By the 1820s, Ludwig van Beethoven was widely recognized as the greatest living composer in Europe, achieving a level of appreciation that had eluded such composers as Bach and Mozart in their own lifetimes. But, apart from the monumental ninth symphony, most of the works that had secured him that status had been written in the 1800s to early 1810s. Around 1815, Beethoven went through something of a fallow period – an artistic crisis, perhaps, as he became dissatisfied with the ‘heroic’ approach of his middle years and sought to develop new modes of musical expression.
He eventually turned to the works of older composers, long out of fashion – the contrapuntal style of Baroque masters like Bach and Handel – and the incorporation of this kind of writing into his own Classical idiom became an integral feature of his late period. Despite the massive popular triumph of his ninth symphony in 1824, his work had become more idiosyncratic, further outside the mainstream of musical development at the time, more inscrutable to his contemporaries.
That tendency reached its peak in Beethoven’s last major works, the string quartets nos. 12, 13, 14, 15, and 16, and the Große Fuge (“Great Fugue”). Sparked by a commission for three quartets by Prince Nikolai Galitzine in 1822, once the ninth symphony had been finished and premiered, Beethoven returned to this genre, which he had not worked in since 1810. Many years earlier, he had written that he would be content to write nothing but string quartets for the rest of his life; now, he had his chance to indulge himself in the form, writing for a patron who appreciated his talents and had even gone so far as to offer him whatever price he deemed reasonable for the composition of the quartets.
Working through illness, he completed three quartets, now known as No. 12 in E♭, No. 13 in B♭, and No. 15 in A minor, in 1825, but – as if his creativity had been uncorked and now the flow could not be staunched – he proceeded to write two more beyond the original commission, No. 14 in C♯ minor and No. 16 in F, in 1826. When his publisher complained about the great length and difficulty of the finale of No. 13, Beethoven agreed to publish that finale as a separate work, the “Great Fugue”. The replacement finale that he wrote for No. 13 was the last thing he composed before his death in March 1827.
The late quartets were unlike anything that had been written at the time, and indeed are unlike anything that has been written to this day. They are in many respects “difficult”, not just for the players but for the listener as well. They are complex. They are harmonically adventurous. They bend and play with form. On top of this, they are, by their nature as string quartets, somewhat austere, with the monochromatic tone of the strings allowing for none of the colour or special effects possible in writing for an orchestra.
But they are also incredibly, profoundly beautiful. Even when they are difficult – indeed, perhaps because they are difficult – they seem to invite the audience to listen actively, to pay attention; and the rewards for doing so are, in this OT header writer’s humble opinion, some of the most intense joy to be gotten from music.
Beethoven’s contemporaries largely found these quartets puzzling, even bewildering. Some suggested that, Beethoven having been almost completely deaf for some time now, his inner ear could tolerate dissonances that were simply unbearable when actually played out loud. While most critics found things to praise, and certainly they expressed their negative opinions of such a renowned personage with great tact and reverence, they also found much in the quartets “bizarre, rough, and capricious.” The Great Fugue was “incomprehensible, like Chinese.” Even the composer Louis Spohr called them “indecipherable, uncorrected errors.” While Beethoven’s earlier works were idolized by the next generations of composers, the late quartets became something of a musical dead end, largely neglected and ignored in the subsequent history of music.
One notable exception among Beethoven’s contemporaries was Schubert, who, as his own final illness overtook him in late 1828, wished for nothing more than to hear Beethoven’s C♯ minor quartet. He did, five days before his death, reportedly saying, “After this, what is left for us to write?” As time has gone on, appreciation for the late quartets has increased. Wagner and Bartok admired them. Stravinsky called the Great Fugue “an absolutely contemporary piece of music that will be contemporary forever”. The philosopher Theodor Adorno (when he wasn’t writing screeds against jazz) singularly praised them and wrote about them at length.
Here is the Alban Berg String Quartet playing one of the most sublime movements from the late quartets, the “Heiliger Dankgesang” or “holy song of thanks” from the A minor quartet:
And here they are playing the “forever contemporary” Great Fugue:
Have a good night thread!