Beethoven Chamber Music – The late Period





My last note ended with Beethoven writing his Emperor piano concerto in 1809, still in his middle period. We should not forget to take into account the background picture affecting the lives of all artists. War had broken out again and Vienna seized after heavy bombardment by Napoleon’s forces with the Austrians withdrawing over the Danube.  A peace treaty in October restored some of the Hapsburg position. This had been stage managed by Metternich and sealed by the marriage of the Emperor’s 18 year old daughter, Marie Louise, to the 40 year old balding Napoleon.  Doubtless she was counselled to close her eyes and think of Austria.  Alas, poor Josephine. This period from 1809 was nevertheless grim on the home front, not that one would think so from The Emperor concerto.  The walls surrounding Vienna had been flattened and it was now an open city.  To top it all the currency had toppled overnight losing 80% of its value, very much hitting the poor rich, some of whom stopped making their payments to Beethoven. He was big enough not to take it from anyone and was fast becoming a compulsive litigant, keeping his lawyers busy anyway.  Thus it was that he even took Prince Lobkowitz to court, the man who had financed the Eroica and who had now commissioned the Harp quartet.

Beethoven’s rate of production had slowed (comparatively) and he was now into what one might describe as his late middle period during which he produced five great piano sonatas, the best known of which is the “Les Adieux”.  He also returned again to the string quartet with two, the Harp Op 74 and the Serioso, opus 95.

The Harp had obtained its moniker from the pizzicato writing in the first movement. Its use was quite unusual for its time and we have to wait till Debussy and Ravel for pizzicato to be more greatly exploited.  The Harp abounds in reproducing  ideas and motives taken from his 5th symphony which Beethoven could not resist repeating.

The Serioso’s opus number is misleading.  It actually was written in early 1810 but only published later. It is out of the same stable as the Harp but they are by no means identical twins. If the Harp harps back to fifth symphony, the Serioso seems a foretaste of things to come.  Its opening sounds Freudian and best to be played in the waiting room of a psychoanalyst.  It is the shortest of his quartets and looks towards the late quartets to be written more than ten years ahead.  More of them anon.

In 1810 came the last piano trio, the Archduke, dedicated as was the Emperor piano concerto, to Archduke Rudolf.  That same year, Beethoven met Goethe for the first time and composed incidental music for his play, Egmont, based on a Flemish hero.

There were other contemporary challengers around who have since been expunged from popular memory but, head and shoulders above as Beethoven was, the man of the moment was Rossini who had taken Vienna by storm. The Barber of Seville was top of the charts in the whistling stakes. It even received an accreditation from Beethoven at the end of the second movement of his eighth symphony where there is a miniature take off of a Rossini crescendo.

Meantime, back to Napoleon. His fortunes were somewhat dashed at Borodino in 1812, depicted in Tchaikovsky’s over the top 1812 overture but written in 1882.  The French were having to fight their way back.  The Austrians made an attempt to cut off the retreating Grande Armée at the battle of Hanau with the aim of bringing the wars to an early end there and then.  This cunning plan unfortunately failed and the French forces were able to slip across the Rhine back into France, a kind of Dunkirk in reverse. This was the background to Beethoven’s return to the symphony with his seventh completed in 1812, followed by the eighth just a few months later. It was now four years since his great akadamie (concert) of 1808 when he presented to the world the 5th and 6th symphonies as well as the fourth piano concerto.

The first performance of the seventh symphony took place in 1813 at a concert for soldiers wounded at the battle of Hanau.  I had previously imagined that this was attended by the battle victims themselves. Actually, it was a charity concert to raise money for the wounded, and the attendees more likely to have been the likes of the Presidents Club, with or without hostesses I cannot say. The allegretto (second movement) did go down well having to be repeated twice. An even bigger hit was his Battle Symphony played at the same concert.  In 1813 the Spanish were defeated at the Battle of Vittoria by a combined force of English and Portuguese under the newly ennobled Duke of Wellington. In tribute, Beethoven wrote a battle symphony. Here I again have to eat my words as to the limited size of the orchestra in Beethoven’s day.  The Battle Symphony was scored for an enormous 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 pf nearly sixty.  It has “God Save the King” (first subject) and the French march, “Malbrouck”, which sounds like “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow” for its second.  You won’t often hear it now and it can best be described as “A top notcher’s rock bottom”.  Beethoven dedicated it to the Prince Regent whose boundless enthusiasm for it  remains typical of unchanging royal taste.


