Ludwig van Beethoven, 1770-1827
The String Quartet in F Major, Op. 135 is Beethoven’s last string quartet as well as his last complete opus in any genre. He finished it in October of 1826, not many months before taking his last breath in March of 1827. It is the final work of the greatest cycle of string quartets in history that began with six worthy successors to Haydn and Mozart (Op. 18), exploded with the three magnificent quartets for Count Razumovsky (Op. 59), effused into the dazzling richness of Op. 74 (“Harp”), smoldered with the cryptic severity of Op. 95 (“Serioso), blossomed into transcendent expansion with the first four late quartets and broached the utterly modern with the Grosse Fugue. As he began writing the Op. 135 quartet, Beethoven knew it would be his last: he was very conscious of the moment in his life if not the moment in the history of the world. How did Beethoven conclude this epic series?
Particularly after the astonishing previous four late quartets, many find Op. 135 to be more conventional, classical, complacent and even accommodating. With only four movements in a rather standard manner and the total duration of his earliest Op. 18 quartets, some find the quartet to be a relaxation, a cooling down for Beethoven following his most recent monumental achievements. What generally arouses the most excitement is the finale with its famous inscription, “The difficult decision” along with the historical speculation about the scripted dialog that accompanies the finale’s two chief motives.
This kind but almost dismissive regard for Op. 135 misses the mark. Rather than a return to convention, Op. 135 is a distillation. It is not a cooling off but a stronger alloy from an even hotter crucible, a work of new refinement. As T. S. Elliot would write in his Four Quartets inspired by Beethoven’s late chamber music, it is “to return to the beginning and recognize the place for the first time . . . a condition of complete simplicity costing not less than everything.” Though evoking the form and style of the earlier Classical string quartet, Beethoven filled it with the blended contents of his entire career as if to say “here is the first string quartet I would have written had I only known then everything that I know now.” Or perhaps he was saying this is how it had always been. It is indeed a return to the fresh, robust vigor of Beethoven the eternally young, but it is saturated with the music of Beethoven the wise, old master. Its scale is not small but epigrammatic, an epic within an essay.
The opening Allegretto (already, an apparent move to gracious moderation) is the first clear case of new refinement. It is a classical sonata constructed from several motives that are extremely terse yet full of musical personality and assembled into a mosaic, a composite sequence of significant complexity. As the music develops, the motives start moving about from instrument to instrument and combining together as counterpoints. The development interjects the perpetual motion of a march and the motives begin to dance. The entire fabric of the movement varies between swatches of homophonous lyricism and a lattice of counterpoint. Its almost seems as if Beethoven has turned a sonata into a triple fugue (or the other way around). The new refinement finds Beethoven fully consummating the hybrid texture of Haydn and Mozart’s Viennese Classicism— the gallant and the learned—with a synthesis that is distinctly neither yet completely both.
The second movement Vivace is a muscular scherzo that recalls Beethoven’s great verve for orchestral string writing (especially the 7th symphony) crowned by the brilliant voice of the solo violin recalling either the sonatas or the concerto. The majority of the music is forged by splitting the quartet into halves with the keening violins together on top and the bold foundation of the lower strings in tandem underneath. But the gestures and the motion are fleet and agile, leaping gazelles racing across the vast expanse. The husky fiddle rasps out a sprightly dance while the strings bubble then burst into a rolling boil. A moment of classic Beethoven deconstruction throttles all momentum through a decrescendo and a breakdown into elemental particles before the scherzo resumes and finishes with a vigorous javelin thrust into the unforeseen future.
The Lento sings a simple, sacred song confirming (yet again) that, in the sentiments of musicologist Michael Steinberg, Beethoven was the greatest author of adagios in the entire Western tradition. The longest movement in the quartet, it immediately recalls both the Cavatina and the “Song of the Thanksgiving” of the previous late quartets. Stark, hymn-like, humble and deep, it will slowly and perfectly break your heart. At its center lies the enigmatically dark and primordial brooding with a sharp stab of tragedy that, through its craggy mystery, seems to suggest that we are eavesdropping on Beethoven’s most private ruminations. But then there is light, as the old wheezing hymn rises again, a supplication of aching beauty with cello as new lead, joined in canon by a violin who then sings a final, tender lullaby as one by one, the stars disappear.
And now comes the finale. Melvin Berger relays that Beethoven sent this touching note to the publisher along with the final manuscript for Op. 135:
“Here, my dear friend, is my last quartet. It will be the last; and indeed it has given me much trouble. For I could not bring myself to compose the last movement. But as your letters were reminding me of it, in the end I decided to compose it. And that is the reason why I have written the motto: ‘The difficult decision—Must it be? —It must be, it must be!’”
There are alternate possible sources and numerous interpretations of that final motto ranging from prosaic to profound, from the mundane to the philosophical and spiritual. What is certain is that the words describe the essence of the music. It begins with a slow introduction, a grave, stormy three-note motive that musically raises a question (must it be?). The extended, fragmented and dire query also features a three-note “knock on the door” that looks inevitably backward to the 5th symphony and forward to Shostakovich’s 8th quartet. The Allegro answers the question by inverting the three-note motive into a musically affirmative statement (it must be!), a burst of joyful vigor that is joined by mellifluous sequences and a child-like song of direct, open-heartedness, both of which recall similar epiphanies in the earlier late quartets. Contrapuntal stretches froth the ambrosia into Elysium just before the dire question rears again in disruptive panic, an arrow stunning the heart. The strong, bright affirmation restores peace and energy once more, refines into dainty, courtly pizzicato then swells into a final flush of resolute vigor. It must be. And so it was.
Actually, it was not to be, ultimately. Beethoven wrote one more “last movement” (his truly final music) thereby sparing the Op. 135 finale from actually being the last movement he could not write. Again, classic Beethoven: he would always end a storm with a smile, a tragedy with a wink. The last, last movement (a replacement finale for the Op. 130 after the Grosse Fugue was extracted) truly completes this tale of Beethoven’s final refinement. After all, where is the final fugue? It’s there, mustn’t it be? It must be. And so it is.