Posted on November 27th, 2019 by

Beethoven and Haydn – Two late works . A player’s perspective. was written as a programme article for the Kreutzer

‘The two quartets heard in tonight’s concert qualify as ‘late works’. Over many years playing and studying this works, I find if fascinating, that the topic of mortality, of end-games, if you like, almost never has come up in rehearsal. It’s the same with the Schubert C Major String Quintet; the topic that does not arise in repeated rehearsals and performances, is death. In fact, the quite the opposite is true. There’s not enfeeblement to be found, no slackening of invention, not even a rage at ‘the dying of the light’. Perhaps the reason that we players love playing these pieces, is, at least in part, a hunger to get as close as possible to artists working at the pinnacle of their expressive and technical powers, and perhaps offering the chance to witness the sublime.

Beethoven struggling with a rhythmic joke! The MS of the second Movement of Op 132

‘In the last few years of Joseph Haydn’s life, there was widespread, sometimes morbid, speculation as to whether he would find the strength to finish his last works, most particularly the torso of his last (and as he insisted ‘83rd’) Quartet. This work had been intended as the third of a group of three, which had been promised to the Artaria house for 1802. In the event, the two completed quartets of the projected set, dedicated to Prince Franz Joseph Lobkowitz (1772-1816), were published as a pair ‘Op 77’, leaving the as-yet-unfinished work an orphan.  In August 1804 the Saxon Minister in Vienna, Georg August von Griesinger (1769-1845) wrote to the publishers Breitkopf & Härtel that the quartet was ‘the child whom he now cares for and to whom he sometimes devotes a quarter of an hour.’

‘Composing had become extremely painful for Haydn, in part due to his poor health. Whilst Beethoven was already afflicted with the deafness what would become a famous aspect of his myth as a composer, Haydn’s hearing had become so sensitive, ‘his nerves so acute’ his student Paul Struck noted, that he worked ‘at a Clavier [most likely this was a small Tafelklavier] because the fortepiano has become too painful for him’. 

Joseph Haydn, seen by George Dance the Younger (who designed the Mansion house in London)

‘In 1805 it was clear that he had given up hope of completing, or publishing, the work (though he spoke of a concluding rondo movement). He even tried to sell the manuscript to a visiting group of Russian officers, and who planned to dedicate the work to the Czar Alexander 1st. They demurred, saying that they needed time to think about it. Breitkopf & Härtel published the two completed movements in 1806, three years before Haydn’s death, as ‘Op 103’. The published quartet was dedicated to the music loving banker, Count Moritz von Fries, to whom Beethoven had dedicated his piano/violin sonatas Op 23/24 and the String Quintet Op 29 in 1801.

‘Haydn’s sense of humour never left him; he had a visiting card printed up with the words from his part-song Der Greis ‘Gone is all my strength, old and weak an I’, and agreed that the publishers should include the incipit of the song as a finial for the quartet. This was announced and printed in the first edition, as a ‘canon’. The mis-appellation found its way into later complete editions, including one by Peters Verlag, which I studied as a teenager. I wasted a lot of time, as a result, trying to make it work as a four-part canon. It did not work. When Haydn read the ‘canon’ listing in the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung in 1806, he growled: ‘The Song Hin ist alle meine Kraft, is no canon …’. Tonight, we will play the quartet with an arrangement of the original song, which lies beautifully for string quartet.

In 1801-1802, Beethoven worked on a series of Italian part-songs, mostly setting texts by Pietro Metastasio (1698-1782). 18 of these survive, but only 11 texts are set, as these were undertaken as exercises. They document a portion of Beethoven’s extensive study with Kapellmeister Antonio Salieri (1750-1825) which came to an end in 1802.  Beethoven had dedicated the Op 12 Sonatas for piano with violin accompaniment to him in 1798, and gave the premiere of those works with Ignaz von Schuppanzigh (1776-1830).