The eighth symphony which followed turned out to be a disappointment. Small in scale after the seventh, it appeared to return to being Haydnesque particularly as it included of all things a minuet.  The scherzoid second movement is best known for its tick tick accompaniment, much faster than that of Haydn’s clock symphony with which it has been compared.  It was a send up by Beethoven of the metronome, recently invented or more likely cloned by Johann Nepomuk Maelzel.  He also had invented the panharmonicon, a mechanical instrument that artificially reproduced the sounds of the full orchestra for which he is said to have written the themes of the Battle symphony.  He then claimed that he and Beethoven agreed to go 50/50 on the receipts from the Battle symphony and eventually the two finished with Beethoven in suing mood and taking Maelzel to court.  Maelzel also produced a state of the art ear trumpet in 1808 which Beethoven doubtless tried out without much success.  Today one would surely find Maelzel in the Dragon’s Den as an entrepreneur ready to offer 10% of his equity to those with money to burn.

1814 also saw the opening of the Congress of Vienna with the whole world gathered there, more for the dancing and the entertainment than the politics.  Amongst those participating, apart from Metternich and Talleyrand, would be familiar names such as Rasumovsky and Lichnowsky.  Many former patrons were however to lose their power and influence and Beethoven found himself needing to look elsewhere for commissions.  During the Congress a revival was mounted of Fidelio which had been considerably overhauled and with four overtures into the bargain.

1814 to 1817 was a 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 made a will first giving joint custody of Karl to both his wife and Beethoven.  Carl then revoked Beethoven’s appointment and upon Carl’s death  bitter litigation was to ensue.  Beethoven considered the mother unfit and morally degenerate.  Poor Karl was shunted by the courts 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 and being sacked all over the place.  Karl, who did not find it fun living with grumpy deaf old uncle Ludwig, eventually attempted shooting himself – but managed to miss.  Beethoven ultimately did gain custody but the relationship between them was never easy. Beethoven had hoped Karl would inherit the musical genes. He didn’t and in the end was happy to enlist as a soldier.  All of this resulted in almost three years loss of productive output by Beethoven whose physical prowess and hearing were getting worse.

One cannot pinpoint when the third period could be said to begin exactly, even less so than that between his early and middle periods.  His last two cello sonatas could be claimed to start the late period and were written in 1815, the year of Waterloo as it happens. So if you don’t like referring to it as the third period or the late period, why not call it the Post Waterloo period. As for old Bony, he was sent off to St Helena where he lived till 1821. On learning of his death, the composer of the Eroica could only make one short  comment, “Well I have written his funeral march already”. Looking at a list of his output for this Post Waterloo period one perceives there are only a minimal few works in any year, sometimes just one single piano sonata. Over this time he was working on his ninth symphony on and off over a number of years before its appearance in 1823.  As far as composition is concerned the list is mainly of songs, Irish songs, Scottish songs, Vienna songs and, somewhat strangely, several canons. Many were not given an opus number.  Back in his early period he had been producing new compositions like a rabbit but also spending as much time as a competitive pianist; in the second (middle) period he was turning out masterpieces by the dozen with his attention aimed at the concert hall and its audiences.  Now in this lonely silent late period he was writing for himself and his own inner satisfaction. He was experimenting and soul searching.

Two hundred years ago, in 1818, Beethoven was producing little but he did return to the piano and write his mighty Hammerklavier sonata, observed one morning by Nephew Karl watching Beethoven pounding away at his piano.  Here again he chooses to return to the mighty fugue.  Remember Albrechsberger, and the discipline he instilled back in the 1790’s?  We now have both the great muscular Beethoven and a slow movement, so quiet with Beethoven at peace with himself.

By 1819 Beethoven was working on the Missa Solemnis which yet again he dedicated to Archduke, now Archbishop, Rudolf.  It is an enormous work written alongside the choral symphony.  His only previous mass had been the Mass in C written for Esterhazy back in 1807.  This time, for the Missa Solemnis, Beethoven was not quite the unchallengeable top dog.  Yet, he wasn’t going to be second either. God was in pole position, but Beethoven shared the front grid with Him.

