Beethoven and the String Quartet
Beethoven's 16 string quartets, written between 1798 and 1827, constitute a towering achievement that has both inspired and intimidated composers. Schumann—whose own quartets are deeply indebted to Beethoven's—declared that the genre had "come to a standstill" after Beethoven's death; the "immortal freshness" of his quartets, along with those of Mozart and Haydn, continued to "gladden the hearts of everyone," but the younger generation had proven incapable of producing anything of comparable quality. Indeed, with the possible exception of Dmitri Shostakovich in the 20th century, no other composer has so consistently used the string quartet as a vehicle for working out musical ideas in their most concentrated and intensely personal form.
Compared to Haydn's 68 quartets and Mozart's 27, Beethoven's output was small. Moreover, his production of quartets was sporadic, usually having been prompted by commissions from various aristocratic friends. The six Op. 18 quartets and the "Harp" Quartet, Op. 74, are dedicated to Prince Joseph Lobkowitz, Vienna's foremost patron of the arts in the early 1800s, while the three Op. 59 quartets were commissioned by Count Andrey Razumovsky, Russia's ambassador to the Viennese court and an enthusiastic amateur violinist. Toward the end of his life, after a hiatus of more than a decade, Beethoven accepted a commission for "one, two, or three new quartets" from Prince Nikolay Golitsïn, a cello-playing Russian nobleman, which resulted in the A-Minor Quartet, Op. 132, as well opuses 127 and 130.
Regardless of who was paying the piper, Beethoven showed little inclination to let either his enlightened benefactors or the Viennese public call the tune. Despite the lucid classicism of the early Op. 18 quartets, one contemporary described them as being "very difficult to perform and not at all popular." The weightier, more contrapuntal style of the middle-period quartets—the three "Razumovskys," the "Harp," and the "Serioso," Op. 95—provoked similar reactions. Most challenging of all, to both performers and listeners, were the five late quartets (opuses 127, 130, 131, 132, and 135) that Beethoven composed between 1824 and 1826. These knotty, inward-looking masterpieces stretch the formal and expressive language of the classical string quartet almost to the breaking point.