Modernism and Humanism
According to Nanette Streicher, who was friendly with Beethoven during his final years, the composer resembled "a beggar he was so dirty in his dress". The picture of the composer to which she contributed continues to dog us to this day. We see him as hopelessly unkempt in his appearance, a man who in 1825 was erroneously arrested for vagrancy and who regarded himself as "misunderstood" and as "hounded on all sides like a wild animal". It was, it seems, in a state of isolation, cut off from the rest of the world, that he composed his most demanding and inaccessible works, namely, his late string quartets. In writing them, he no longer took any account of the spirit of his times or of his audience's receptivity: the only thing that still counted for him was to advance the course of music.
But this picture is not entirely correct. In the first place, Beethoven was not simply an eccentric at the end of his life. He was also a European celebrity. When Prince Nikolas Borisovich Galitzin wanted to make contact with the composer in November 1822, it was enough for him to write from St Petersburg and address his letter "A Monsieur Louis van Bethoven a Viennes": the letter reached its destination without difficulty. Galitzin was an amateur cellist and an ardent admirer of Beethoven's. Indeed, his enthusiasm went so far that he even arranged and performed an inauthentic string quartet based on material from three of Beethoven's existing works, the "Waldstein" Sonata op. 53, the Piano Sonata op. 7 and the Cello Sonata op. 69. But such arrangements could not satisfy the prince in the longer term, and so in his letter he asked the composer to write a set of new and original quartets, for which he was prepared to pay whatever Beethoven demanded. It was with a certain self-assurance that the composer asked for the vast sum of fifty ducats for each quartet, promising to deliver the first work by the middle of March of the following year. In the event, this deadline came and went, as Beethoven first had to complete two other major works, his Ninth Symphony and the Missa solemnis. Not until March 1825 was Beethoven able to send the first of the Galitzin quartets - the String Quartet in Eflat major op. 127 - to St Petersburg.
This was the first string quartet that Beethoven had written for twelve years. If Galitzin had commissioned some other kind of work - a piano sonata, some incidental music or a patriotic cantata -, it seems more than likely that Beethoven would have responded just as readily. It is thanks to the personal taste of Galitzin and other patrons, therefore, that the composer's string quartets became his crowning achievement. It is above all in the eyes of posterity that these works have acquired the character of an artistic legacy - not that this in any way impairs their artistic quality. Here we find Beethoven as an emphatically forward-looking artist, not content to keep on repeating successful formulas but exploring new boundaries and giving them musical expression. As a result, his late quartets no longer illustrate his typical triumph over all opposition in a spirit of per aspera ad astra, but constitute an experiment with forms and sounds.
In his search for something radically new, Beethoven produced in his op. 127 String Quartet a kind of weightless rhapsodizing, the four voices singing with a freedom unusual in such a work. Often we barely know in which section of a sonata movement we are, and even the set of variations that makes up the second movement and that in other works of this kind is usually clearly ordered appears remarkably - and attractively - wayward. In this way we witness the dissolution of what are essentially timeless musical forms. At the same time, there are other passages in the work where Beethoven has forged new and surprising links, notably when the opening movement's first subject reappears unexpectedly in the rondo-form Finale. Evidently it is impossible to count even on Beethoven's destructive tendencies.
A whole series of parallels exists between Beethoven's op. 127 String Quartet and the String Quartet in Aminor op. 132 that dates from 1824/5 and that was similarly written for Prince Galitzin. In both works, the slow movements are the longest, and in both cases, too, there are dance movements of peculiar contrapuntal density. But the greatest similarity between them lies in the vocal nature of their writing, a feature that emerges to particularly striking effect in the Ninth Symphony, another of the works from Beethoven's late period. Here it seems as if the instruments on their own can no longer convey the composer's intentions and express his enthusiasm, which is why the human voice enters in a passage of recitative that leads into the final chorus, "Freude, schöner Götterfunke". This same kind of musical humanism is also found in the late quartets, especially in the penultimate movement of the op. 132 String Quartet, where a stylized instrumental recitative imitates the sound of a singing human voice. Throughout this quartet the vocal element is virtually omnipresent, most notably in the opening movement, long sections of which are like a moving lament.
Even today, Beethoven's late quartets create a tremendously modern impression in terms of their structure and expression, yet ultimately what they express most of all is their creator's private world of emotion. This human aspect is particularly clear from the slow movement of the Aminor String Quartet op. 132, headed "A Convalescent's Holy Song of Thanksgiving to the Deity, in the Lydian Mode". Nor is there any doubt about the identity of the convalescent in this programmatical movement: it is, of course, Beethoven himself. In the spring of 1825 he succumbed to an "inflammation of the intestines" that was treated by means of a diet that for the composer meant a large number of sacrifices and that included unseasoned soup, hot chocolate instead of coffee and eggs without any seasoning. Beethoven complained bitterly about this regimen but finally recovered his health again after a number of weeks.
The religiously otherworldly Lydian mode of the third movement tells of the patient's boundless relief, while its archaic austerity expresses both distance and an acceptance of God's will, two attributes repeatedly found in Beethoven's late works. Here we come upon a basic message of these late quartets: the outward neglect of the elderly composer is not just the sign of a lack of self-discipline but is at least as much an indication of his espousal of the transcendental and of pure musical substance.