When Beethoven became unplayable

When Beethoven became unplayable


norman lebrecht

August 06, 2020

Welcome to the 106th work in the Slipped Disc/Idagio Beethoven Edition

String Quartet No. 12 in E flat major op. 127

When Beethoven passed the age of fifty, he appears to have stopped caring how his music would be received, or even if it was performable. At fifty he had outlived the average Viennese lifespan by a full decade. He was totally deaf, in constant pain and unable to appear on stage unaided. He was also still financially insecure, forever in search of commissions, gifts and publishing deals. The world’s most admired composer did not know if he would have enough money to see out the year. Suddenly, regardless of need, he decided that now was the time to unleash the music that had long simmered within him, music that few could play or wished to hear.

Twelve years had gone by since he last completed a string quartet. The gulf between the 11th quartet and the 12th is one of the greatest in the art form. The 11th quartet was serious in title and intent but approachble in content. The 12th would mark the start of what posterity would rapidly and accurately catalogue as ‘Beethoven’s late quartets’.

On the surface, nothing changed. The 12th quartet is in E flat major, Beethoven’s happy key. It has the regulation four instruments, doing what a composer might reasonably expect of them. But from the opening attack, the listener becomes aware of destabilisation, of a composer undermining the foundations of his art. Twice in the opening movement he disrupts the flow of melody with a half-recapitualted opening theme, inserted for no obvious reason. The second movement is slow but far from dreamy: a set of six challenging variations. This is not easy listening. Wherever Beethoven offers an attractive theme, he hedges it with half-thoughts. In the finale, at around 2:40, he throws in a laconic take on the big number in the ninth symphony. What’s that doing there? you wonder.

Beethoven first planned the quartet in an unprecedented six movements before deciding that might place too great a strain on public tolerance. He started writing in 1822, while working on the ninth symphony, and finished three years later after an almighty struggle with the wayward finale. The quartet is 35-40 minutes long, twice the normal duration for the time. It was commissioned for the wedding of his cello-playing patron, Prince Nikolay Galitzin, who cannot have been entirely pleased. The first performance, given by the Schuppanzigh Quartet on March 6, 1825, was by all accounts atrocious.

Ignaz Schuppanzigh, who had the first permanent quartet in Vienna (or anywhere else), was a drinking pal of Beethoven’s and the man he entrusted to be concertmaster at the premiere of the ninth symphony. But Schuppanzigh was growing slow and fat. Beethoven called him ‘Falstaff’ and complaiend that he thought only of his own instrument and not the work as a whole. On this new piece, he lacked sufficient rehearsal time.

When Beethoven’s nephew blamed Schuppanzigh for the quartet’s failure the composer called in a rival quartet leader Joseph Michael Böhm, who has left this account of their exchange: ‘When Beethoven learned of the poor performance – for he was not present – he became furious and let the performers have no peace until the disgrace was wiped away. He sent for me first thing in the morning, and in his usual curt way said to me, ‘You must play my quartet,’ and the thing was settled. Neither objections nor doubts could prevail; what Beethoven wanted had to take place, so I undertook the difficult task. It was studied and rehearsed frequently under Beethoven’s own eyes. I said ‘eyes’ intentionally, for the unhappy man was so deaf he could no longer hear the heavenly sound of his compositions… With close attention his eyes followed the bows and therefore he was able to judge the slightest fluctuations in tempo and rhythm and correct them immediately. At the close of the last movement of the quartet there occurred a ‘meno vivace’ which seemed to me to weaken the general effect. At the rehearsal, therefore, I advised that the original tempo be maintained… Beethoven, crouched in a corner, heard nothing, but watched with strained attention. After the last stroke of the bows, he said, laconically, ‘let it remain so,’ went to the desks and crossed out the ‘meno vivace’ in the four parts.’

What Beethoven wrote in this quartet was just about within Böhm’s grasp. What came next would be beyond it (Schuppanzigh took over the later quartets). Outwardly conventional, the 12th quartet makes it clear that Beethoven is taking leave of public expectation.

There are more than 50 recordings of the quartet, a map in themselves of the history of string quartet playing. The earliest, in 1926, is by the Hungarian Jenö Léner and his quartet. It is aggressively romantic, contradicting Beethoven’s drive into the unknow. That said, the adagio is an overwhelming rush of emotion, irresistibly affecting and with accents that are more than faintly Magyar.

