"[Beethoven's] last quartets testify to a veritable growth of consciousness, to a higher degree of consciousness, probably than is manifested anywhere else in art."
– J. W. N. Sullivan, Beethoven: His Spiritual Journey
"You never get to the bottom of [Beethoven’s quartets]; they may be the most single profound statement that any human being ever contributed to the world of art."
– Peter Oundjian, violinist and conductor (Toronto Symphony Orchestra)
Take the quotes above as an example of the well-deserved and ubiquitous praise for Beethoven’s late string quartets. The maestro’s last five quartets (Nos. 12-16) plus the Grosse Fuge, which was originally composed as a finale for No. 13, have received almost universal recognition as some of the greatest music ever composed.
Beethoven began composing the quartets at the request of Prince Nikolaus Galitzin, an amateur cellist from the Russian aristocracy. Galitzin loved Beethoven’s music and offered fifty ducats for each of three quartets. Two years after Galitzin made his offer Beethoven delivered what the prince had requested — three quartets — and was only paid for one. Even so, Beethoven wrote two more quartets and a different finale for No. 13. No one had asked him to write the new music, and he composed it with no commission. One can’t help but feel that Beethoven had discovered something to say with the first three quartets and felt compelled to get the rest of his ideas written down. Whether or not he was paid seems to have made no difference, and the quartets serve as one of history’s greatest examples of art that was created for the sake of art.
As with any music containing as much content as Beethoven’s late quartets, listeners must do some research and and expose themselves to repeated hearings. Rest assured, however, that the time invested in Beethoven’s late quartets will provide tremendous rewards.
If you are new to the quartets, I recommend beginning with the Quartet in A Minor, Op. 132. Although Beethoven composed it as the second of his late quartets, it was published as the fourth and is therefore labeled No. 15.
Listen to Opus 132 and think of it as an exploration of the universal human struggle against both physical and spiritual pain. The first, third, and fifth movements provide the greatest intellectual and emotional challenges, while the second and fourth movements provide a respite from those challenges. If you have never heard the quartet, the third movement is the one that is most likely to catch your attention. The movement shows a spiritual side to Beethoven that allowed him to create one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever composed.
Beethoven titled the third movement, “Holy Song of Thanksgiving by a Convalescent to the Divinity in the Lydian Mode.” The title speaks volumes about what is in the music.
First, the Lydian mode heard in much of the movement was used in medieval church music to represent healing and recovery. If you are a musician, think of the Lydian mode as a major scale with a raised fourth. If you are not a musician, think of the Lydian mode as sounding “bright,” somewhat like music in a major key.
Second, the movement is a hymn of Thanksgiving that Beethoven composed after surviving an illness in April 1825 that almost killed him (possibly Crohn’s disease). The movement was a product of Beethoven's premonitions of death.
Third, take note that Beethoven describes himself in the title as a “convalescent.” He had suffered for years from health problems associated with lead poisoning. And, as almost everyone knows, Beethoven was deaf, an affliction that caused him also to suffer from the pain of loneliness.
As Beethoven biographer Maynard Solomon writes in Late Beethoven, “He was a deaf composer, painfully confined within an ever-darkening inner space.” In reference to Beethoven describing himself as a "convalescent soul," Solomon states, “The invalid is another kind of prisoner, afflicted and weary, in whom there is need to cross a threshold, or to awaken from a frightening dream. The invalid, too, yearns for an open space, looks upward to the presumed realm of the deity. Beethoven’s sufferer — later convalescent — prays for deliverance more from a sickness of the soul than of the body.”
Watch the animated recording I’ve embedded below and notice how the music moves back and forth from a hymn of thanksgiving to an expression of joy for being alive. Use the following outline to guide yourself through the piece.
0:00 — Hymn of Thanksgiving. This section explores the world of the spirit. It is composed in the Lydian mode and employs few flats and sharps.
3:18 — Interlude. This section explores the world of the flesh. The music in this section is highly chromatic.
5:38 — Hymn of Thanksgiving
8:16 — Interlude
10:44 – Hymn of Thanksgiving
15:07 – Coda
If you have not yet heard all of Beethoven’s late quartets, I urge you to do so and wish you the very best on your journey.