The introduction of the string quartet
into common practice
and serious performance occurred in the late eighteenth century
. By this time, the hierarchy of the string family
had become firmly established. Advancements in the instruments themselves lead to an increase in virtuosic ability
, which also brought about a rise in the number of fine string musicians. Concurrently, there was a swell in the popularity of chamber music
performance not only for the aristocracy but for the middle class as well. The flowering of the string quartet is typically attributed to Joseph Haydn
(1732-1809) who produced sixty-eight during his career. Following his lead, composers began experimenting with their own style and interpretations of the string quartet. Musicians such as Mozart
, and Beethoven
all contributed generously to the genre
, each with a unique style particular to their character of composition. By the time of Beethoven (1772-1828) a standard form of four movements
was conventional with tempos
and traits similar to that of a four-movement symphony
. At the onset of his quartet writing, Beethoven adhered to the Classical
standards of form and structure. However, with the onslaught of the French Revolution
(1789-1795), a tendency toward reform
and emotional outpouring began to transfigure the arts. This time of nationalism
, extremes of emotion, and admiration of nature
is now referred to as the Romantic era
and it became the impelling force of composition both in visual and musical artwork
. With this influence, Beethoven began experimentation with new compositional
techniques and use of unique musical elements. His break away from traditional form
and structure as well as his experimentation with chromatic harmonies
introduced a new style of string quartet. Often referred to as both intellectually invigorating as well as musically stimulating, Beethoven's final six string quartets are an essential part of string chamber literature.
Political and Cultural Influences at the time of Composition
Early nineteenth-century Europe was a place of unrest and instability from a political and social standpoint. The years of 1799-1815 were consumed with the Napoleonic Wars. A movement towards civil rights and dedication to humanity was occurring in several nations. The role of the French society during the French Revolution had a profound impact on Beethoven's works. His compositions dominated the musical scene in Paris. The Fifth Symphony was the most played symphony of the era. The people of France claimed to hear the revolutionary motto of "Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity" emanating from within the music. On several occasions Beethoven's pieces were performed at concerts in honor of those who served in the wars. Appreciation of his music by the French was unique. There was a literacy tendency to critique and dwell on only the fast movements of a piece because they were considered motivating and inspirational for the causes of revolution. Little was discussed of the actual musical or compositional techniques employed.
Soon after the Revolution, the string quartet became incredibly popular in France. Perhaps the most well liked and influential of the quartets were those composed by Luigi Boccherini (1743-1805)
, though his primary compositional strategy was commercial. The high quality of the string quartet genre improved the level of instruction and performance at schools in France, especially in the area of violin performance. Parallel to this development was the demand by performers for more virtuosic and intellectual repertoire. To this end, the string quartet was an excellent vehicle for advancement since all voices could be written with equal importance, that is, with no "filler" parts for any player.
However, there was complaint by the public that the quartets were too difficult to aurally understand. The argument was that too many instrumental voices took on the melody, making it absurdly difficult for the common listener to be satisfied. The famous philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) was of the opinion that the string quartet was an unfavorable and unmusical genre. However, Rousseau was a very outspoken man with radical ideas about the revolution, and tended to represent the extremist view. In general, the people of France enjoyed the string quartets, and admired Beethoven's works as a needed bridge between the structure and formality of the old era and the freedom and will of the new.
Classification of Beethoven's Late Style
Like most Romantic artists it is difficult to classify Beethoven as a strictly Romantic composer. Certainly, in his early works the most dominating style is that of the Classical period. But following the French Revolution, Beethoven's compositions began to change, as did the styles of his contemporaries. Subjects of nature, especially that of the wild and mysterious or the melancholy began to become popular. In congruence with the philosophy of Rousseau, this was an era when feeling should transcend reason. Works became highly imaginative, dream-like, and subjective as they were imbued with emotional intensity. Musical expression suggested states of feeling that were too intense, mystical, or elusive to define. As the German writer E.T.A. Hoffman declared, the essence of Romantic art was its "infinite longing" for whatever the desire in the artist's soul.