It was ten years before another record was cut, this time in Abbey Road and far superior sound, by the Busch Quartet – Adolf Busch and Gösta Andreasson (violins), Karl Doktor (viola) and Hermann Busch (cello). More austere than the Hungarians, they project a drawing-room atmosphere of family music-making, making light of the difficulties inherent in this score. Like Arthur Schnabel in the piano sonatas, the Busch Quartet recordings of the late string quartets became the industry standard and have stood the test of time The influence of their interpretation can be heard as far ahead as the Emerson Quartet, who recorded a whole lifetime later in 1997.


This is where we need to consider the concept of lineage in the string quartet. The leading ensembles are as full of begats as the Book of Genesis, claiming ancestry and authority at one or two removes from the quartet founded in 1869 by Joseph Joachim, who knew Mendelssohn, Brahms and Schumann. In the late works of Beethoven a link to Joachim confers the highest pedigree. Joachim was Hungarian (as was Lenar), German (Busch) and Jewish. His second violin was Carl Halir, whose star pupil was David Mannes, founder of the Mannes School of Music in New York. The American and Czech traditions of playing Beethoven string quartets are no less central to their evolution through such ensembles as the Juilliard, the FineArts and the Wihan.

But space is running out, and I’ll have to continue tomorrow.


  • Lady Weidenfeld says:

    Hi Norman you mean last Quartets in second to last paragraph, not Sonatas… want to engage me as proof reader? Love A

  • fflambeau says:

    “The world’s most admired composer… .”

    Doubtful. Mozart in my mind and that of many others has always been that.

    Maybe you could have written, with all due respect, “the world’s most admired composer then living….”

    • Luca says:

      Beethoven has always been the music lovers’ favourite. Professional musicians tended to favour Bach until he was displaced by Mozart.

  • fflambeau says:

    It’s a nice essay. Thanks for this.

  • David K. Nelson says:

    Joseph Joachim not only knew Schumann and Mendelssohn and Brahms, but was a pupil of this self-same Joseph Böhm who played for and knew Beethoven so the Joachim link to the Beethoven quartet tradition is even stronger than is stated here. Moreover one of Joachim’s earliest quartets included the virtuoso Ernst who was also a pupil of Böhm, so the Beethoven tradition was doubly amplified early in Joachim’s quartet life

    Note also that Jenö Léner of the Lener Quartet (sometimes you see it as Eugene Lehner) was a violin pupil of Jenő Hubay (so was Eugene Ormandy and a long list of great violinists). Hubay in turn was a pupil of Joachim.

    And as long as we are in this vein, Joseph Böhm was a pupil of Pierre Rode who was discussed most recently on this site in the discussion about the violin sonata No 10 by Beethoven.

    • Peter San Diego says:

      Joachim was also Liszt’s concertmaster in Weimar — until he switched musical camps.

    • Edgar Self says:

      Another is Jeno Blau, Ormandy’s birth name, as Mr. Nelson is well aware. Eugene’s cellist brother Martin Ormandy, New York free-lancer, also survived the transition, and his brother.

      Many details of “Uncle Jo” Joachim in Donald Francis Tovey’s writings and biography, including vignettes of Emanuel Moor, Julius Roentgen, and others. Sample: Joachim said “I can talk to Johannes about music, but not young Tovey, who knows too much.”

  • Jonathan Z says:

    Norman I am very puzzled by your mention of a reference to the Ninth Symphony at 2:40 in the Finale. I have searched with score and recording and can’t find it. Could you give a bar number?

    • Edgar Self says:

      Nathan Z., In the first few bars of the quartet’s finale, I notice a scalar passage that could be heard as alluding to the reude” ode theme, much as Schuert does in his Ninth, though not as long or pronounced This might be what Norman has in mind. Sorry, but I don’t have a score.

      When someone made a similar observation to Brahms about the finale of his First, its composer growled, “Any donkey can see that” for his reward, which rather ruins the point of the story, but if the shoe fits, try it on, so to speak.

      • Jonathan Z says:

        Edgar Thanks for attempting to solve this mystery. I have two problems with your solution: First it can’t be what Norman is referring to as he talks about it being 2:40 into this movement and your rising scale is about 10 seconds in. Anyway a melody that goes up the scale is hardly convincing proof of an intentional allusion.
        Norman, I think it’s time for you to speak!

