Beethoven’s Late Quartets 3

My exploration of Beethoven’s Last Quartets continues, underlining my deepening respect for works that I have always admired but found difficult to like. The music author Basil Lam, refers to the ‘unsurpassable achievements’ of Beethoven’s final maturity, and argues that there is a sense in which one feels that after them he had nothing else to say – although in fact he was already at work on a tenth symphony when he died. His one-time friend, the poet and dramatist Goethe said of him ‘never have I met an artist more resolutely concentrated, more energetic, or of deeper sincerity’. (Unfortunately the friendship didn’t survive Beethoven’s republicanism and Goethe’s respect for the nobility!).

Beethoven the man – his health problems, his deafness, his difficult relationships and falling in love with the wrong woman are virtually indistinguishable from his music, so much of which is autobiographical. You meet the man in the music. Listening to these last quartets one can perhaps be forgiven for wondering if you always want to meet him.

Often I feel that he is writing for himself and not addressing his listeners. That must be true of most composers, but it’s acutely so of this, the mightiest of them all.

I have been listening to his Quartet Opus 132. Lam in the second of two booklets he wrote in the BBC Music Guides series published in 1975, says of this work that it speaks of pain endured without the mitigation of hope or indignation. I can see that, but disagree with his analysis of the first movement which he says is profoundly dark. On the contrary, I found it bold and hopeful and in many ways the most impressive of the five movements.

The extraordinary third movement, the Adagio is very curious and within its various moods – mostly sombre – there is a hymn of gratitude for recovery after illness.

Here my musical ignorance – I can barely follow a score let alone play music – becomes manifest. I found it more plaintive than contemplative; prepared to be moved, instead I waited for something that for me didn’t happen, and it was quite a relief to go on to the jolly if more ordinary 4th and 5th.movements. But I must listen to it again

However, I do want to engage with a composer and not to be a passive listener, merely entertained. As we shall see when we have a look soon at the massive albums of British music I recently bought, that will be an issue.