The Greatest Music Ever Written

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.

T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets, “Burnt Norton”

The Ninth was not the end for Beethoven.  Having scaled to the very summit of what symphonic composition can achieve, he retreated into his own private world, composing smaller chamber works in his final two years.  The so-called “late quartets” are, in my humble opinion, the greatest music ever composed, by anyone, at any time, anywhere.  The sound that Beethoven created was unlike anything that came before and truly unlike anything that would come afterwards.  They are not Romantic in any way, shape or form.  They are not Classical or Baroque.  I’ve heard them along-side some of the most daring music of the 20th century, inevitably coming away with the view that it was the Beethoven that was the most avant-garde.  When I say that Beethoven started out his career as a Classical composer and then evolved into Beethoven, these are my Exhibits A through E.  They are, quite simply, the greatest achievement in all of art. A teaser of just how powerful this music is:

That’s the sixth movement from Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 14 (by the way, ignore the opus numberings, this was his second to last composition).  Beethoven remarked that it was his favorite of the late quartets and considered it to be one of the very best things he had ever composed. The 14th String Quartet would not be performed publicly for nearly a decade, well after Beethoven’s death. But, in 1828, the 30-year old Franz Schubert asked for a performance of the quartet in his home. Stunned by what he heard, he said: “After this, what is left for us to compose?” And then he died the following day.  Robert Schumann proclaimed that the quartet exists “on the extreme boundary of all that has hitherto been attained by human art and imagination.” Richard Wagner, who called the first movement “[t]he saddest thing ever said in tones” also found inspiration in the final movement, a major influence on his operas Tristan und Insolde and De Vliegende Hollander. Virginia Woolfe cites this quartet in The Waves and was the inspiration for T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, which happens to be my favorite poetry. And the list goes on.

In this remarkable composition, we find Beethoven at his most revolutionary, completing blowing apart the form as established by his teacher Joseph Haydn. It is difficult to think of another work that was so revolutionary. As one critic noted: “I can’t think of any other music which so profoundly negates all sense of sytle and previous influence. It leaves behind everything whcih came before . . . it feels eternally contemporary.” The roughly 40-minute work is presented across seven movement, played without any breaks, as opposed to the usual four, with breaks. Utilizing at least six different keys (as opposed to the usual two or three), Beethoven, over the course of a performance, takes us on a journey to different soundcapes, produced by wildly divergent harmonics and time scales that are yet all interconnected by a thread that is, even upon repeated listening, impossible to discern in the absence of a score. Let’s consider the movements in turn.

The First Movement, called “the most superhuman piece of music that Beethoven ever wrote” introduces us to this unique soundscape with a slowly unfurling fugue. From Perotin through to Josquin, Palestrina, Monteverdi and finally to Bach, this mighty fugue reveals its influences before taking off for far away lands first rediscovered in the 20th century. Setting aside the technical brillance of the fugue, it is the slowly revealing polyphonic textures that suck me into the music. Deceptively simple, the movement requires careful listening to understand what is going on with the two themes that coil around each other like snakes across the first six plus minutes of the quartet. Shades of Messiaen, from Vienna circa 1826.

Notably, for the first time since the Moonlight Sonata, Beethoven has opened a composition with a slow movement. This is not the only link with the Moonlight Sonata, which was also written in C# Minor and which makes frequent use of Neopolitan chords. In short, the Neopolitan chord is based on a flattened second tone. Thus, D natural reoccurs frequently throughout the movement (a semitone lower than the expected D# that normally would feature in C# minor). This helps Beethoven set up the tonality of the Second Movement (D Major) and the overall harmonic structure of the composition.

It is here, right at the start of the quartet, that intepretive choices by performers matter most. Nearly all quartets approach late Beethoven as a Romantic and load up the music with a vibrato that would have been unknown in Beethoven’s day. These quartets also eschew portamento–a slide between notes, which was frequently used by string musicians of the time. Even so, the best recordings reveal Beethoven’s inspiration in the music of the past, as well as anticipating the music of the future. It is a Big Bang, from which the balance of the Quartet will evolve.

Here is one typically overdone performance by the esteemed Julliard String Quartet, full of vibrato and other Romanticisms that have no place here.

The mighty Hagen Quartet tamped down on these distortions in their not-quite-definitive recording from the 1990s:

In the Hagens’ performance, the scope of Beethoven’s influences start coming to the fore. But it took a group of young adventerous musicians from Brooklyn, NY to complete the journey. Here is the Brooklyn Rider’s version, which elimiates vibrato completely and restores the use of portimento. The effect is like removing old and discolored varnish from an old master painting. My god, what lies underneath.

The First Movement ends in an octave leap on C#, rising by a semitone to a glorious D to open the Second Movement in pure sunshine. A brief Third Movement leads to the heart of the composition, a 15-minute long movement, which takes the simplist of themes and mediates on it over seven inventive variation. Beethoven remarked to his publisher that he had assembled the quartet from “odds and ends”, but this was false modesty. In fact, he had labored extensively over the Fourth Movement in particular. Mixing the sublime with the profane, Beethoven’s music begins to have a sense of inevitability about it–despite the strange and new soundscape he is showing us. He’s leading us, but the destination–if there is one–is beyond our comprehension. As the music slows during the adagio variation, Beethoven shows us the future again. But while the first movement took us to nearly up to the present, here Beethoven anticipates his symphonic successor, Gustav Mahler. Indeed, Mahler sought to orchestrate the quartet for the Vienna Philharmonic, but sadly never did so.

