By Thomas May
In the summer of 1826, when Beethoven sent off the finished score of his String Quartet in C-sharp minor, he flustered his publisher by jesting that it was “patched together from pieces filched here and there.” To the contrary, what appeared in print as Op. 131 the following year (three months after the composer’s death) is an unprecedentedly original and ambitious work: arguably the zenith of Beethoven’s late quartets, which in themselves hold a privileged position at the core of the repertoire—for many, its holy grail.
It’s easy to understand Beethoven’s desire for a touch of levity after venturing into such uncharted realms. “My opinion is that Op. 131 is as far as he went in terms of experimentation,” says violinist Philip Setzer, a founding member of the Emerson Quartet. He mentions the private performance at which Schubert, a few days before his death in 1828, first heard this music. (Op. 131 remained unperformed before Beethoven himself died in March 1827.) “Schubert was overwhelmed and reportedly said: ‘After this, what is left for us to write?’”
But if Op. 131 can seem an ultimate destination—Beethoven considered it his favorite achievement in the medium—this music resists “definitive” interpretations. The C-sharp minor Quartet is unparalleled in its inexhaustibility, attracting ensembles at different stages of their careers to enter its orbit with the promise of fresh revelation.
“What a beautiful thing to give a musician,” remarks Nicholas Cords, Brooklyn Rider’s violist. “In the late quartets, Beethoven says: ‘Be an equal with me in this process, individually and collectively, of confronting what I have and celebrating creative power.’ It’s a world of discovery in itself.”
For Sam Quintal, violist of the Philadelphia-based Jasper Quartet, grappling with Beethoven “always teaches you a lot about yourself as a player and about your quartet.” In Op. 131 in particular, “Beethoven uses the quartet as one organism. It’s fascinating to see the creativity of his use of the voices. In the brief fifth movement, for instance, he writes a devilishly difficult part for viola that is supposed to be in the background. You need to think as one, as this single mind, which is remarkably educational for us as a quartet.”
All three string quartets—the Emersons, Brooklyn Rider, and the Jaspers—have contributed distinctive interpretations to the formidable legacy of recorded accounts of Op. 131. Speaking for their respective ensembles, Philip Setzer, Nicholas Cords, and Sam Quintal share their insights about the unique character of Op. 131 and what it means to engage with such a haloed repertoire staple.
Revolution Number Seven
The intense contrasts that inform Beethoven’s late-quartet style are reinforced by structural experimentation. Beginning with a slow fugue that is one of his most inward-looking statements—and the first time he launches a work with a slow movement since the early Moonlight Sonata—Beethoven casts Op. 131 in seven movements, venturing into divergent harmonic directions and vastly different time scales with each, though all are connected without pause.
Setzer notes that this expansion into seven movements in Op. 131 takes on a special significance if you look at the actual chronology of composition of the late quartets. (You need to ignore the opus number order.) After the four-movement Op. 127, the number of movements in each subsequent quartet increases by one: five movements in Op. 132, six in Op. 130, and seven in Op. 131, but reverting to four in Op. 135.
“It’s interesting to me that Beethoven makes a point in Op. 131 of numbering each movement in the manuscript, even though they are to be played without pause,” Setzer says. “He was very superstitious about numbers and also about keys. Five is a very important number in Op. 132, for example.”
With seven, Beethoven seems to press up against a new limit. “Scholars think that with Op. 135 [his final completed quartet] he was embarking on a new set of string quartets.” Setzer suggests an analogy with late Shakespeare: “I think Beethoven realized he’d written as far as he could in terms of tragedy and decided to try writing a comedy in the sense of Falstaff. Like any great Shakespeare comedy, there’s tragedy there, too.”
Conversely, Op. 131 contains “demonic humor” at the end of its Scherzo and seems to culminate in a “happy ending.” And yet, “I always feel it’s too little too late. He slays the monster in the mind, but it’s a defiant attitude, with both fists being shaken at God or fate or whatever,” Setzer says. While a parallel with Macbeth is sometimes suggested, Setzer thinks Op. 131 is much closer in spirit to King Lear. “You even have the madness, in the Scherzo and the Finale. When I play the last movement, I feel like I’m galloping through hell.”
For Quintal, this originality of structure, as well as how the seven parts fit together, contributes to the extraordinary overall imagination that makes Op. 131 a genuine masterwork. “No other piece in the literature pulls this off in the same way, daring a 40-minute, multi-movement string quartet,” he says. “This is the limit of how complex and intricate a composer can make the music while still having it be comprehensible to the listener without a score.”
What makes it successful, Quintal emphasizes, is that “Beethoven is unabashed about everything. He’s experienced enough by now that he does exactly what he wants. Some of it actually looks too simple or too long on paper—for example, some of the variations in the fourth movement. Yet in practice they end up being these startlingly intimate moments where Beethoven is giving you space to understand the more complex things going on.”
The presence of the number seven actually played a significant role in Brooklyn Rider’s approach to Op. 131, which they recorded on their 2012 album Seven Steps. The C-sharp minor Quartet was the first Beethoven score they chose to tackle as Brooklyn Rider, though the members had taken on Beethoven projects apart from the ensemble. “The mainstream repertoire is absolutely part of our aesthetic as well,” Cords asserts, even if Brooklyn Rider is usually associated with a focus on contemporary music and unusual interdisciplinary collaborations.
Why start with the ultra-complex Op. 131? “We were attracted to the idea of a seven-movement quartet that is so cyclical and motivically tied together. The number seven taps into so much, from the realm of spirituality—the Buddha’s seven steps—to the seven days of the week.” Cords and his colleagues—violinists Johnny Gandelsman and Colin Jacobsen and cellist Eric Jacobsen (whose place has since been taken by Michael Nicolas)—
collaborated to write a piece in response to Op. 131, Seven Steps, which appears alongside Beethoven on their recording.
