Beethoven: is this the end?

Beethoven: is this the end?


norman lebrecht

October 02, 2020

Welcome to the 124th work in the Slipped Disc/Idagio Beethoven Edition

String Quartet No. 16 op. 135

Is this his last word? The finale of opus 135 is titled ‘Der schwer gefaßte Entschluss’ – the very difficult decision. Under the opening chords, which are marked slow, Beethoven inserted the words ‘Muss es sein?’ (must it be?) and as the quicker main theme arrives, ‘Es muss sein!’ (It must be!). Interpreters down the ages have assumed that he was anticipating his own death.

But was he? The ‘Muss es sein?’ is played gravely by viola and cello before giving way to an irresistible response by the two violins ‘Es muss sein!’ No sign of resignation by the composer.

Thirty years later the original publisher, Moritz Schlesinger, recalled: Regarding the enigmatic phrase Muss es sein? that arises in the last quartet, I think I can explain its significance better than most people, as I possess the original manuscript with the words written in his own hand, and when he sent them he wrote as follows; ‘You can translate the Muss es sein as showing that I have been unlucky, not only because it has been extremely difficult to write this when I had something much bigger in my mind, and because I have only written this in accordance with my promise to you, and because I am in dire need of money, which is hard to come by; it has also happened that I was anxious to send the work to you in parts, to facilitate engraving, and in all Mödlingen (he was living there then) I could not find a single copyist, and so have had to copy it out myself, and you can imagine what a business it has been!’

In other words, the painstricken composer was getting on with life as usual. His nephew Karl had attempted to commit suicide in an attention-seeking gesture, which could be the ‘bigger things’ he had in mind in the letter, and there was never enough money to pay the bills. One contemporary anecdote has it that an amateur musician, Ignaz Dembscher, had called round to borrow parts for the opus 130 quartet that he wanted to play with his pals. Beethoven demanded a loan fee of fifty florins. ‘Must that be?’ said the wealthy fellow. ‘It must be,’ snapped Beethoven, ‘out with your wallet.’

Take this with as much salt as you need. The facts of the inscription override further speculation. Beethoven, aware of his mortality, found it necessary to share his agony with the manuscript he was composing, just as Gustav Mahler would do 90 years later in a series of heart-rending outcries around the closing pages of his ninth and tenth symphonies. While composing, Mahler cried out in desperation to his errant wife and his distant God. He would have known that Beethoven, while composing his final work, had done much the same.


We have no idea what Beethoven might have written next had he survived the final illness of February and March 1827. There are hints that he saw this 16th quartet not as a continuation of its predecessors but as the first of a brand-new triptych. Certainly the opus 135 has less in common with opp 130, 131 and 135 than these three works do with each other. One might also argue that the level of invention has dropped here appreciably from those heights. The 16th is an important string quartet, albeit less of a masterpiece than its forbears.

Beethoven’s final weeks were shadowed as ever by financial worries. Early in February he wrote to the Philharmonic Society in London, asking if they might perform a benefit concert on his behalf. George Smart and Ignaz Moscheles, sensing his need, called a board meeting and resolved to send him a hundred pounds. Beethoven, overwhelmed by the gift, called a lawyer and remade his will, leaving everything to his errant nephew Karl who, after the composer’s death, turned into a model civil servant, dutiful husband and loving father of four daughters and a son. He died in 1858 at the age of 52.

On March 20, Beethoven told his young composer friend Johann Nepomuk Hummel, ‘I shall soon, no doubt, be going above’. He thanked Hummel’s wife Elisabeth, a well-known oper singer, for freshening his face with her handkerchief. He continued to receive visitors until he lost consciousness on March 24. Two days later, in the thick of a terrifying thunderstorm, he died at three o’clock in the afternoon. Buried at Währing, his remains were transferred in 1888 to a grove of honour in Vienna’s central cemetery.