Sir George Thomas Smart by William Bradley. When he met Beethoven in Vienna, the great composer admonished him not to play his F minor Quartet, op 95 in public, as it was too complex for all but the most sophisticated audiences

Beethoven took the question of study, very seriously. Famously, as a brilliant 21-year-old, he had arrived in Vienna to study, to ‘receive the spirit of Mozart from Haydn’s hands.’ He took up counterpoint studies with Johann Albrechtsberger for 18 months, after Haydn left for London in January 1794.  After his arrival in 1792, Beethoven sought out Iganaz Schuppanzigh (1776-1830) for violin lessons, and also studied for a while with the violinist and mandolinist Wenzel Krumpholtz (1750-1817), who settled in Vienna in 1795.  I find it fascinating to note that Beethoven was still seeking technical help, if you like, in his early thirties, by which time he was a sought-out, acclaimed composer, with a score of works already published in Vienna. This appetite for learning, reflects the spirit in which he worked with the brilliant musicians who surrounded him in Vienna. It would continue from the time of his arrival in 1792 until his death, when he was excitedly studying the volumes of the new complete Handel edition, which had been sent to him by the Philharmonic Society in London at the behest of Sir George Smart.

‘Beethoven’s A-minor quartet was the second of three commissioned by the young Russian Prince Nikolas Galitzin/Golitsin (1794-1866), an enthusiastic cellist, who also subscribed to the Missa Solemnis.  It was premiered, by the group led by Ignaz Schuppanzigh, on November 6th 1825, at a benefit concert for the cellist Joseph Linke (1783-1837), who had joined Schuppanzigh’s reformed quartet.

An image of Beethoven which I found in a flea market in Denmark. ‘Beethoven spiller for den blinde pige’ -Wenzel Ulrik Tornøe (1844-1907)

‘This was not, however, the first time that the piece was heard in Vienna. The Paris-based publisher and editor, Moritz Schlesinger (1769-1838) had it played twice at his Vienna lodgings, on the 9th and 11th September that year. Clearly, Schlesinger liked what he heard: he paid 80 ducats for the quartet on the 10th September. The second of these readings marked the climax of an intensive period of collaborative work, with the Schuppanzigh Quartet on the new work. Rehearsals had begun on the 7th September: interestingly, Schlesinger had visited Beethoven on the 4th to ask him to sell him the newest quartets, so it is likely that the intense rehearsal was triggered by this visit. Schlesinger eventually published both the Op 132 and Op 135 Quartets (mislabelled as ‘Op 134’). There was an atmosphere of celebration at the dinner following the second private performance. Sir George Smart, visiting from London, reported that the guests included  composer, publisher,  quartet (the other two members at this time were Holz and Weiss), Carl Czerny, and the flute player Jean Sedlatzek (who had played principal flute at the premiere of the 9th Symphony), at which Beethoven improvised at the piano. The score would not be sent to the dedicatee Prince Galitzin until February 1826, presumably once Breitkopf & Härtel had finished their work with it.

‘The Elegischer Gesang Op 118 for voices and string quartet was written in 1814, in memory of Baroness Eleonore von Pasqualati, who had died three years earlier in 1811, aged just 24. At the time of the Baroness’ death, Beethoven was an intermittent lodger at the home she shared with her husband, Baron Johann Baptist von Pasqualiti, on the Mölkerbastei in Vienna. It was not published until the summer of 1826, which accounts for the late opus number.

An der Mölker Bastei – a late 19th century view

‘Preparations for this publication of this single movement work overlaid the time that Beethoven was writing the Op 132 quartet. Beethoven scrutinised this preparation particularly carefully, and I find it fascinating that the earlier work was crossing his desk, in the same time period that the last quartets were emerging. That inspired the idea of bringing together this quartet, which enshrines the ‘Heiliger Dankgesang’ and this ‘Elegischer Gesang’. ‘

Peter Sheppard Skærved