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FastNotes

  • If his string trios cling to classical rules of conduct, taking their cue from Haydn and Mozart, the late string quartets (1824-1826), the last music Beethoven was to write, are creations of the profoundest originality and introspection.
  • The first (under-rehearsed) performance of the Quartet in E-flat, Op. 127 evidently went very poorly. The music subsequently fared much better in the hands of a quartet led by Joseph Michael Böhm, who reported Beethoven’s insistence that his ensemble perform the piece.

If his string trios cling to classical rules of conduct, taking their cue from Haydn and Mozart, the late string quartets (1824-1826), the last music Beethoven was to write, are creations of the profoundest originality and introspection, expressions of a man by this time living very much within himself. The image of Beethoven’s deafness and the isolation he demanded of himself are inescapable in this context.

In 1822, through the offices of Prince Nikolai Galitzin, another Russian nobleman living in Vienna, came the commissioning of three of the composer’s last quartets – a notion suggested to the Prince by Karl Zeuner, violist of Galitzin’s private quartet. Thus, Beethoven’s “Galitzin” Quartets, Opp. 127, 130, and 132.

In March of 1825 Beethoven dictated (undoubtedly with tongue in cheek) to his secretary, Anton Schindler, a letter to Ignaz Schuppanzigh, Franz Weiss, Joseph Linke, and Karl Holz – the members at that time of the Schuppanzigh Quartet, which had a long performance history of Beethoven’s works:  

Most excellent fellows!

Each of you is receiving herewith his part. And each of you undertakes to do his duty and, what is more, pledges himself on his word of honor to acquit himself and vie in excellence with the others. Each of you participating in said undertaking must sign this paper.

BEETHOVEN

Schindler secretarius

The work referred to was the Quartet in E-flat, Op. 127, whose first (under-rehearsed) performance evidently went very poorly. Beethoven would later attribute its failure (although he wasn’t in attendance) to Schuppanzigh’s extreme corpulence, “which caused him to work at everything very slowly.”

The music subsequently fared much better in the hands of a quartet led by Joseph Michael Böhm, who reported:

“When Beethoven learned of the poor performance [by the Schuppanzigh ensemble] – for he was not present – he became furious and let the performers have no peace until the disgrace was wiped away. He sent for me first thing in the morning, and in his usual curt way said to me, ‘You must play my quartet,’ and the thing was settled. Neither objections nor doubts could prevail; what Beethoven wanted had to take place, so I undertook the difficult task. It was studied and rehearsed frequently under Beethoven’s own eyes. I said ‘eyes’ intentionally, for the unhappy man was so deaf he could no longer hear the heavenly sound of his compositions… With close attention his eyes followed the bows and therefore he was able to judge the slightest fluctuations in tempo and rhythm and correct them immediately. At the close of the last movement of the quartet there occurred a ‘meno vivace’ which seemed to me to weaken the general effect. At the rehearsal, therefore, I advised that the original tempo be maintained…

“Beethoven, crouched in a corner, heard nothing, but watched with strained attention. After the last stroke of the bows, he said, laconically, ‘let it remain so,’ went to the desks and crossed out the ‘meno vivace’ in the four parts.”

Op. 127 scored an enormous success in the hands of Böhm and his colleagues, with the Vienna Theaterzeitung noting the vast improvement over the Schuppanzigh performance.

— Herbert Glass