of the world were misinterpreted by men in power, and in one of the blackest chapters in American history, in a much publicised hearing, his security clearance was taken away. Excluded from the corridors of power, Oppie nonetheless became an oracle of conscience, the embodiment of the eternal conflict between science and society, an internationally known and enormously respected figure. Until his death, he brought together outstanding scholars in many fields together, and with his unique qualities, interpreted and extended their discourse.
The day when he died, the Julliard Quartet thought it fit to play the theme which had once been the hallmark of the Oppie and his school- the cynosure of American commitment to science and learning.
Oppie has earned his place in history, and Beethoven too. And the quartet plays on...