LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
BACKGROUND TO THE OPUS 18 STRING QUARTETS
Matthew Taylor has in three flying visits remarkably covered the quartets of Haydn and the quartets Mozart dedicated to him. The first of five lectures on Beethoven’s quartets is devoted to his opus 18’s. Opus numbers may leave some in a numerical no man’s land. So to begin with here is a résumé of the sixteen quartets (and the grosse fugue) which Beethoven produced between 1800 and 1826
Early period – Opus 18 No. 1 in F · No. 2 in G · No. 3 in D · No. 4 in C minor · No 5 in A · No. 6 in B♭
Middle period – No. 7 in F major · No. 8 in E minor · No. 9 in C major – Opus 59 (Rasumovsky) No. 10 in E♭ major, Op. 74 (Harp) · No. 11 in F minor, Op. 95 (Serioso)
Late quartets – No. 12 in E♭, Op. 127 · No. 13 in B♭, Op. 130 · No. 14 in C sharp minor, Op. 131 · No. 15 in A minor, Op. 132 · Grosse Fuge, Op. 133 · No. 16 in F, Op. 135
Beethoven’s early period is considered to be from 1792 when he finally left Bonn for Vienna to 1802 ending with his second symphony and the writing of his will, the Heilingenstadt testament written in a near suicidal state in having to cope with his deafness. This is the period when his music still shows the influence of Haydn and Mozart. He did not however wake up one morning and declare that he was then in his second period. The distinctions become blurred and a perfect example is the third piano concerto which is the most perfectly classical of concerti which might (just) have been written by Haydn or Mozart but wasn’t and yet it looks forward to the big boned Beethoven. Is it a more mature early work or is it the middle period under way?
This middle period runs to about 1814 with the 7th and 8th symphonies, the Archduke trio as well as the Serioso quartet. From then he became very much embroiled in litigation with his deceased’s brother’s widow over the adoption of his nephew – very good for the solicitor – and there was a fallow period before he cranked up again round about 1817. His last period, by then in total deafness, encompasses the hammerklavier sonata, the Missa Solemnis, the ninth symphony and those last quartets.
It is incredible that in those early years Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven virtually over-lapped, breathing the same Vienna air, and that all three actually met each of the others. They all differed. Mozart largely composed in his head. Music pretty well came out of his pores and the score was just the print out; Haydn appeared to compose with an improvisatory facility as he went along. Beethoven was quite different to the other two. For him composition was a struggle to perfection. He recorded his ideas in sketchbooks to which he reverted, often many years later. He sculpted and chiselled his themes until he was satisfied with the finished product. Yet never is there any sense of there having been any obstacle or compositional difficulty and one feels one is hearing the finished product as fresh as the day it was first conceived .
Beethoven was born in Bonn, the son of the kappelmeister of the Court orchestra of the Elector of Cologne and of which Beethoven became a member at the age of 12 at which time he wrote three sonatas dedicated to the Elector. His teaching by his father, who was himself no Leopold Mozart, was rigorous. He did not encourage Beethoven’s emerging compositional ability but his instrumental skills. As a young adolescent he took lessons from the court organist, Neefe and his compositional skills were sufficiently recognized by the Elector who allowed Beethoven, then 18, to travel to Vienna in1788 where he met Mozart and played to him. The stay was short as Beethoven’s mother became ill and died soon after his return. His father went to pieces with drunkenness. The young Beethoven found himself having to look after his younger siblings and needed to take his father to court to have his salary attached. Beethoven’s early compositions come from this period and in particular two cantatas, one on the death in 1790 of the Joseph II and the other for the coronation of Leopold II They were not in the event played and only became discovered nearly a hundred years on. These works and some from the early Vienna years were always not therefore accorded an opus number. However there is a catalogue number for these with the letters WoO., (werke ohne opus) (work without opus)
In December 1790 Haydn, then approaching 60, accompanied by Salomon, passed through Bonn on their way to London for the first Haydn visit. Haydn was feted by the Elector but it is not known if Beethoven, being one of the very junior members of the orchestra, would have been introduced. The following year Mozart died aged 35.
Another important influence on events was Count Waldstein who encouraged the Elector to finance Beethoven for a second trip to Vienna where previously he had hoped to take lessons in composition from Mozart. By 1792 the west bank of the Rhine was occupied by the French and Bonn was in turmoil and overrun by refugees. Beethoven left for Vienna in November with a letter from Waldstein stating “Through your diligence receive Mozart’s spirit from the hands of Haydn”; Beethoven’s father died a month later and Beethoven was never to return to Bonn.
Beethoven’s principal object was to learn more of the basics of those areas of composition where he knew himself to be lacking, and in this respect Haydn was just too easy going as a teacher. Beethoven revered Haydn but later admitted to his own pupil, Ries, that though he had received instruction from Haydn he had never learned anything from him. The fact was that Beethoven was a self disciplinarian who knew what he needed and Haydn was not the teacher he needed for the purpose. Some commentators say the two men did not get on but that does not appear to be the case. However, whilst they may have breathed the same Vienna air, they inhabited different universes. Haydn was a man of the ancien régime and for instance wore a perruque all his life. Mozart, although younger than Haydn, had shared the same social world and values. Beethoven was making his entrance against the background of revolution in France and spreading republican values. If one had to accept patronage he was not prepared to be someone else’s skivvy.
