Beethoven’s hard years of string quartets and chamber pots

Beethoven’s hard years of string quartets and chamber pots

Writing about Beethoven’s Quartets last time, I got as far as his three Op 59s. Now I’ll go on a little further.

Early in 1809, Princes Franz Lobkowitz and Ferdinand Kinsky together with Archduke Rudolph combined to grant the composer an annuity of 4,000 florins. As a result Beethoven considered marriage but his subsequent rejection by Thérèse Malfatti (1792-1851), for whom he probably wrote his piano bagatelle Für Elise, devastated him.

Then in May 1809 the French re-entered Vienna, this time holding the city for five months.  During the occupation a French music lover, Louis de Vienny, called on the composer and left the following description of his chambers: “His lodgings consisted of two rooms. Blotches of moisture covered the ceilings; an oldish grand piano on which the dust disputed the place with various pieces of engraved and manuscript music; under the piano (I do not exaggerate) an unemptied pot de nuit; a quantity of pens encrusted with ink. The chairs were covered with plates, bearing the remains of last night’s supper, and wearing apparel.”

However, the conditions didn’t impair Beethoven writing his Op 74 E flat Harp Quartet, dedicated to Prince Lobkowitz. The title comes from a pizzicato motif in the opening movement.

Beethoven himself gave his F minor Op 95 Quartet the designation Serioso. The composer’s life was difficult at the time of its composition around 1810. His increasing deafness, precarious general health, financial insecurity, frustration in love and difficulties within his immediate family all militated against him.

He wrote to a friend from his Bonn days, Dr Franz Wegeler (1765-1848), who was then living in Vienna: “If I had not read somewhere that no one should quit life voluntarily while he could still do something worthwhile, I would have been dead long ago and certainly by my own hand. Oh, life is so beautiful, but for me it is poisoned forever.”

Commenting on his Op 95 Quartet to Sir George Smart (1776-1867), the English conductor and one of founders of London’s Philharmonic Society, Beethoven stated: “The quartet is written for a small circle of connoisseurs and is never to be performed in public.”

The Serioso is the shortest and most concentrated of Beethoven’s quartets. He dedicated it to Nikolaus Zmeskall (1759-1833), an official in the Hungarian Chancellery in Vienna and another long-standing friend. The dedication is considered significant in that Zmeskall was ‘middle class’ and not a noble patron.


Diverting temporarily from Beethoven, it is good to learn Covid-19 has not interfered with Top Security’s 2020 Frank Maher Classical Music Awards. Set up in 2001 in memory of Castleknock College Vincentian Fr Frank Maher, the competition is open to sixth-year post primary students of strings, woodwind, brass and piano. The winner may use the €5,000 bursary to attend a recognised place of tuition, a course of study in Ireland or abroad or a purchase necessary for the development of his/her talent.

Entry forms are available from the awards website with applications closing on Friday, September 11. Competition finals are scheduled for Dublin’s Royal College of Physicians on Friday, October 2.