Beethoven: String Quartet in C-sharp minor op. 131

“We had,” wrote Robert Schumann of the 1837-1838 winter concert season, “four evenings and twenty numbers, among which the brilliants of first water were Beethoven’s quartets in E-flat major (op. 127) and C-sharp minor (op. 131), the grandeur of which no words can express. They seem to me to stand, with some of Bach’s choruses and organ pieces, on the extreme boundary of all that has hitherto been attained by human art and imagination; but verbal analysis and description would shipwreck them.”

Of course, Schumann’s warning has not prevented anyone from attempting to describe or analyze Beethoven’s late quartets, of which the C-sharp minor was Beethoven’s personal favourite (his verdict: “thank God, less lack of imagination than before”) and the final of the trio of string quartets requested by Russian aristocrat Nikolai Galitzin. Galitzin’s commission was open-ended in every possible way: he asked Beethoven to write “one, two, or three string quartets,” and offered to pay “for the trouble whatever amount you would deem adequate.” Unsurprisingly, Beethoven agreed to these terms. He told Galitzin he would write three, at a fee of fifty ducats apiece.

The characters of Beethoven and Galitzin were well-matched in both their virtues and their foibles. Beethoven was brilliant but frequently angry, erratic and unpredictable. Galitzin was enthusiastic, intelligent and encouraging, but had a tendency to promise more than he could deliver. So each got what they could have expected out of the other: over the course of five years Beethoven responded with three quartets that were so avant-garde that they were in many ways unacceptable to the general public as music. The second of the set had as its final movement the immense and terrifying Grosse Fuge, which his publisher insisted that he remove and replace for the sake of the market. In return Galitzin paid the first fifty ducats, but then delayed so long on the rest that Beethoven died without ever seeing the money; the full amount Galitzin owed Beethoven, for the string quartets and several other works, he only manage to pay up twenty-five years later, to Beethoven’s nephew Karl.

While still attempting to avoid the “shipwreck” of verbal description predicted by Schumann, it must be said that one of the most remarkable features of the op. 131 quartet is its unity with itself, and that unity is expressed both emotionally and formally. The forty-minute work is written, depending on your viewpoint, either in seven movements or in one. The movements run together with no breaks between them, and the last movement opening with a direct quotation of the first, as if the five intervening movements had all been merely a development section. Several sections notated as “movements” are really just introductions: the third movement is an eleven-measure entry to the fourth movement, a theme and variations that leaves its final variation incomplete. Similarly, the sixth movement is only twenty-eight measures, setting up the return of the tonic key and traditional sonata form of the seventh and final section.

The effect is of a dream, or a hero’s journey, and perhaps the only words that could do, by Schumann’s strict standards, are Stravinsky’s: “Perfect, inevitable, inalterable.”