Beethoven therefore decided to take lessons elsewhere without telling Haydn. First he went to one Johann Schenk for guidance in counterpoint and theory; then his notebooks show him taking lessons from Ignaz Schuppanzigh, famed for the string quartet which gave the first performances of the great string quartets of the day. More assiduously Beethoven took lessons in counterpoint from Albrechstsberger, the “most famous teacher of that science”. He may be long forgotten but every time we hear the Grosse Fuge or the Hammerklavier sonata we owe Albrechtsberger a vote of thanks. One other teacher to whom Beethoven turned was none other than Antonio Salieri, known to give free instructions to musicians of small means and who went on giving lessons to Beethoven till as late as 1802 by which time Beethoven had his own pupil. Salieri also gave lessons to Schubert and deserves more meritorious recognition than the libel perpetuated by the likes of Peter Schaffer.
During these years Beethoven should not be seen as just a composer awaiting the opportunity. He did not sit there composing whatever took his fancy until someone decided to play it. He needed commissions and wrote for the combination which was required. Doubtless he had ideas and these would get saved to his sketchbooks. He did have a modest annuity to help him pro tem from Count Lichnowsky but he he needed to earn his living. He did possess one great skill which had all the appearances of being a better money earner, playing the piano. His reputation grew as one of the great pianists of his day. The growing attraction of an audience for the piano, which had emerged from the more restrictive capabilities of the harpsichord, gave rise to the virtuoso and the appetite of the listener was fed not simply by concert performance but also by rivalries and concourses as to who could give the best or the fastest of displays and who was number one in extemporising.. There was a virtual Vienna Has Talent competition going on and Beethoven became a star much in demand.
However the commissions began to come from the odd count or prince that one tends to meet from time to time. This was going to be in the field of chamber music as a look down the early opus numbers shows. In fact Beethoven did not rush to publication until he felt the occasion was right to do so. To begin with his Opus 1 was a set of three piano trios, one of which Haydn advised against publication; various piano sonatas, ten before the opus 18 quartets; string trios worth more outings than we hear; a string quintet, two cello sonatas, the first of his violin sonatas, a horn sonata and a wind quintet. Orchestral music on the other hand would have to be mounted in a suitable venue and needed an audience. The only possibility there was for Beethoven to write his own piano concertos and to play them himself. He began composition of the first two piano concertos as early as 1795 and the second which was the earlier was opus 17 with the premier of the first taking place in 1800. All was beginning to go well but?
As early as 1796 Beethoven first encountered the tinnitus which would have frustrated his playing and composition. He noticed his hearing gradually deteriorating but kept it to himself as best he could. It was to drive him to anguish and despair. Over the years he would visit Harley Strasse and spend a fortune on ear trumpets to little effect. It is against this background that the six opus 18 quartets were written between 1798 and 1800.
Some commentaries suggest that Beethoven had held back from writing quartets until being more sure of himself and had contented himself with string trios. I question the rationale of this. Beethoven had copied out quartets of Haydn and Mozart and knew the medium. The opus 18 quartets themselves were dedicated to and, it must be assumed, commissioned by Prince Lobkowitz. Had he asked for a quintet, a sextet or a septet Beethoven would undoubtedly have delivered whenever on the basis of he who pays the piper. One writer, Bernard Jacobson, in an EMI booklet mentions that the true order was 3, 1, 2, 5, 4 and 6 and suggests that one should listen to them in that order to obtain a much clearer and exciting view. He points out that re-arranging the sequence would have been decided on commercial, and not musicological, considerations. What tosh! The practice of dedicating a compilation of quartets reflected first the generosity of the composer; secondly the opportunity for the dedicatee to play the whole shebang to an audience whose musical appetite was voracious and who had no chance of going out to buy the compact disc. As to the order, the compositional process can start and finish anywhere. On this spurious argument it would mean that if a composer started with the third movement and then wrote the first one, one should listen in that order. I think that Mr Jacobson should at least accept Beethoven’s artistic integrity in knowing the best order to present them as a set.
If one comes to this set after having made acquaintance with later Beethoven they would leave the impression of belonging to the sound world of Haydn who himself was still then actively composing. Mr Jacobson mentions the advances made by thematic links between movements and the different key relationships which not many of us, not even Prince Lobkowitz if he were with us, would notice. One does hear an undoubted Beethoven melodic line. The last movement of the first quartet for instance could have been out of the fourth symphony. Slow movements usually maintain their tempo but, in the second quartet Beethoven without apparent precedent switches almost inexplicably to a scherzo in the middle section. Rachmaninoff did this in his third symphony over a hundred years later but that was because it contained no separate scherzo movement. For the most part the quartets are cheerful and one would not imagine the composer being assailed by turbulent and stressful problems such as one would hear in Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique symphony or Mahler’s ninth. And yet in the slow movement of the first quartet there is the most beautiful and melancholy of tunes in which Beethoven adds what can only be called stabs of pain. Was this an unconscious musicological coded message?
Soon afterwards there were to follow the first two symphonies before this early period comes to an end. The Heilingenstadt testament, which was not discovered until after Beethoven died, was the testimony of a courageous man. Beethoven was then facing the likelihood that his affliction would end all he had so far achieved. He had reached the point of contemplating ending it all. He had confronted his own demise and the world can only be thankful that Heilingenstadt was the turning point. All wills have a beneficiary. That of the Heilingenstadt Testament was Posterity itself. To follow very soon there was the Eroica, originally to be dedicated to Napoleon, but the real hero was Beethoven himself who had confronted his demons…. and won.