Misunderstood in their own day, what is it about Beethoven’s late string quartets that keeps players and audiences coming back?

Legend has it that when the Italian violinist Felix Radicati complained that Beethoven’s Opus 59 Quartets were “not music”, the composer responded: “Oh, they are not for you, but for a later age.”

In hindsight such words feel prophetic, with countless string quartets performing and recording cycles of Beethoven’s String Quartets all over the world.

Easily divided into three distinct groups, the String Quartets provide neat snapshots across the composer’s career. In the early quartets – the six quartets of Opus 18 – Beethoven is seen as perfecting the Classical form, particularly as exemplified by the work of Haydn – lauded as the ‘father’ of the string quartet – and Mozart. Count Ferdinand von Waldstein’s oft-quoted letter telling the composer that “with the help of assiduous labour you will receive Mozart’s spirit from Haydn’s hands” is often wheeled out, but it doesn’t quite do justice to the unique voice Beethoven was already cultivating in his late 20s when he published these first quartets.

Takacs QuartetThe Takács Quartet. Photo © Robert Torres

The middle-period quartets see a composer even more confident in his own powers and willing to push boundaries. A set of three quartets, Opus 59, were commissioned by the Russian Ambassador and patron of the arts Count Andreas Razumovsky for his newly hired on-staff string quartet led by the noted violinist Ignaz Schuppanzigh. With a wider emotional range, these quartets met with a more guarded response from the critics than had the early quartets.

“Three new very long and difficult Beethoven string quartets, dedicated to the Russian Ambassador, Count Razumovksy, are also attracting the attention of all connoisseurs,” announced an article in the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung in 1807. “The conception is profound and the construction excellent, but they are not easily comprehended – with the possible exception of the third in C Major, which cannot but appeal to intelligent lovers of music because of its originality, melody and harmonic power.” Those quartets were soon followed by the Opus 74 and Opus 95 quartets – nicknamed ‘The Harp’ and ‘Serioso’ respectively.

But it is the late quartets that have proved endlessly fascinating to audiences, scholars and musicians alike. The five quartets – or six if you count the final Grosse Fuge movement of String Quartet No 13, Op. 130 as a separate work – were the last major pieces Beethoven completed and they have become a benchmark against which string quartets continue to be measured.

But while they have taken on an almost mythological status in the repertoire, they weren’t nearly so well regarded when they were first aired in front of the Viennese public. A critic in the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung described Opus 127 – the first of the late quartets and one of three commissioned by the Russian Prince Galitzin – as an “incomprehensible, incoherent, vague, over-extended series of fantasias – chaos, from which flashes of genius emerged from time to time like lightning bolts from a black thunder cloud.”

So what was it about the late quartets that the Viennese musical public found so difficult to understand? First violinist of the Takács Quartet Edward Dusinberre speaks to me over the phone from Colorado, where the originally Hungarian ensemble has been based since 1983, and suggests one fairly prosaic reason. “They probably weren’t played very well,” he theorises, “because the performers in the case of Opus 127 were only given the music a couple of weeks before. In our own experience, if we’ve only got 10 days to work on a piece of contemporary music it won’t be a good result.”

Tickets were sold to a concert scheduled for February 1825, but the Opus 127 Quartet wasn’t completed on time. The musicians only just received their parts ahead of the rescheduled concert in March, along with a contract from Beethoven demanding that they play their best.

Beethoven’s nephew Karl, however, placed the blame firmly on the playing of first violinist, Schuppanzigh, who had returned to Vienna after a number of years in Russia. “I know that the quartet was not completely understandable because the first violin part went so badly,” he said. “There were many disruptions. First nothing came together properly and then Schuppanzigh broke a string, which contributed to it a lot, because he didn’t have a second violin at hand.”

Takacs QuartetThe Takács Quartet. Photo © Keith Saunders

For the University of Sydney’s Peter McCallum, whose research interests include Beethoven’s sketch material, another reason the audience may have found the work difficult relates to the context in which the quartets were first performed. “The idea of public performance was relatively new,” he explains. “The Schuppanzigh Quartet, with whom Beethoven worked on all of these last five quartets, was in some ways engaged in what we would these days call public performance, but prior to that quartets were a private connoisseur’s thing.”

“Part of the difficulty, I think, related to that transition,” he says. “As the public came to know this music, they were simply not yet up to speed on the style of the highly sophisticated conversation that took place.”

But that is only part of the story. “What Beethoven was doing at the end of his life was way ahead of what was going on in music,” McCallum says. “The public knew Beethoven from his early period, and the more advanced ones had caught up with his middle period, but very few had caught up with his late period.”

It was perhaps this disconnect between the audience’s expectations of what a string quartet was supposed to sound like and the wild new music that Beethoven was presenting them with that left listeners at a loss. “Following on from the middle quartets, which also initially caused some trouble for the audiences, the degree of contrast, of character, of particularly sudden changes of mood, was difficult to execute for the players, and it was tough for the audience to understand what the road map was,” explains Dusinberre.