      • John Borstlap says:

        Within a musical tradition, composers ‘borrow’ material from what they find around them, be it contemporary or in music of the past, and they turn it into something of their own. The classical tradition is filled to the brim with tropes coming from somewhere. Entirely normal. The anxiety of influence only really began in the 20th century.

  • Monstrous Minstrel says:

    We now know that Beethoven was never “totally deaf”!
    Why state that he was?

    • Dennis Greem says:

      When you are only partially deaf you suffer almost as much as i
      f you were severely deaf, especially if you try to listen to or play music. Try it for yourself !

  • AngloGerman says:

    Surely the average life expextancy couldn’t have been 40 in Vienna during this time…

    • Peter San Diego says:

      Counting infant mortality, it probably was. But if you made it to adulthood, life expectancy increased substantially. I wonder if there are actuarial tables dating back to Beethoven’s lifetime?

  • John Borstlap says:

    Very interesting post. That 127 quartet is wonderful.

    “But from the opening attack, the listener becomes aware of destabilisation, of a composer undermining the foundations of his art. Twice in the opening movement he disrupts the flow of melody with a half-recapitualted opening theme, inserted for no obvious reason.”

    This is the way B’s formal experiments are often judged: chaos kreeping in, unresolved structural conflicts becoming part of the overall plan, the utterly complex next to the seemingly banal (the very different moods of the various movements of the late quartets), as if this is a music ‘about’ disintegration. But this is a 20C reading. In reality, B was playing around with all the elements of the classical style, finding ever new variations and combinations, like taking apart a structure and placing the elements differently, in different relationships, guided not by convention but by his own musical intelligence and inner ear: he wanted this music to ‘say’ something that he had ‘heard’ himself within his cocoon of silence.

    The result is not a music of disintegration, but of a new harmony and wholeness, closer to how designs are interrelated in nature. In this sense, the late quartets – and the late piano sonatas – are close to how Debussy handled structure, another composer who is mostly read in the last century as someone disintegrating tradition. But in reality they reconstituted tradition, according to their own very personal interpretation.

    Also Daniel Barenboim described the late B works as if they were an expression of disintegration. If this were true, how could they sound so whole and harmonious, while including elements of disruption? I think B created a higher level of integration of contrasts than had been possible in the classical style of an earlier period. He was not a premodernist.

    I regret that the beautiful recording of the Quartetto Italiano is not mentioned. It is one of the best. (Philips Classics 1968)

  • Edgar Self says:

    Unplayable perhaps, unlistenable for others. By coincidence, my wife heard it last night on Telarc by Cleveland Quartet when I joined her and failed to recognise it, least known of the 16 to me, though introducing the last five.

    An airless, unpleasant recording, like walking on a water-bed, queasily swelling and ebbing conginually in the 16-minute second movement, top heavy, arduous, with few pleasant intervals, one being the folkish tune near the end Preucil’s tone and manner put me off; the low strings didn’t play out.

    I’ll hear Busch Quartet later, and see if there’s a Borodin Quartet with Dubinsky or Kopelman, as they sound best to me in recent years, especially Op. 59 Rasoumovskys, so much so that I relinquished Alban Berg, too fast and hard-nosed, keeping only their Haydn.

  • Bill O'Toole says:

    Mozart may have written the music of heaven, but Beethoven wrote the music of Man. The human race exists in order to produce Beethoven.

  • Edgar Self says:

    Joachim also was a standing quatet leaderer; the other three poor devils sat respectfully.

    Minority oopinion: another vote against the Clevelanders’ waterbed dynamics in Opp. 127 and 131. Give me Busch, Wiener Konzerthaus on Westminster, Pagamini, Pacifica, Belcea, or the original Budapest and Borodins. J have a natural resistance to Quartetto Italiano, sorry.

  • Dear Norman,

    Thank you for this article, but more than anything, thank you for publishing this photograph which EVERY STRING QUARTET in the WORLD that performs this repertoire should see. It shows how string quartets used to sit when performing this music, a tradition, which for some reason appears to be lost.(This photo is NOT an anomaly; there are many historical photographs of other famous quartets sitting in this formation.