Beethoven’s late quartets

Beethoven’s late quartets

By Frederike Berntsen

What drives a world-renowned composer, one who set new standards in all types of music, to dedicate the last three years of his life to writing nothing but string quartets? Between 7 May 1824, the day of the Ninth Symphony’s spectacularly successful premiere, and his death on 26 March 1827, Beethoven only composed music for string quartet, a body of work known as his ‘late’ quartets. Why? Why in this style? And what does this music mean to the musicians who play it?

Three string quartets whose members represent the young generation are taking on the late Beethovens during the Biennale week. Here are a few of their reflections:

Johannes Marmen, first violinist with the Marmen Quartet:
“This music stays with you for your whole life as a quartet, and part of it is the realisation that you may never really be ready for these quartets. And in a way, that’s also what it’s all about. With every step you take as a quartet, you realise that you’re getting a bit closer to the late Beethovens – the path to them is the most important. For me, opus 131 is about that, the essence of our existence: being on the journey. Opus 131 is a journey; the movements are not discrete parts, but are connected to each other, unlike in the other quartets. In the first breath, the first notes, you already feel the whole piece, everything that’s still to come. Brahms said that Bach’s famous Chaconne is a journey through all the emotions of human existence. So is opus 131. I find it an interesting observation that Beethoven didn’t feel compelled to write very many letters, that he felt less comfortable with that form. But his music, it’s so unbelievably subtle and associative, its structure is amazingly complex. This shows that music contains truths that really can’t be captured in words.

If you’re working on this music, you’re forced to delve down to the core of your own being. You’re confronted with your deepest emotions, your weaknesses, your power. That means that it’s very rewarding to work on it. You can’t hide yourself. You grow enormously by working with Beethoven’s late quartets. It’s also the best repertoire for finding out what it means to play in a quartet with your colleagues. When you learn a piece of music, you try to understand how it was written. It’s as if you’re trying to get to know another person, with all their complexities. You dig as deep as you can, and translate your findings for the listeners. With Beethoven you have to accept that getting to know that person will take an eternity. But the relationship you’re building with the music matures with every step.”

Why did Beethoven write his late string quartets? An initial explanation is the simple fact that they were commissioned by the Russian aristocrat Nikolai Galitzin. Beethoven also believed that works for chamber ensembles would tap into the new market created by the expanding amateur music scene. Perhaps more important, however, is the observation that with his ‘Symphony no. 9’, the late piano sonatas and the ‘Diabelli Variations’, Beethoven had rounded off his development in these genres. Fragments that he would ultimately use in the late quartets appear in his sketchbooks from as early as 1822. Apparently he still felt that the string quartet still offered him room to grow as a composer. It was a challenge he was happy to take on, and one which continued to obsess him for years.

Beethoven had a thorough knowledge of the string quartet in the form bequeathed by Haydn and Mozart, a style he had mastered down to the fine points. His last quartets up to then, the ‘Harp’ and ‘Serioso’ quartets opus 74 and 95, are perfectly in the First Viennese School mould, with the addition of some typically Beethovenian verve. But they are not genuinely innovative works. However emotionally profound their content may be, their form and language are classical. Formally, these pieces are akin to the late piano sonatas, while the late string quartets display the freedom and inventiveness that also characterise the ‘Diabelli Variations’.

Ivan Valentin Hollup Roald, cellist of the Simply Quartet:
“When you first work on Haydn and the early Beethoven quartets, you learn a lot about structure, language and rhetoric from that part of the classical repertoire. You plumb the meanings and the function of every phrase. This helps you to make your way through Beethoven’s late works. To speak this language freely, you have to feel that you’re free in approaching it yourself, and you have to be equipped with a good understanding of the musical language, besides complete mastery of your instrument. And of course you have to be able to read what’s there between the lines. You read the late Beethovens like a book that you always carry with you. They’re important literature that you learn to understand better and better. They open your mind and show you all sorts of possibilities, they tap into to your total power of imagination. This music is also a kind of mental training. As musicians, we all have our own images, and our own ideas about sound and colour. When we practice, we try to fathom the character and structure of a piece; these things are the key to finding the right timbre. We rehearse a lot, but sometimes we leave something undecided until during the concert, so that we can listen to the hall, to the energy of the audience. This way you make a performance along with the audience. If you can do that, you’re completely connected to the listeners. Beethoven is searching and developing, and he asks that we the players do that too. His art forces us to not sit back and be complacent.  Maybe a few answers to the questions Beethoven asks in his music can be found here on earth. But most of them are somewhere out there in the universe. Who are we and where are we going, these big questions emerge when you play Beethoven’s late quartets.”

Beethoven’s use of the different instruments in the late string quartets is quite remarkable. His earlier quartets only rarely use another voice than the first violin for the melody (Razumovsky 1). The late quartets are characterised by a highly ingenious allocating of the various functions. For example, the bass line is not exclusively given to the cello. Also, the viola, cello and even the second violin are not limited to being subsidiary voices, and often have a share in playing the most important musical line.

All of Beethoven’s quartet compositions up to and including the ‘String Quartet no. 12’ (the first of the late quartets) have the classic four movements. His last, ‘String Quartet no. 16’, also has four movements, but with the Adagio as the third movement, an order used by Beethoven himself in ‘no. 9’, which was taken over later by Bruckner. The three quartets between them, ‘Thirteen’, ‘Fourteen’ and ‘Fifteen’, have six, seven and five movements respectively.

These are all formal criteria. The greatest miracle of these late string quartets is in the sounds you hear: music that was impossible to understand for Beethoven’s contemporaries, but that now, two hundred years on, is considered as one of the greatest human creations.

Mayu Konoe, violist with the Leonkoro Quartet:
“That this music exists is like a dream, and we realise that. And: we as the Leonkoro Quartet exist because the late Beethovens exist! Each of us knew it for ourselves before we even formed a quartet: ‘one day I want to play the late Beethovens.’ When I listen to the greats on earth, like the Alban Berg Quartet, I can barely imagine that we can ever get that far as a quartet, that we can achieve that colour, energy and depth. I have the feeling that these musicians play Beethoven in a way that the composer himself would have been happy with. It’s not the notes that are the problem, but the complexity, the multi-layeredness. We all studied with Günter Pichler, who played first violin with the Alban Berg Quartet. We were working on the ‘Cavatina’ from the String Quartet no. 13 – he said, ‘You have to feel this, not rehearse it. You have to feel the music!’ When we play the ‘Cavatina’ it can make me cry. You’re overcome by emotions. If I can bring even a tiny bit of this over to the audience I’ll be very happy.”