Mortality & Meaning of Beethoven’s Late Quartet, Op. 132, by Masumi Per Rostad.

Ludwig from old book.edited

“After more than ten years and several hundred performances, Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 15 in A minor, Op. 132, remains fresh and hauntingly beautiful to me. I am still fascinated by its construction and still get choked up in the timeless, prayerful third movement. From the anxiously searching and manic first theme to the heroically possessed final coda, it is a piece that only becomes more intriguing with time.

Beethoven was at the end of his life when he wrote the A minor quartet, also known as the Heiliger Dankgesang quartet, one of his several late quartets. It was composed in 1825, just two years before Beethoven’s death. By then, he had finished with his concertos, symphonies, and piano sonatas and chose to focus solely on writing for a string quartet. With his 16 string quartets, Beethoven forged the backbone of the repertoire. At the beginning of his career, he composed with classical unity in the ensemble; in the middle period he exploded the quartet form to symphonic diversity and scope. In his final works, he had both extremes at his command and seemed free to just work out his musical ideas in their purest form.

I think of these last quartets as not necessarily being for performance. In fact, in 1810 he wrote (in English) to a friend and said about the String Quartet No. 11 in F minor (“Serioso”), Op. 95, “The quartet is written for a small circle of connoisseurs and is never to be performed in public.”

He hadn’t heard a sound for years; Beethoven started losing his hearing in 1796. You have to wonder what a score might have meant to the master composer. Music was his only true constant companion throughout his life. The conversations are streamlined and he is able to simply speak from the heart without fear of public offense or failure. The score by itself had become a complete work of art.

One of the inspirations for Beethoven during this late period was his constantly deepening admiration for the music of J.S. Bach. And like a Bach fugue, Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 15 in A minor begins simply with a four-note statement in the cello part that the other voices immediately pick up and start developing. Nearly omnipresent, this simple set of two half-step intervals separated by a leap, G#–A–F–E, is the signature of the entire work. It’s probably obvious to the educated and sensitive listener, but for a little while, early on, I didn’t see the forest through the trees in spotting the pairs of half steps through nearly every motive in every movement.

It seems so obvious when you think about it. Look for it everywhere.”

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Listen to this beautiful Quartet here: