Beethoven's Late Quartets

By Amis, John | Musical Opinion, March/April 2009 | Go to article overview

Beethoven's Late Quartets


Amis, John, Musical Opinion


John Amis ruminates

The squadron leader replied, " I am going to spend my weekend leave with God and the late Beethoven String Quartets." Music is the most intangible of the arts, unfolding in time, unlike paintings which capture a moment in time forever, or literature which can take its time to elaborate a moment or idea. Music cannot express an idea; it can (occasionally) imitate reality but more often it reflects mood or consciousness of an idea; that is, when it is not abstract. Mendelssohn once said that if you could explain a piece of music in words then it was no longer music. And Aaron Copland once wrote that his answer to the question "Is there a meaning to music?" would be "Yes". But to the question "Can you state in so many words what the meaning is?" his answer would be "No."

So how could my squadron leader and countless others equate Beethoven's late quartets with God? My answer is 'listen to them and you might find the equation accurate.' Although before that might come another question: is it really God in that equation? By most accounts Beethoven was not an orthodox believer; but neither was he an atheist. It would seem he believed in a Supreme Being. And it has been said that all composers of truly great music must have been similar believers, orthodox or unorthodox; many have testified to that.

Recently I spent a week listening to the last five Beethoven quartets. I was transported and feel that I have been in touch with some higher being. Those quartets are not easy listening or necessarily the most beautiful music ever although there is beautiful music in them but they are surely the most meaningful and thought provoking music that exists. The thoughts are moods, consciousness of shape and patterns that are totally satisfying, reactions that are subjective maybe but ones that induce feelings of spirituality.

The five later quartets were some of the last music Beethoven composed: Opera 127 in E flat, 130 in B flat, 131 in C sharp minor, 132 in A minor and 135 in F, all composed between 1823 and 1826.

In 1827 Beethoven died of dropsy and pneumonia at the age of 56.

Opus 130 is the quartet that has two endings, the original being the (great) Grosse Fuge (although Beethoven later composed an alternative finale, an easy going one), Op 132 has the Holy Thanksgiving slow movement-hymn 'from a convalescent to the Deity' (ah, ha, Deity) whilst Op 135 has a lighter touch (cf. Verdi's old age opera Faktaff except for the profound slow movement, and ends with question and answer 'must it be? …

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