The History of the String Quartet – BEETHOVEN (3)

LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)   – 


 Matthew left us last in the year 1810 with the Serioso Quartet, with its experimental sounds, looking in some future direction. Its mood possibly reflected the outbreak again of hostilities with the French in 1809 with Vienna being bombarded and Beethoven sitting in a cellar covering his ears to prevent further damage. We must never forget the surrounding circumstance affecting the artist. His rate of production had slowed (comparatively) and he was now in the late middle period which produced five great piano sonatas, the best known of which is the “Les Adieux”. In 1812/13 he was writing his seventh symphony which was first performed at a concert for soldiers wounded at the battle of Hanau. The seventh went down well with the boys and the allegretto had to be repeated. An even bigger hit was his Battle Symphony played at the same concert. In 1813 the Spanish were defeated by the English under the newly ennobled Duke of Wellington at the Battle of Vittoria. Beethoven wrote a symphony and here I have to eat my words in my last note when I mentioned the limited size of the orchestra in Beethoven’s day. The Battle Symphony was scored for a large orchestra which included contrabassoon, four horns, six trumpets, three trombones, timpani, a large percussion battery (including muskets and other artillery sound effects), and an enormous string section. It has “God Save the King” (first subject) and the French march, “Malbrouck”, which sounds like “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow”. You won’t often hear it now and it is best described as “A top notcher’s rock bottom”. It was dedicated to the Prince Regent whose enthusiasm was boundless and a typical example of unchanging Royal taste.

The eighth symphony which followed was a disappointment appearing to return to what was now a bygone age particularly with its minuet of all things and seemingly small scale. 1814 also saw the opening of the Congress of Vienna and the whole world gathering there. Political participants included familiar names such as Rasumovsky and Lichnowski. Many former patrons were however to lose their power and influence and Beethoven needed to look elsewhere and further afield for commissions. The Congress formed the background for the revival of Fidelio which had been considerably overhauled and with four overtures into the bargain.

1814 to 1817 was a fairly fallow period with Beethoven in litigious dispute in adoption proceedings over his nephew, Karl. As head of the family, Beethoven had earlier objected to his brother, Carl, marrying his five month pregnant housekeeper whom Beethoven regarded as a slut, wicked and vicious. Carl however did marry her and he made a will giving both his wife and Beethoven joint custody of Karl. He then deleted reference to Beethoven and with Carl’s death bitter litigation followed. Beethoven considered the mother unfit and morally degenerate. The boy was transferred from one to the other following various appeals. By this time Beethoven was becoming impossible to deal with both in business and domestically with servants coming and going. The boy did not find it fun living with a grumpy and deaf uncle. He eventually attempted shooting himself but missed. Beethoven ultimately did win custody but the relationship was never easy and in the end Karl enlisted as a soldier. All of this resulted in almost three years loss of productive output during which time Beethoven’s physical prowess and hearing were getting worse.

One could say the third period began round about 1817 principally with the Hammerklavier sonata at which Beethoven pounded away. Yet another example of his returning to the mighty fugue. Remember Albrechsberger who instilled the discipline for this in the 1790’s? This is the great muscular Beethoven compared for instance to the last of his 32 piano sonatas, opus 111, the arietta of which is more in the spirit of the late string quartets.

By 1819 Beethoven was working on the Missa Solemnis dedicated to Archduke Rudolf. It is an enormous work written alongside the ninth symphony. His only previous mass had been the Mass in C written for Esterhazy back in 1807. This time Beethoven did not quite come out as the unchallengeable top dog. He wasn’t going to be second either. God was in pole position but Beethoven shared the front grid.

One large undertaking during the same period were the Diabelli Variations written for piano. It started with Diabelli, known as a light music composer, inviting several composers, including Beethoven, each to write a single variation on a simple theme he had composed. At first Beethoven was not at all interested but the idea got hold of him so much that he interrupted composition on his Missa Solemnis to make a start with 23 variations. He then returned to it in 1823 and wrote a further 9 variations and a coda. Why 33, such an odd number? Two explanations have been offered. One is that Bach wrote 32 variations for his Goldberg Variations and that this was Beethoven’s idea of one-upmanship. The other is that Diabelli had collected in 32 individual variations and this was Beethoven’s idea of 33-upmanship!

The ninth symphony was a project on which he worked for a number of years and the final form took a long time to bed down. It had been commissioned some years before by the Philharmonic Society in London but it did not get its first performance there. Its immense power showed that Beethoven had not lost his composing prowess but a new maturity is discernible. In addition to the clean cut sculptured phrases with which one has become so familiar there has crept in a sense of themes weaving their way round, in and through the themes and development. The first movement weaves its way through, instrument after instrument, searching a way as if exiting a maze to some goal the direction to which only Beethoven knows. Its success is illustrated by the well known account that Beethoven, at the end of the music he had hardly heard, had to be turned to face the audience in order he might witness the applause and cheering that he could not hear.

