Besides his deafness, Beethoven had poor eyesight, suffered persistent liver and abdominal problems and endured serious bouts of depression. The early 1820s were particularly difficult for him but, when his health began to improve, he plunged into a remarkably concentrated period of creative endeavour resulting in his Missa Solemnis, Ninth Symphony and late string quartets.
Commissioning the first three of these latter works in November 1822, Russian aristocrat and good amateur cellist, Prince Nikolay Galitzin (1794-1866), invited Beethoven “to compose one, two or three quartets for which labour I will be glad to pay you whatever you think proper”.
However, the request could very well have gone to Carl Maria von Weber, as Galitzin had been impressed by a performance of Der Freischütz he attended. Fortunately Karl Zeuner, viola player in Galitzin’s own quartet, stepped in and suggested Beethoven as the commission’s recipient. As it happened, Ignaz Schuppanzigh, leader of Beethoven’s preferred quartet in Vienna, was in St Petersburg at the time and may also have put a spoke in Weber’s wheel.
Beethoven responded with his Opp 127, 130 and 132 quartets, works said to “leave the realm of personal expression and enter the domain of the universal – plumbing the full depths of the human soul and psyche”. His music in these works expresses joy and ecstacy, pain and anxiety, wonder and tenderness.
In music that “transcends human feelings and thoughts to achieve a spiritual level above worldly concerns”, Beethoven breaks new ground and demands more from his interpreters than was previously thought possible. In his own words: “He who divines the secret of my music is delivered from the misery that haunts the world.” Pretentiousness? Maybe, but thought-provoking just the same.
He completed the Op 127 in February 1825 and the first performance took place in Vienna the following month. Given by the Schuppanzigh Quartet, who had little time to rehearse it, the work was not well received.
A second performance with another quartet led by Joseph Böhm, professor at Vienna’s Conservatory and a member of the imperial orchestra, was somewhat more successful. Despite his total deafness, Beethoven had coached the players by observing their fingering and bowing.
Further performances took place over the next few weeks with Beethoven writing to his publisher, “people have a high opinion of this quartet. It is supposed to be the greatest and most beautiful I’ve written.” It seems Prince Galitzin also liked it and arranged a number of performances in St Petersburg.
Beginning work on his seven-movement Op 130 Quartet in March 1825, Beethoven completed it later that year. The première, given by the Schuppanzigh Quartet, took place in Vienna on March 21, 1826. Beethoven decided against attending and waited in a nearby tavern. Learning the audience had demanded encores of the 2nd and 4th movements he asked, “and why not the Fugue?” adding contemptuously: “Cattle! Asses’!”
However, many questioned the wisdom of his lengthy fugal Finale and eventually Beethoven’s publisher Matthias Artaria persuaded him to replace it with something simpler. Surprisingly, Beethoven acquiesced with a slighter Allegro movement – his last completed composition.