The 16th string quartet, last word or not, is as widely recorded as the rest. The ‘mus es sein’ conversation in the 1933 Busch Quartet account is irresistibly convincing, like four philosophers contemplating eternity over a few jars of beer. The Alban Berg Quartet (1989) turn the phrase into something more momentous and ominous. If Beethoven really meant Muss es sein? as a joke, they miss the punchline. Much more convincing are the Cuarteto Casals (2017) with a tentative framing of the question and a vigorous rebuttal by way of response. This deeply felt, well thought out reading leaves the listener to decide for him or herself what might have been going through Beethoven’s mind as he worked his way through his final contribution to the treasury of western civilisation. I also find much to cherish in the Brodsky Quartet’s 2017 interpretation, especially the whispering caress of the third movement with another phrase of the Kol Nidrei before the crunch question of Muss es sein? comes in to play.

There was never a composer like Beethoven and there will never be another. But each time I come to the end of his works I want to start again from the beginning. There is just so much to learn from this prodigous, attractive, ever-expanding creative mind.



  • Doc Martin says:

    En ma Fin gît mon Commencement…”
    “In my End is my Beginning…

    This is the saying which Mary Queen of Scots embroidered on her cloth of estate whilst in prison in England and is the theme running through her life. It symbolises the eternity of life after death and Mary probably drew her inspiration from the emblem adopted by her grandfather-in-law, François I of France: the salamander. The Salamander self-ignites at the end of its life, and then rises up from the ashes re-born…

    In a sense I see op 135 symbolising Beethoven’s artistic eternity. The emblem on the obelisk at his grave in Zentralfriedhof comprises a lyre above the name Beethoven, and at the top butterfly with wings outspread, set in a circle, emblems of the liberated soul and eternity.

    As William Blake says in his poem Eternity,

    He who binds to himself a joy
    Does the winged life destroy;
    But he who kisses the joy as it flies
    Lives in eternity’s sun rise.

    I find the Lento assai very moving in op 135, most of it is in F major, apart from the Lento assai, which is in D flat major. I wonder if anyone could comment on the significance of the key if any.

    This paper by Mai is well worth reading it covers all Beethoven’s illnesses, the pneumonia he acquired at Gneixendorf when staying at his brother Johann’s estate which exacerbated his condition leading to his death in March 1827 on his return to Vienna.

  • Thomas Dawkins says:

    There is a canon for four voices, also from 1826, with the same melody and the text “Es muß sein! Ja, ja, ja, ja! Heraus mit dem Beutel!” The last part means “Take out your wallet!” Whether this was a game with somebody he owed money like his laundry woman or cook or something entirely different is explored in this article from The Beethoven Project.

    • John Borstlap says:

      It was Prince Kinsky whom Beethoven had chased the day before in the prince’s own town palace when he was a bit late wih his monthly pension payment. When B corned the anxious aristocrat in the attic and pushed him to the wall, he found that his expressive demand had some musical qualities as well, so he let the fainting man go and immediately returned home and wrote that last movement.

  • Bratschegirl says:

    Op. 135 is in F Major. The a minor quartet is op. 132.

  • Bill says:

    op. 135 is not in A minor, it’s in F major!

  • Peter San Diego says:

    I’d be interested to hear your appraisal of the sketches he left behind, for a 10th symphony and other works.

  • Greg Bottini says:

    “Beethoven is so mighty!”
    – Otto Klemperer

  • Charles Clark-Maxwell says:

    Opus 135 is in F major, not a minor

  • paramucho says:

    I guess you meant F major….most people put it in that key.

    And thanks for the series. It was an opportunity to remember and reevaluate.

  • Doc Martin says:

    It is interesting to note that throughout his life, Beethoven with his appalling medical history, never once spent time in a hospital. (To do so I think then, would have made his health even worse!).

    He always seemed to sufficient funds to send for an attending doctor. However this clearly must have put a strain on his finances, especially when the Austrian currency was devalued by the Napoleonic war and French occupation. Hence he became anxious about money at the end.

    I understand, in an early sketch of op 135, he wrote the words, Süsser Ruhegesang oder Friedengesang ( Sweet song of rest or peace) in the Lento assai movement. In a sense it is like Brahms Four serious songs, a final farewell to the world.

  • Gary says:

    The 16th quartet is in F major.