“[The late quartets] have an extraordinary range of emotion,” he says, citing Opus 127’s slow movement as an example. “Within that single movement there’s one variation that almost sounds like a folk band with a very earthy, rhythmic accompaniment. It’s very light casual music, but there are also moments of extremely ethereal, spiritual music. And I think people didn’t quite know what to make of that mixture of very public statements – loud, almost very angry if we think about the Grosse Fuge – and on the other hand, very private, intimate music, where the music doesn’t really reach out to you. You’re more of an eavesdropper on this very private conversation.”

This wider emotional range in the quartets goes hand in hand with an increasingly complex approach to the way the voices in the quartet relate to each other.  “Art demands of us that we shall not stand still,” Beethoven told Karl Holz, his copyist and second violinist in the quartet. “You will notice a new type of part writing and, thank God, there is less lack of invention than ever before.”

“Beethoven’s working method actually changed with these quartets,” McCallum explains. “For the first time in his life, he had basically three types of sketches.”

Beethoven’s earlier sketches had existed more or less in two forms – a big sketchbook he used at his desk and the smaller sketchbooks he would use to note down ideas and compose while he was out walking. “But the third thing he added to the late quartets is what we call sketches in score,” says McCallum, “and that is written out over four staves.”

In the larger desk-size sketchbooks, Beethoven would typically write his quartets out with all four quartet parts on a single stave, or spread over two staves as in piano writing. This changed for the late quartets. “In these ones he was actually writing out all four parts of the quartet,” McCallum says, “and he’s got huge numbers of these – pages and pages.”

“It was unusual and it was new for him, and it did enable him to work out textures in more contrapuntal detail,” explains McCallum. “To take a very obvious example, when you write out in open score you can cross parts more easily. If you try and write out in piano score it becomes a real mess straightaway, so I think he was giving each instrument more free reign.”

This meant that a melody from one instrument could cross over that of another – for instance, the viola could move above the second violin. “It could then cross back and intermingle in a way that it’s much easier to keep track of in open score than in what you would call a short score, on two staves,” McCallum says.

This added freedom for the composer led to a more complex sonic result. “The interweavings are so tremendous that everyone could only manage to observe one instrument,” Beethoven’s nephew said after hearing Opus 127, “because of this everyone wishes to hear the quartet four times.”

Despite the poor reception at the first performance, the musicians didn’t give up on Opus 127. “There were enough people who recognised [the late quartets] were extraordinary pieces, and felt that the solution was simply to play and listen to them much more,” says Dusinberre.

SchuppanzighA portrait of Ignaz Schuppanzigh from the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Wien.

Opus 127 was performed again two weeks after the premiere, though this time with Schuppanzigh replaced as first violin by Hungarian violinist Joseph Böhm. “Instead of saying ‘Oh, we’ll never do that again,’ they said ‘Yeah, let’s do it again but with more rehearsal,” relates Dusinberre. This second concert was devoted entirely to Opus 127, the ensemble doubling down by performing the quartet once through, and then again, in full, after interval. “That was just a recognition that maybe this is stuff we need to spend more time with,” Dusinberre says. “As a quartet player, if you’re playing quartets for 30 or 40 years, you’re very grateful for those pieces that have that level of complexity. You can keep coming back and finding new things in them.”

For scholars, the late quartets are a rich vein to be tapped, with hundreds of pages of sketches from Beethoven’s final year alone. In our interview, McCallum describes a sketch page that reveals a particular four-note motif (you can hear it as the first four notes of the Grosse Fuge), which occurs as a feature throughout other quartets, and was in fact originally destined for Opus 127. He also points out a moment in the finale where Beethoven uses a figure based on the letters H-C-A-B – a coincidence, or a subtle joke linking the work with sketches for a planned overture based on the name of Bach?

“One of the things I’m always really interested in is the very ending,” says McCallum. “Because it’s slightly unusual, the way he takes the main theme and slows it down, so you can get it coming at a much slower tempo with a lot of figuration. It’s a wonderful moment, yet it’s quite a challenge, because it’s a little moment of transformation right at the end.”

“Often his endings hurtle headlong into the last bar, this bounding excitement and build up of momentum, and then you finish,” McCallum says. “But to have one where you slow right down, it’s rather original I think, and maybe that’s what people didn’t get… But what Beethoven’s done here is very special and it’s worth savouring in its own right.”

In the end, that complexity and the unexpected seems to serve a higher purpose: the challenge – both technical and intellectual – is what makes this music so rewarding. For Dusinberre, playing Opus 127 is an incredibly immersive experience. “You get to the end and realise you’ve forgotten about absolutely everything else in your life,” he says, “and that’s a wonderful, liberating feeling.”

The Takács Quartet performs Beethoven’s Opus 127 on their national tour for Musica Viva, August 10 – 28.


The Takács Quartet’s new Dvořák disc for Hyperion is on sale October 1.