“That was a real trust-building exercise at that stage in our development,” Cords explains. “It produced results that fed into the work of tackling Op. 131. We were taking tiny corners of the quartet and building it out as improvisational games as we were working on the Beethoven.” It also paved the way for their current Beethoven-meets-the-present project: Healing Modes, which matches Op. 132 with new commissions—to date, by composers Caroline Shaw, Gabriela Lena Frank, Reena Esmail, Matana Roberts, and Du Yun—that address the topic of healing from contemporary personal, political, and social perspectives. “These are topical pieces that tap into something deep inside all of us.”
Getting Past the Mystique
The spell cast by Beethoven’s late-period works on the work of later composers as well as performers is different in kind from the more readily assimilated achievements of the “heroic” middle period. “There is this halo around the world of the late string quartets. Sometimes it becomes so reverent that it actually can result in paralysis,” Cords notes. “We don’t want to stand outside the tradition and be iconoclastic in that way.”
Rather, the ensemble has developed a perspective from its wide-ranging work with living composers that inspires the players “to get in at the ground level, with a very creative mindset. Which is not to say you take an approach that is not respectful of the composer,” Cords says. The result can seem paradoxical, in that in Op. 131 Brooklyn Rider’s contemporary perspective is allied with interpretive choices that are typically associated with period-instrument performance: spare use of vibrato, ultra-transparent textures, bowing choices, and old-fashioned portamento.
Cords explains that this is a response to the “pristine clarity” of Beethoven’s writing in, for example, the first movement fugue. “To us, it suggests Renaissance voices singing, while in the second the disposition suddenly shifts to something very folky. We also have a huge interest in recordings from the pre-World War II and even pre-World War I eras, which feel more like a direct link to Beethoven. Without trying to copy those recordings, we arrived at a similar expressive world.”
Overall, Cords believes the ensemble’s vision of “mixing these worlds of old and new” reflects a duality inherent in Op. 131. “So much of the piece represents this monumental struggle between an overwrought, fateful, present world and a past that is like a sweet remembrance,” he says. “The Variations movement goes in and out of these worlds.”
The Jasper Quartet, which began its professional career in 2006, likewise engages with living composers alongside core repertoire: Their upcoming release this May pairs Aaron Jay Kernis’ Third String Quartet
with the Debussy. Yet when they recorded Op. 131 on Sono Luminus as a digital-only release, the Jaspers followed an interpretive path that sounds nothing like Brooklyn Rider’s account.
“In terms of a relationship with the piece, ours is still relatively short,” says Quintal. “We haven’t been working at it for 50 years. The canon of amazing interpreters can seem like a real weight. The expectation of finding something personal to say is high because of the almost holy feeling in this music—and I say that without even being religious.”
To avoid being overwhelmed by the weight of tradition, Quintal says he and his colleagues “took what we could from our mentors and from listening, and then forgot all of that so we could be free to do what we wanted. Certain decisions ended up being the same as other quartets, certain ones didn’t.”
The Jaspers’ Op. 131 exudes a fresh and inspired sense of serenity; connections rather than dramatic contrasts are at the forefront. “Beethoven challenges you to tell this story in a way that hangs together and creates this long emotional arc,” according to Quintal. That also makes Op. 131 a deeply satisfying work to perform live, “when you participate in real time with an audience along this journey. (A video of the Jaspers performing Op. 131 in concert available on YouTube makes for fascinating comparisons with the refined engineering of the Solo Luminus recording.)
While the Emersons released their recording of Op. 131 as part of a benchmark Beethoven cycle in the 1990s, it’s clear that Setzer and his colleagues never fail to uncover new facets each time they return to the score. For all of its weighty metaphysical associations, the violinist tends to interpret it as “very much about Beethoven’s struggle on earth and not so much his struggle with heaven.”
The slow opening fugue ends on C sharp, but the movement that follows immediately is in D major, “like lifting yourself up a little into the light. Beethoven had a complicated relationship with God—he thanks him for his healing in Op. 132 and writes the Missa solemnis—but he did not feel he was writing music for God the way Bach or Haydn or Bruckner did. He had a lot of resentment and anger.” In Op. 131, Beethoven confronts “the deepest kinds of struggle that we all have on earth—and he takes us into another place.”
Along with the three accounts discussed in this story, here are some other suggested recordings of Beethoven’s Op. 131:
From the first “official” cycle (1951–52) (Sony)
From their sage second traversal of the cycle (1987–92) (Decca)
From one of the most widely acclaimed recorded cycles, a precursor in some ways to the Jaspers’ tonal sensibility (1967–75) (Decca)
Alban Berg Quartet
Swoonworthy in its technical refinement (1978–84) (EMI)
One of the landmark interpretations of this century (2001–04) (Decca)
Philip Setzer with colleagues Eugene Drucker, Lawrence Dutton, and David Finckel (since replaced by Paul Watkins) (1994) (Deutsche Grammophon)
This is a digital-only release from Sono Luminus (2014); compare with their live performance on YouTube. Sam Quintal with colleagues J. Freivogel, Karen Kim, and Rachel Henderson Freivogel
On their Seven Steps album, which pairs Op. 131 with the ensemble’s own collaborative composition and Together into This Unknowable Night (2012) (In a Circle Records). Nicholas Cords with colleagues Johnny Gandelsman, Colin Jacobsen, and Eric Jacobsen (since replaced by Michael Nicolas)
This article originally appeared in the March-April 2019 issue of Strings magazine.