  • John Borstlap says:

    Opus 135 is not ‘less’ than the other late quartets, but indeed a ‘new beginning’ and a classicist one, there are many reminiscences of B’s much earlier, more Haydnesque works. it seems that he wanted to return to 18C idioms, from the vantage point at the end of his inward trajectory, where things of the past obtained a new meaning. Probably he saw new possibilities in older material that he had not seen before. (So much for the myth that B’s was a modernist, progressive mind.)

    The freshness and loose textures of the 1st mvt of opus 135 are very surprising and engaging, it’s opening a window on a spring morning, after long inward deliberations.

    Alma Mahler had these annotated manuscript pages on show in her salon in New York, in a glass box, so that every visitor could see the veneration and despair of the great man in relation to HER, professional composers’ widow. No wonder he got desperate.

  • I have enjoyed your very intimate and sometimes profound insights into all things Beethovenian – thank you.

  • BrianB says:

    Drop off in invention? Arguable in the first movement, certainly, but the scherzo and lento assai are incredible inventions, the first a century ahead of its time and the second good enough for Mahler to plagiarize for the last mvt of his 3rd symphony.
    I interpret the “much bigger thing” to be either a larger quartet or the tenth symphony but something in any case that he knew he didn’t have the strength or time left to complete.

  • Alexander T says:

    No, there will most certainly never be another….

  • Alexander T says:

    Highly enjoyable and informative series. Thank you.

  • Edgar Self says:

    Quartet No. 16 is in the key of F. I’ve never seen it listed any other way. Quartet No. 15 is in A minor, as we just saw. Toscanini recorded one movement of the 16th with a full string ensemble.

    • Doc Martin says:

      Yes. But the Lento assai is D flat major any idea why that particular key, seems odd did he use it much?

      • Edgar Self says:

        I have no idea, Doc Martin, re Beethoven’s use of the key of D-flat major in the Lento assai of Quartet 16, but it ties in to your previously also unanswered question about the significance of his using the enharmonic key of C# minor in Quartet 14. His only other use of C# minor that occurs to me is in the infamous “Moonshine” sonata.

        Composers choose keys for various causes: for the key relationships themselves; for increased sonority on open strings; for ease in notating for transposing brass or wind instruments, particularly in valveless, unimproved instruments; or for pictorial, musical, or psychological associationsand colours.

        Perhaps composers Max Raimi, John Borstlop, or others can enlighten us. It is a mystery, like Mozart’s only use of F# minor for the siciliano slow movement of piano Concerto 23 in A, of which it is the relative minor.

      • William Safford says:

        I can’t think offhand of any other Beethoven movement that is in Db Major. My guess is that someone else will come up with a few examples.

        My guess is that the key relationship is what interested him: that he used Db because it is the flat-6 (not to be confused with a Porsche or Subaru car engine, or Honda GoldWing motorcycle engine) to F Major. He liked using that key relationship in inner movements. The Piano Concerto #5, movement 2 (using the enharmonic B Major) and Symphony #9, movement 2 (Bb major) come immediately to mind.

  • nimitta says:

    Bravo, Norman, for this enlightening and deeply inspiring journey! I’m starting over today…

  • Jim says:

    Typo: Op 135, F Major

  • Max Raimi says:

    Um Norman…? Opus 135 is in F Major, not A minor. Are you confusing it with Opus 132?

  • Edgar Self says:

    Perhaps it’s safe now to mention T. S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets”. inspired by these,although each is connected with a place in the life of Eliot or his forebears.

    Not Eliot, but quoted anyway for Doc Martin:

    “Whose love is given over well
    Will gaze on Helen’s face in Hell,
    But he whose love is thin and wise
    Will see John Knox in Paradise.”

  • Doc Martin says:

    I was unaware that a group at Cambridge is carrying out a Beethoven genome project. They seem to be using hair samples. If they could test bone samples it might yield something interesting. It would of course mean exhuming him yet again, but as he mentioned in his Heilegenstadt Testament, he wanted any medical findings on his illnesses made public. Those missing temporal bones if they ever turn up would be worth testing!