Beethoven, String Quartet No. 12 in E-flat Major, Op. 127

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

String Quartet No. 12 in E-flat Major, Op. 127, 1824-1825

Ludwig van BeethovenBeethoven’s Op. 127 is the first of his legendary “late quartets,” six string quartets that comprise Beethoven’s final and perhaps greatest musical achievement. Besides some aborted sketches, he had not worked significantly in the genre for over a decade since the Op. 95 “Serioso” quartet of 1810. In the interim, Beethoven composed his final piano sonatas, the Missa Solemnis and the 9th Symphony, all magnificent works of a towering stature. The last piano sonatas, “late” in the same profound sense as the late quartets would be, inaugurated several of the stylistic traits of his final period: innovative forms bordering on fantasia, sublime beauty, deeply intimate emotion, epic lengths, superhuman virtuosity and a beautiful obsession with seemingly inexhaustible variation. Beethoven’s final music seems to plumb the depths from the personal to the universal and still, somehow, beyond: transcendental.

Paradoxically, by comparison with the ineffable nature of his late quartets, Beethoven’s personal life at the time is a sad tale of endless woe. By 1816, Beethoven was totally deaf, a fact that only increased his isolation and loneliness. He had suffered an unrequited love, an obsessive legal battle over his suicidal nephew Karl, and problems with his publishers, finances and physical health. But in November of 1822, the hermitic Beethoven received a godsend: a letter from a young Russian Prince Galitzin who requested “one, two or three new quartets for which labor I will be glad to pay you what you think proper.” From May 1824 to November 1826 (four months before his death), Beethoven monumentally composed the three quartets for Galitzin as well as two additional quartets, his final music.

The first of the late quartets, String Quartet in E-flat Major, Op. 127, was completed in February of 1825. With inadequate time for rehearsals, the Schuppanzigh Quartet gave the premiere on March 1825 in Vienna and it was rather poorly received. One reviewer wrote that the work was an “incomprehensible, incoherent, vague, over-extended series of fantasias—chaos, from which flashes of genius emerged from time to time like lightning bolts from a black thunder cloud.” But the masterwork eventually pleased while enjoying a number of performances during Beethoven’s last years.

Although Op. 127 comprises four movements, it is anything but conventional. The opening movement largely follows a first-movement sonata design, but it presents a somewhat strange dramatic polarity between the gentle lyricism of the main theme and a brace of bold declamatory chords that announce the music and brashly interrupt it again three more times with a transformative effect. As if finally able to complete itself, the tender theme concludes with a surprising and poignant turn of delicate grace more like ultra-refined Mozart than Beethoven.

The second movement places us squarely in the astonishing realm of late Beethoven with an epic set of variations on a very simple but exquisitely beautiful theme. These are not Beethoven’s typical variations full of brio, virtuosity and shocking contrasts. Instead, Beethoven offers a rhapsodic slow movement in which sustained lyricism spans great arcs of loosely braided contrapuntal textures in what is ultimately an extended and passionately emotional song.

A bristling Scherzo brings the music back to earth with muscular drive, rhythmic complexity full of starts and stops and a darker, quicksilver trio, all recalling some of Beethoven’s finest symphonic writing. Like the other movements, this is ample and rich for a scherzo including a characteristically humorous ending.

The shortest of the movements, the finale, curiously without tempo or character marking, appears to drive the quartet home with a beneficent, even jolly affect. It features two themes, one buoyant and lighthearted, the other, insistent and heavy with stomping accents. But something special happens at the end, one of so many magical moments throughout the late quartets. Beethoven writes a coda changing the key, meter, tempo and thereby the fundamental character of the music in a transcendent miracle of variation.

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