Friedrich Rochitz, writing just over a year after Beethoven’s death said how confused people were when they heard the late quartets for the first time. I have some sympathy having had a first hearing of several. He passed judgment on the extraordinary Quartet opus 131. He found fault with the introspection and ‘disconnected combinations with themes too over- laid with instruments weaving variations’. It was almost impossible he said to distinguish the melodies. I don’t agree with that, but listening is certainly hard work for a non-specialist like me.
This quartet in particular has a life of its own. There are seven movements! If you include the six sections in which the forth movement is divided, twelve. And they are so varied –hence the criticism of disconnection. For example after the seriousness of the fourth movement there is the delightful Mozartian fifth, marked ‘presto’, but then its followed by the inelegant Adagio and (for me) galumphing Allegro. Musical purists reading that would be horrified, but it is an extraordinary work.
In the main Rochitz wanted to be positive, unlike many other critics in the nineteenth century, most of whom – particularly in respect of the Grosse Fugue (opus 133). Daniel Gregory Mason called it “repellent”, and the composer Louis Spohr characterised it, along with the rest of Beethoven’s late works, as an “indecipherable, uncorrected horror’ But opinion of the work has risen steadily since the beginning of the 20th century. More about that another time – I’ve played it once, but once is not enough : application is required!
Musical opinion is now much more positive about these last compositions of Beethoven’s life. John Amis writes in his blog online – ‘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 state of 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 shapes and patterns that are totally satisfying, reactions that are subjective, maybe, but ones that induce feelings of spirituality. As opposed to many of the symphonies, concertos and overtures which are somehow public works, the quartets tell of the composer’s rich but often troubled inner life’.
My journey continues – not like Amis for a week perhaps, but for many hours.