Beethoven’s String Quartets

This article was originally published on the Duke Performances blog

Composed between 1798 and 1826, a span of not quite three decades, Beethoven’s sixteen string quartets have continued to exude their magic over the rich traditions of Western chamber music for now approaching two centuries. When Beethoven arrived in Vienna from Bonn in 1792, to receive, according to his patron Count Waldstein, Mozart’s spirit from Haydn, the young musician strove to establish himself as a pianist, in order to gain entrance into the salons of the aristocrats who were the principal arbiters of musical taste in the Imperial city. But chamber music was never far from his mind; one of Beethoven’s treasured possessions was a matched set of string instruments from Prince Carl Lichnowsky, and Beethoven himself was an experienced violist, having played during his youth in the court orchestra of Bonn. It was just a matter of time before he tried his own hand composing for the genre of the string quartet — well established by the end of the century in European court culture, owing largely to the efforts of Haydn, who produced nearly four score examples of the genre, and Mozart, whose roughly two dozen quartets included a masterful set of six dedicated to Haydn. We know that the young Beethoven diligently copied out their quartets for detailed study, and not surprisingly, his earliest foray into the genre, the six quartets of op. 18 (1800), dedicated to Prince Franz Joseph von Lobkowitz, drew heavily upon the models and forms of his predecessors.

Sometime around 1803, Beethoven was reported to have announced his intention to seek a “new way” forward in his music.

For the German poet Goethe, a well-crafted quartet was like an enlightened conversation between four rational participants, in which all could equally participate in the shifting dynamics of the music. Beethoven seems to have taken this metaphor to heart in op. 18, as he sought to assimilate the high Viennese classicism of the late eighteenth century. Be that as it may, op. 18 still anticipates Beethoven’s later determined rupture from the classical mold, intimated by his increasing tendency to position strategically dramatic interruptions in his scores that now and again mar their classical veneer, and to juxtapose sharply contrasting styles of music. Thus, in op. 18 no. 1, we find a deeply felt slow movement in a tragic vein, possibly inspired by the tomb scene in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, followed immediately and paradoxically by a rhythmically shifting, whimsical scherzo, which supplants the older, more dignified minuet and complicates the deeper emotional layers of what proceeded.

Sometime around 1803, Beethoven was reported to have announced his intention to seek a “new way” forward in his music. He was now suffering from a progressive deterioration of his hearing, an affliction that by 1815 would leave him totally deaf. The five middle-period quartets, including the three dedicated to the Russian ambassador to Austria, Count Razumovsky — op. 59 (1808), “Harp” op. 74,  and “Serioso” — op. 95 dramatically reflect the external realities of the times, wracked as they were by the devastation of the Napoleonic wars, but they also turn increasingly inward, to suggest the intimate struggles of a composer confronting the loss of the one sense, in which, he lamented, he should have been whole. 

One result was that the stylistic discontinuities of the middle-period quartets challenged Beethoven’s audiences more and more. Critics found them difficult to comprehend, even if the appeal of the Razumovsky Quartets was enhanced by Beethoven’s use of Russian popular melodies (one of which Musorgsky later featured in the Coronation Scene of his opera Boris Godunov). In the case of op. 59 no. 1, after playing its scherzo, which begins with nothing more than a stubborn repetition of a single pitch, the cellist Bernhard Romberg threw his part on the floor and trampled it. The “Serioso” Quartet in F minor, which unfolds in four decidedly “serious” movements only to conclude with an utterly deflating, if ironic, coda in F major, drew from Beethoven the comment that he intended the piece for connoisseurs, not for public consumption.

Few of Beethoven’s contemporaries embraced the challenges of the late quartets; rather, it remained for the following generations to come to terms with them. Though traces of op. 130 did turn up as early as the finale of Schubert’s last piano sonata (1828), the quartets from the 1830s and 40s of Mendelssohn, his sister Fanny Hensel, and Robert Schumann were arguably among the first to attempt to absorb the idiosyncrasies of the late style. During the nineteenth century, none of Beethoven’s successors matched his output in the genre, though Dvořák was able to write fourteen; like Schumann, Brahms produced only three. Debussy, a “musicien français” who eschewed a reliance on Austro-Germanic traditions, wrote only one, though admittedly, it used cyclic thematic techniques between its movements that ultimately derived from Beethoven’s precedent. On the other hand, in the last century several composers wholeheartedly took up the question, posed by Schubert shortly before he died in 1828, as to what, if anything, was left for them to write after Beethoven’s op. 131. 

In effect, Beethoven had upturned Goethe’s polite, rational conversation of equals: the string quartet genre now plumbed the interior world of the composer, the very depths of the human psyche, with all its unpredictability. The final phase for Beethoven was to enter the extraordinary and arguably irrational world of the five late quartets, opp. 127, 132, and 130 (dedicated to Prince Gallitzin), together with opp. 131 and 135 — all composed in short order, in 1825 and 1826. The “,” originally conceived as the finale of op. 130 but released separately as op. 133, because of its scope and monumentality, must also be included on this list. Here, in the final years of his life, the heart and mind of the composer worked in tandem to generate unprecedented music of searing autobiographical intensity and abstract compositional logic, pointing the way to a transcendental, romantic language of pure tones. It was the ultimate Beethovenian paradox. On the one hand, this was music of a deaf composer that called out for words (the expressive cavatina of op. 130; the “Sacred Song of Thanks of a Convalescent to the Deity in the Lydian Mode” as the interior midpoint of op. 132; and the sphinx-like “Difficult Decision,” for the finale of op. 135). On the other, the late quartets also tested musical logic by returning to the chess-like patterns and combinations of cerebral counterpoint (e.g., using a fugue to open op. 131; incorporating a chorale fugue in the “Sacred Song” of op. 132; and compiling a compendium of fugal artifices in the “Great Fugue,” so dissonant and ahead of its time that Stravinsky later celebrated it as a work of contemporary music).

Modernists endeavored to find answers. The Second Viennese School of Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern, while abandoning tonality, continued to cultivate the string quartet. The six quartets of the Hungarian Béla Bartók are now often regarded as constituting a cycle worthy of Beethoven, and several other modernists were conspicuously prolific in the genre, including Milhaud (eighteen, of which two were designed to be performed either as quartets or together as an octet), Shostakovich (fifteen), Elizabeth Maconchy (thirteen), Villa-Lobos (seventeen), and Peter Maxwell Davies (ten). In 1972, the American George Rochberg, a confirmed serialist and composer of seven quartets, committed a controversial volte-face by reviving tonal triads in his Third String Quartet, alluding in a neo-romantic idiom directly to Beethoven’s late quartets, as if to bridge the wide historical gulf separating Rochberg from the 1820s. And finally, the ever-provocative Karlheinz Stockhausen, who dreamt since childhood of flying, realized a new vision of “transcendental” music in his Helicopter String Quartet (1995), in which the four musicians are airborne in as many helicopters, and, having escaped the gravitational pull of the earth, perform a kind of ethereal music which even the visionary Beethoven likely could not have imagined.              


R. Larry Todd is Arts & Sciences Professor of Music at Duke University, and co-author, with Marc Moskovitz, of Beethoven’s Cello: Five Revolutionary Sonatas and Their World (Boydell & Brewer, 2018).