We come to the late quartets. There are five plus the Grosse Fuge.
• Opus 127: String Quartet No. 12 in E flat major (1825)
• Opus 132: String Quartet No. 15 in A minor (1825)
• Opus 130: String Quartet No. 13 in B flat major (1825)
These first three (note that the published order is in a different sequence) were commissioned in 1823 by Prince Galitzkin. They continue as follows
• Opus 131: String Quartet No. 14 in C sharp minor (1826)
• Opus 133: Grosse Fuge in B flat major for string quartet (1826), originally the finale to op. 130
• Opus 135: String Quartet No. 16 in F major (1826)
As with the Harp and the Serioso these were all individual quartets. I find it difficult to remember which is which by opus number whereas I have no such difficulty with the symphonies. Maybe they would have been more popular had they each been accorded an individual name tag. I have been tempted to make some random comments but, as previously, I defer from giving any running commentary. There are twenty eight different movements and my descriptions will not enlighten you as will Matthew’s lecture and the music itself. Therefore, just a few thoughts.

Beethoven’s last quartets have always been presented as being difficult and abstruse. The nineteenth century continued to view them as unlistenable.

“The late string quartets of Beethoven were written by a deaf man and should be listened to by a deaf man”. (Sir Thomas Beecham)

This kind of remark was totally unacceptable as well as putting many like me in total fear of these quartets. Many of our generation revered Sir Thomas both for his interpretations and his waggery. His musicality and dedication were unquestionable but no longer so his public utterances. If he did believe his own quote then maybe he never did understand the difference between a string quartet and a lollipop.

Quartets no 12 and 13 each starts with a short introduction. Nothing necessarily unusual about that but the introductions, unlike their predecessors, form an integral part of the later development. Schubert did the same in his Unfinished Symphony composed in 1822.

Quartets 13 and 14 have respectively six and seven movements. I have noticed that some commentators have described them as suites. There is nothing, other than the precedent of Haydn, to limit a quartet to four movements. It was the convention. To add further movements, as Beethoven did with his opus 9 trios, does not put them in the same category as the Nutcracker Suite. These remain quartets where Beethoven was exploring new sounds and, where, if he needed more movements, it might just be because he had a lot more to say. These extended quartets could be likened to Mahler symphonies of eighty years later. They are, by reason of their varied nature and profundity, akin to symphonies written for string quartet!

One cannot leave without mentioning the last movement of Number 13. The original intention was that this movement would be the grosse fuge . It follows after five earlier movements which are all in much more contented mood. The grosse fuge is in sharp contrast and takes nearly a further twenty minutes. It is not a serene fugue as Bach would have written but it lets out all the pain and agony that Beethoven seems to have suffered. Beethoven’s publisher, Artaria, immediately suggested to Beethoven that it did not suit. Normally Beethoven would have gone apoplectic at such a suggestion but quite nonchalantly he substituted it with the cheerful movement we now know. This movement was to be his last composition and looks back to Haydn. There is a growing practice for some string quartets these days to re-substitute the grosse fuge instead on the basis that Beethoven’s first thoughts would comprise his pure unadulterated thinking. The grose fuge is an important work which sounds, forgive me if you do not agree, as if Beethoven had been composing it whilst undergoing Chinese acupuncture treatment which had gone wrong. My personal opinion is that it should remain to be played as a stand alone as it just does not fit with No 13. There is an orchestration of it by Otto Klemperer for string orchestra, quite interesting, but it could never have been a Beecham Lollipop. Stravinsky described the Grosse Fuge as “an absolutely contemporary piece of music that will be contemporary forever.”

The last string quartets clearly obsessed Beethoven well beyond his initial commission in an exploration to find sounds and moods that together encompass all. They are not just some modernist or futurist experiments but they research also the past and include inspiration from the likes of Haydn, Bach and even Palestrina. If you are looking for solemnity, majesty, heroics, rustic dancing, spirituality, neo-baroque, pain, suffering, modern traditional or modal you name it – it’s all there.

During this time, Beethoven was working on a tenth symphony; had plans for a horn concerto and a sixth piano concerto and was considering an opera based on Faust. If only! His mental processes were still productive and working overtime. His physical health in contrast was failing him. He was regularly falling ill and in his last years was suffering from terminal dropsy which eventually and painfully took him on 26 March 1827. He had met Franz Schubert who had been present at the first performance of the ninth symphony and who was one of the pall bearers three days after his death when over 20,000 people turned out in tribute for the funeral procession of Beethoven. (See picture page 1)

Most composers since do not appear to have managed more than three quartets, many only managing one. The only composer approaching such a monumental output of string quartets as Beethoven produced, not to mention the symphonies and the sonatas, must be Shostakovitch (15 quartets) but few would concede that they are the equal to those of Beethoven.