A brief Fifth Movement scherzo follows in all of its childlike innocence. Here, Beethoven uses two rather rare techniques: pizzacato and the use of “sul pont” or ponticello bowing. By moving the bow right next to the bridge, the strings produce higher secondary and tertiary harmonics, creating eerie tones. Virtually, if not completely unknown in Beethoven’s day, ponticello bowing became a favorite technique of Arnold Schoenberg’s. Beethoven again appears to be anticipating the 20th century.

Which brings us to the remarkable Sixth Movement, one of the strangest Conversations in all of music.

By 1825, Beethoven had been completely deaf for a decade and yet, for reasons no one has been able to satisfactorily explain, Beethoven opens the sixth movement with a clear and unmistakable quote from the Kol Nidrei from the start of Yom Kippur services:

All vows, and all the things we have made forbidden to ourselves, and all our oaths, and all consecrated items we have pledged; all explicit promises and all abbreviated promises, that we have vowed, sworn, and dedicated: from this Yom Kippur until next Yom Kippur — may it come at an auspicious time! — we regret having made them. May they be forgiven, eradicated and nullified, and may they not be valid or exist any longer. Our vows shall no longer be vows, our resolutions shall no longer be resolutions, and our oaths shall no longer be oaths.

More information here: https://www.thetorah.com/article/the-significance-of-kol-nidre-a-footnote.

Beethoven was not a stranger to the Jewish community. There had been a thriving Jewish community in Bonn for more than 1,300 years. While they had been historically consigned to live in a ghetto, Jews were granted the right to live outside of the ghetto in the 1790s and, after the occupation by Napoleon, granted full civic rights. Jewish life had been more restricted in Beethoven’s adopted home in Vienna, but, again, following French occupation in 1809, Jews were granted full civic rights and erected a temple in the first district by the early 1820s. Schubert famously composed music for the congregation and rumors persisted that Beethoven had been contracted to do the same. But even if this were true, Beethoven wouldn’t have been able to hear the Kol Nidrei in the 1820s and there is nothing to suggest that Beethoven ever studied Jewish faith.

More than likely, Beethoven had heard the tune in his youth, retained it, and recalled it at the end of his life. It insertion here, in this most profound of Beethoven’s works, further suggests that he knows something of its meaning. Facing his mortality, Beethoven no doubt reflected on the mess of his life, much of which had been self-inflicted. Having sought love in all the wrong places, Beethoven never married and never had any children. His efforts to adopt his nephew, and his subsequent treatment of said nephew, were shameful and a stain upon his character. Beethoven was vindictive, spiteful and, at times, cruel. His temper was legendary. And I am certain (sharing many of those flaws myself), he deeply regretted much of what he had said and done. Here, at the very bitter end, Beethoven is asking for forgiveness in the best way he knows how–through his music. In this aspect, the Julliard String Quartet’s version is sublime, giving full voice and credit to the haunting, sighing melody.

Now, knowing that, watch that Band of Brothers clip again. At the end of WWII, as the Germans pick up the pieces of their ruined lives and homes, they reach for that highest of high Germanic art–the late quartets of Ludwig van Beethoven. And what do they play? A prayer for atonement. That Spielberg guy really knows a thing or two about cinema.

Just as Beethoven’s song of grief, loss and regret concludes, the finale brings forth music of such stunning ferocity and intensity that, compared with the deep and languid emotions of the Sixth Movement, audiences are routinely shocked, even if they know it is coming.

Tis the dance of the whole world itself: wild joy, the wail of pain, love’s transport, utmost bliss, grief, frenzy, riot, suffering, the lightning flickers, thunders growl: and above it the stupendous fiddler who bears and bounds it all, who leads it haughtily from whirlwind into whirlwind, to the brink of the abyss — he smiles at himself, for to him this sorcery was the merest play — and night beckons him. His day is done.

Richard Wagner

Based largely on a fugal structure, Beethoven quotes the opening theme from the First Movement–further cementing the idea of total music, connected by structure, harmonics, rhythm and, now, melody. Beethoven is leading us far afield across a vast harmonic landscape without end. And yet it must end and Beethoven has one more trick up his sleeve. In one of the greatest examples of a picardy cadence in the canon, Beethoven closes his great C# Minor quartet with short C# Major chords. The effect is a true triumph of misdirection. Do we achieve harmonic resolution? Yes, and yet, not really. And on this supremely ambiguous, if not somewhat hopeful note, Beethoven’s great quartet ends. Where does this note of positivity come from? The shift from darkeness to light is so sudden, so unexpected, that you wonder if it was really there at all. The audience is left shocked, stunned, and questioning exactly what has just happened. What does it mean? Your guess is as good as mine.

Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 14 is, in my humble opinion, is the Mount Everest of music, the single greatest composition of all-time. At times I can hear Gregorian chant and Renaissance music, while at other times I perceive chords that wouldn’t emerge until the jazz age.  I hear the spatial silences of Avro Part, the combustible and colorful dissonances of Messiaen, as well as music that anticipates the great adagios of Mahler.  Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 14 is, in effect, a time machine that shows us the entire history of music through to our present day.

Ludwig van Beethoven, String Quartet No. 14 in C-Sharp Minor, Op.131:

2 thoughts on “The Greatest Music Ever Written

    1. Thanks, Mike. It is one of my favorite stories in music history. Some quartets (Juilliard and Fine Arts, for example) emphasize the influence, while others, either out of ignorance (Quartetto Italiano) or politics (Nazi chamber groups back in the day) suppress it.

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