One large undertaking during the same period were the Diabelli Variations written for piano.  Diabelli, was known as a light music composer who invited several composers, including Beethoven, each to write a single variation on a simple theme.  At first Beethoven showed no interest for it but the idea took hold, so much that he interrupted composition of his Missa Solemnis and wrote 23 variations for starters.  He then returned to it in 1823 and wrote a further 9 variations and added a coda making a total of 33. Why such an odd number?  Two explanations have been proffered.  One is that Bach wrote 32 variations for his Goldberg Variations and that this was Beethoven’s idea of one-upmanship.  The other was that Diabelli had already collected 32 individual variations from others and this was Beethoven’s idea of 33-upmanship!

The ninth symphony, the Choral, was a project on which he had worked for almost ten years.  It had been commissioned some years before by the Philharmonic Society in London, but it was not to get its first performance there. Its immense power showed that Beethoven had lost none of his touch but there is a deep new maturity discernible.  Yes, there are the clean cut sculptured phrases with which one is already familiar but there has now crept in a sense of searching, motives weaving their way in and through the work’s progress and development. The first movement seeks to be searching some goal and only Beethoven knows the way.  Its success was illustrated in that at the end of its first performance of the music he had hardly heard, Beethoven was turned around so as to face the audience in order he might witness the applause and cheering that he could no longer hear.

We come to the late quartets.  There are five plus the Grosse Fuge.

These first three were commissioned in 1823 by Prince Galitzkin as follows

As with the Harp and the Serioso fifteen years earlier, these were all published separately.  I find it difficult to remember which is which from their opus numbers, although I have no such difficulty with the symphonies.  Perhaps they should have had been accorded individual name tags.  There are twenty eight different movements in all and as my descriptions will not enlighten you I will leave it to Matthew’s lectures and the music itself to do so.  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)


Many of our generation revered Sir Thomas both for his interpretations and his waggery but this kind of remark was totally unacceptable as well as putting many like myself in total fear of these quartets for many years. Beecham’s musicality and dedication were unquestionable but political correctness was not his forte. If he did believe his own quip then it may be that he never did understand what the difference was between a string quartet and a lollipop.

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 convention and the precedent set by Haydn and Mozart which limits a quartet to four movements.  To add further movements, as Beethoven had done years before with his opus 9 trios, does not place them in the same category as the Nutcracker Suite.  These remain quartets where Beethoven was exploring a new sound world and, when he felt he needed more movements, it might just be because he had a lot more to say.  These extended quartets might be likened to the Mahler symphonies of eighty years later. They are, by reason of their varied nature and profundity symphonies. They happen to be written for the string quartet!

One cannot leave without mentioning the last movement of Number 13, opus 130.  The original intention was that this movement would be the grosse fuge .  It follows 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 emits all the pain and agony that Beethoven seems to have suffered.  Beethoven’s publisher, Artaria, immediately suggested to Beethoven that it did not fit.  Normally Beethoven would have gone apoplectic at such a suggestion but quite nonchalantly he substituted it with the genial final movement we now know.  This movement was to be his last composition and has the innocence of Haydn.  There is a practice for some string quartets these days to re-substitute the grosse fuge instead on the basis that Beethoven’s first thoughts would reflect what was his pure unadulterated original thinking.  My own opinion is that it should remain to be played as a stand-alone piece. There is also an orchestration of it by Otto Klemperer for string orchestra, quite interesting. Stravinsky described the Grosse Fuge as “an absolutely contemporary piece of music that will be contemporary forever.” I would prescribe it as best not to be listened to whilst undergoing acupuncture.

The last string quartets clearly obsessed Beethoven well beyond his initial remit in exploring for new sounds and moods that together encompass all. They are not just modernist or futurist experiments but they scour also the past and are inspired by 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 – they are all there.

Beethoven would write no more. Yet the quartets are not valedictory statements as one might suppose. 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 the Faust legend. If only! His mental processes were still productive and sharp.  His physical health was, in contrast, failing him. He was regularly falling ill and in his last years was suffering from dropsy which eventually and painfully took him on 26 March 1827.  He had recently met Schubert who had been present at the first performance of the ninth symphony and who was one of the pall bearers three days after Beethoven’s death when over 20,000 people turned out in tribute for the funeral procession of Beethoven. 

Pace Muhamad Ali, the measure of greatness is but a matter of opinion,. For me there is no doubt. Beethoven was the greatest of them all. That is a fact.