Ludwig van Beethoven, 1770-1827
When the Russian Prince Galitzin approached Beethoven with a commission for “one, two or three” quartets, he helped catalyze one of the most wondrous creations in all of chamber music: the ineffable “late” quartets of Beethoven. After finishing the three commissioned quartets, Beethoven kept on composing adding a forth and fifth quartet and a final revised movement comprising a singular corpus of sustained musical thought and feeling of tremendous scope and arguable unity. All for the string quartet. Spanning a working focus of two years time, these are Beethoven’s final compositions, testament to his enduring devotion to the string quartet, witness to his mastery, transcendence and everlasting dominance of this august genre.
Beethoven took the classical string quartet from Haydn and Mozart and, over the course of his life, radically expanded the art form in every conceivable way. He not only made his quartets longer, more complicated and more difficult to play, more impossible, he also made them more intellectually and emotional intense. More majestic, tragic, funny, simple, brilliant, imponderable and miraculous. Simply, more profound, more alive, more vividly real. The fourth of the late quartets in the order he composed them, Op. 131 is, by ample testimony, the greatest of them all. It was Beethoven’s favorite. Schubert’s final musical request was to hear Beethoven’s Op. 131. Wagner wrote a florid, poetic tome about the epic greatness of Op. 131. There is no ultimate objective judgment, but these are fine, suggestive pointers. It is not ingenuous to say that this just might be la crème de la crème.
With seven movements and typically, the longest duration of any of his quartets, Op. 131 would seem to be Beethoven’s most expansive utterance. All seven movements are played without pause creating a single giant continuous structure embracing an initial somber but lyrical fugue, two vibrant scherzi, a colossal theme and variations, connective recitative, a wisp of heartbreaking adagio and a dazzling finale cresting in mountainous developments alongside the most delicate, visceral, effervescent and tensile textures imaginable. For both the first and the last movements, is it revealing to consider that Beethoven had composed the monolithic Op. 133 Grosse Fuge immediately prior. The central theme and variations by itself is among Beethoven’s greatest creations. And it is not the technical details that most amaze. It is how the music makes one feel.
Attempting to write about Op. 131 reaches a glorious impasse: 1 word is too many, 10,000 are not enough. There is and will always be the music. Thanks to Prince Galitzin, and Beethoven.