An important characteristic of this period was the goal of the composer or artist to create a complete work of art, one in which all the senses are engaged to create a total emotion. Exultation and transmutation of reality with elements of the sublime and picturesque were put together in pleasant unity. Beethoven, as an enthusiastic artist of the Romantic period, began to work more instinctively and less by tradition. In this regard, it is necessary to understand that the interpretation of such works requires a total communion with the art in order to reveal the underlying purpose. As his works progressed later into his life, reason ceased to dictate composition. By considering elements of composition and style of music, historians have grouped the works of Beethoven into three categories - the early, middle, and late period works. The late period of Beethoven's writings is classified as the years from approximately 1814 until his death in 1827.
Beethoven's Hearing Loss
Although Beethoven claimed to notice a hearing loss in 1796, records indicate he had normal functional hearing until 1812. In that year, he began to complain of an inability to hear soft or high pitches, while loud sounds aggravated his ears. Because of his incapacity for hearing soft music, Beethoven tended to over compensate for dynamics in his writing. He sought after the most advanced technology to assist in his hearing of both speech and music. Johann Malezel (1772-1838) created a device called the ear trumpet which Beethoven made frequent use of, and a resonance plate was attached to his piano. In 1817, Beethoven had a special pianoforte with increased volume built by Andreas Streicher. Despite these aids, Beethoven was ineffective when communicating in society and felt estranged from civilization. Around this time a school of German Romantic painting was formed by a group of artists called the Nazarenes. Lead by Johann Friedrich Overbeck, their purpose was to recover the style of medieval religious art and incorporate it's elements into their works. Beethoven followed a similar school of thought and became interested in integrating hymn and folk-like melodies into his pieces. His works became directed toward a form of articulate communication and evolved with a more defined concept of musical unity. He was lured to the tendency to avoid dominant cadential patterns, utilize church modality, and circumvent tonic triads by way of six-four chords. His goals were to incorporate fugue, variation, and lyricism into a common unified structure.
Composing the Late Quartets
Beethoven finally began to compose the last set of string quartets in 1824, having not produced any material of this genre since 1810. It is speculated that Beethoven took those fourteen years off from this type of composition to relieve his exhaustion, deal with emotional insecurity, and stabilize his hearing loss. His output during this period was primarily instrumental, including five string quartets and the Grosse Fuge. Given motivation to produce three of these works (Op.127, 130, 132) by a Prince Nikolay Golitsïn, the late string quartets are regarded as some of the most inventive in chamber music, with incredible experimentation in musical form, thematic development, and compositional technique. The first of his late string quartets, Op.127 in E-flat Major, was not well received when first performed in Vienna. The string quartet Op.131 in C# minor is the most unorthodox in form, with seven loosely connected movements. Op.133, the Grosse Fuge or "Great Fugue" was his final complete work before his death. The work of particular interest to my research was the Op.132 String Quartet No 15 in A minor. Written and performed in 1825, this quartet is actually the second of the late quartets, its chronological placement immediately following the No. 12 Quartet. No exception to the experimentation with Classical compositional rules, this piece reveals Beethoven's increasing pattern of whole work continuity, use of church modality, and counterpoint and chromaticism as a propelling harmonic force.
Although Beethoven himself had brief experience as a violin and viola player, he was very familiar with the nuances of string performance technicalities and the intricacies of ensemble playing. His late quartets are demanding of the performers and have been performed by many professional string quartets. The Schuppanzigh Quartet gave the first performance of the Op.132 in 1825. Since then, each rendition of its performance has been unique and new stylistic changes occur all the time. One ongoing performance dispute is over tempo, where the markings are rather vague. Although Beethoven eventually marked in metronome specifications, he was quoted as saying "feeling also has its own tempo which cannot be expressed by this figure". For this reason, most quartets will play his works at varying tempos. Even though a group may perform the piece at one tempo for several years, it is not unusual for an ensemble to eventually make a change with the tempo. To effectively perform a late string quartet, each member of the quartet needs to have a complete understanding of Beethoven's late style. The most well formed string quartets are the ones who can maintain their individual functions while blending together to form a beautiful functional structure. When done appropriately, the late quartets are powerful, demanding, and engaging musical works.
The techniques through which Beethoven advances the style and form of the string quartet genre are a direct reflection of the influence the political and social reforms had on music. The evolution of the string quartet is directly indebted to Beethoven's inventive and bold creativity. The late String Quartets by Beethoven are a revolutionary work in their genre and are an integral part of the string chamber repertory today.